TWO things guaranteed to heat up anyone’s January are sunshine and chillies. Whilst there’s little possibility of the former, thankfully, the Cork duo behind Rock Steady Food Co, Conor Lyons and Aaron Comerford, have got you covered for the latter.
The pair are preparing for their inaugural Hot Wans hot sauce eating competition on Wednesday, January 23 in aid of Cork Arc Cancer Support House.
I caught up with co-founder Conor, who lives on Barrack St, to talk reggae, jerk chicken and building a hot sauce empire inspired by the community-minded spirit of the Caribbean islands.
FOR THE LOVE OF THE CARIBBEAN
“I spent the last 20 years of my life looking towards the Caribbean; a DJ for ten of those years with reggae music and culture being a big part of my musical interest,” explained Conor.
“I travel to the UK five times a year to visit friends living in Brixton and I’m straight down for some jerk chicken and curried goat!”
Earlier this year, Conor, aged 28 and Aaron, aged 23, visited Jamaica for the first time, researching the food and music culture there to draw on those influences as they continue to develop and expand their range of products under their Rock Steady Food Co brand.
There is a rich vein of foodies in Conor’s family: both parents love to cook, his dad’s curry’s is firmly imbedded in memories of childhood; and his sister is a graduate of Ballymaloe Cookery School, and recently returned from Boston after setting up a successful food business there.
Conor’s business partner Aaron is studying Culinary Arts at CIT.
“I met Aaron at BDSM when I started doing Cook-Out Parties. He had spent a year in Australia working in a Caribbean restaurant, said he loved Caribbean food and thought it would be really great to do something like that in Ireland. We were just totally on the same page so it worked out nicely in that sense,” said Conor.
“There is a huge difference in the nightclub experience here in Ireland to when you go to an Afro-Caribbean parties. There, it’s all about the street party and having your friends and family together and someone’s got a BBQ going cooking up some spicy jerk chicken.
“Back in 2016, we started our own Cook-Out Parties on the plaza outside The Bodega, and moved to The Vicarstown Inn on North Main Street the following year.
“I was making a hot sauce in my own kitchen for myself and started bringing it to the cook-out parties, giving it to people with their burgers. People were saying how delicious it was and asking where they buy it, so I decided I should look into producing it a little more professionally. That was Fire in the Dance, our first hot sauce that went into production, and we officially launched on January 22, 2018 on World Hot Sauce Day!”
The traditional Irish palette is notoriously spice averse: a Marmite-esque experience that people either absolutely can’t get enough of or are terrified of!
“Our hottest sauce, Jamaica Mi Crazy, was the last one we released because we knew it was going to take a bit of time to get people used to the heat.
“Even with Fire in the Dance, our mildest sauce, it’s about a five out of ten for heat but for some people that’s still crazy hot!” said Aaron.
For the year ahead, Conor and Aaron will be focusing on their core range: three sauces from mild to hot and a dry rub that works brilliantly on everything from a roast chicken to putting a bit of pizazz into a warming winter stew.
But there are also plans to tap into the booming Cork brunch market too, by developing a range of brunch-friendly cocktail mixes, starting with a Fiery Bloody Mary.
“I’m a massive Bloody Mary fan, and it’s perfect for brunch — whether that’s eating out or for having friends over.
“Brunch demonstrates how versatile our sauces are too: it’s not just about the beer and the heat of the evening BBQ, it’s also about the freshness and zingyness of waking up in the morning,” said Conor.
HOT WANS COMPETITION
On Wednesday, January 23, at Crane Lane, Rock Steady Food Co will host a fundraising event in aid of Arc House Cancer Support.
Hot Wans will host ten willing contestants to chow down on ten courses of wings, each coated with an array of Irish-made mind-bendingly hot sauces.
From the US, a bottle of hot sauce called ‘The Last Dab’, made from the hottest chilli pepper on earth, Pepper X, was the inspiration for the event.
“The Last Dab got me thinking what I was going to do with it! I knew I wanted to do some sort of fundraiser in January to celebrate our first year in business so thought we could inject a bit of fun into it,” says Conor.
The final wing dished out to their competitors will be coated in searing hot sauce, anointed with a single drop of The Last Dab.
“We have all our contestants lined up and even have a waiting list! What we need is people to come along to support the teams and Arc House Cancer Support on the night. We will have a raffle, spot prizes, collection buckets and so on — it’s just a bit of fun, all in a good cause, and what else would you be doing on a wet night in January?!” he asked.
WHY ARC HOUSE?
Conor explained: “Both my parents volunteer with Arc House, and in the course of my life I have lost a lot of people very close to me to cancer so there is a very personal connection there. Arc House have been great, I think they appreciate that we are digging in and trying to do some bit of fundraising.”
The Hot Sauce Community doesn’t take itself seriously: have a bit of fun and be a bit cute. But for Conor and Aaron, at its heart is their love of the Caribbean culture built around food, people and music — the best three reasons for anything. The boys will be back with their first of five Cook-Out Parties from May bank holiday running throughout the year. Check them out at some of Ireland’s many food festivals and at Douglas and Mahon farmer’s markets from spring onwards. See www.rocksteadyfood.ie