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Redhead brings the heat

With a unique collection of sauces

March 31, 2016 | Photo courtesy Redhead

In spring, 150ish’s thoughts turn to brunch—and what is brunch without a great Bloody Mary? We first discovered Cindy List and her unique hot sauces and Bloody Mary mix last fall at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s annual Chile Pepper Festival. Cindy’s chunky, fruit-based sauces are gaining a reputation for bringing the heat. And if you’re one of those people who always sends back a Bloody Mary because it’s not spicy enough, we have the mix for you.
 
Here’s the dish. You bet she’s a natural redhead—and she can make you look like one, too. Hair and makeup stylist by day (you’ll find her at Crown in the West Village), Cindy List has been making her own hot sauce for more than ten years from her own, Brooklyn garden–grown chiles. “I’m a hobbyist cook and you always have too many chiles and you try to figure out what to do with them, so I experimented with a lot of different hot sauces and kept fooling around until I had my own recipe.”
 
Cindy’s from upstate New York and didn’t grow up with spicy food at all. (“My family always has jars of my hot sauce in their house, but it’s too spicy for them,” she laughs. “They give it to people as gifts.”) Experimenting with different recipes from cookbooks and online sources, she created a hot sauce with Caribbean and Southeast Asian influences that’s truly unique.
 
“I had seen a lot of recipes combining mangos and chiles, but I wanted to use more local ingredients,” she explains. “I was at the farmers market one day and saw peaches and thought I’d use them—they’re kind of the same texture as mangoes and they’re sweet and they work really well. That’s really all that was.” There’s also a blend of different chiles, curry powder, mustard, vinegar, and honey. It’s chunky and comes in a jar, but it’s not as thick as a jam or chutney.
 
“Over ten years, I just made the sauce and gave it out as gifts,” Cindy tells us. Her friends always suggested she start a business, but she scoffed at the idea: “Ugh, you have no idea. I mean, it’s not so easy. People think it’s going to be like a bake sale, that it’s going to be fun—you just put it in jars and people will buy it. Number one, just because I give it away doesn’t mean people will buy it, and number two, being self employed for a long time, I know it’s not that simple to start a business. I never did anything in the food business before, but I knew there would be a lot more to it than that!”
 
But by then Cindy had given her hot sauce to so many people that it was being passed on to people she didn’t know—and soon strangers were calling to ask if they could buy some. With that encouragement (“from people who didn’t have to be nice to me”), she talked her way into the 2012 Chile Festival at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.
 
“I just called them up and said I’d like to be a vender and they were like, ‘who are you?’” she remembers. “I wasn’t in production yet, I had no accounts, I had a logo and had some samples and they were really great, they were like, ‘okay, go for it.’ And it was great because I sold out and I got a lot of really, really good encouragement from people who didn’t know me, but were chili heads and very discerning hot sauce eaters. And it was such a nice experience that I just took it a little further.”
 
Now she has four years of the Chile Festival under her belt and, with a few retail accounts, she’s expanded her line as well. First came the Bloody Mary Mix, which attracted the buyers from West Elm, who placed a large order. Last year, she participated in the Brooklyn Rive Gauche festival at Bon Marche’s La Grande Epicerie de Paris. “It was a very strange coincidence,” Cindy says. “I had bought a ticket to Paris and it just happened to be for the dates of the festival—but I didn’t even know about it until the buyer called me a few days later. I was able to do a tasting in the store.”
 
The exposure in Paris led to more attention here at home, with an article in the Wall Street Journal. “It’s a young company and it really, truly is me just doing it. I don’t have any partners and I don’t have a marketing department. So just to have that kind of exposure means a lot to me.”
 
Although she’s a one-person company, Cindy does credit two people with making great contributions to her line as she ramped up her production. “I always made my own curry powder, but then I met Lior Lev Sercarz, who owns La Boîte. He does my spices and he’s fantastic and I love love love him. It really elevates my products, because even if he makes the same recipe I do, he’s able to get the best of the best ingredients.” And greenmarket superstar Beth’s Farm Kitchen is her co-packer, which allows her to work with local ingredients—something she’d never have the storage capacity for. And, Cindy says, she hasn’t had to change any of her original recipes to work with Beth and her crew.
 
Cindy added the Bloody Mary mix to the line when a couple of bartender friends started using her hot sauce to make their own. Typically non-traditional, it’s a mixture of tomato juice and her hot sauce, with lime juice and a smoked salt from La Boîte—but no horseradish. “It actually makes a beautiful gazpacho,” Cindy tells us. “You can also serve it as a hot seafood bisque with a little cream. One of my chef friends told me that he braised a chicken in it and made a Bolognese, so it’s got a number of different uses. It’s sort of a fun, off-beat thing.”
 
Speaking of off-beat, at her very first Chile Festival, Cindy met Michael Rogak, the third-generation owner of Brooklyn’s JoMart Chocolates. “He came over to me and said ‘I love your hot sauce. I’m dying to do a peanut butter cup with hot sauce. I’ve tried so many kinds and it hasn’t worked, but I think yours would be perfect.’ So now he makes peanut butter cups with my hot sauce!”
 
Cindy’s newest product is her Fig & Chile Sauce, which she introduced at last year’s Chile Festival. “I met Annie Novak from the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm and she gave me this bag of chiles and said ‘see what you can do with these.’ They were so flaming hot, I knew I had to use something kind of sweet with them. So I thought, fig and balsamic is a very traditional Italian and Greek combination and figs are nice and sticky and sweet and I added some ginger.” Cindy uses jalapeños now, to make the sauce a little easier to deal with. “It appeals to people who aren’t even hot sauce people because it’s a lot sweeter, it’s jammier but it’s got some heat. It’s an easy thing to put on a cheese plate as sort of that little twist on a fig paste. It’s a pretty holiday gift.”
 
She plans to have another new product to launch at this year’s festival, saying “Whenever I make something I try to make it different from what’s already out there. I don’t feel like you have to re-invent sriarcha; we already have that. My hot sauce doesn’t look like Tabasco or something that you’re used to seeing in a bottle —it comes in a jar. But once you taste it, you understand it.”
 
150ish interviewed Cindy in between clients at the salon and yes, she does have a display there. “My hair clients have been great supporters—some of them have even volunteered to work in the booth when I’m selling,” she tells us. “And that meant so much to me, because it really is a lot when you’re starting out. There’s a lot of research and talking to people and figuring out how it’s all done properly and legally. It’s been an adventure for me, which is not usually a business model, but I don’t have any debt and it’s fun—I’m just seeing where it takes me next.”
 
To order Redhead products online, visit Cindy’s website at redhead-hot-sauce.myshopify.com. Her line is also regularly available at Owl and Thistle General Store in Crown Heights, Brooklyn; The Meadow, in the West Village; and the Bald Eagle American Boutique in Malverne, Long Island.
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