News - Joliet and Will County

Hot Sauce Expo debut in Joliet excites pepperheads

Debut event sets mouths on fire

It was a hot time in more ways than one at the Illinois Hot Sauce Expo in Joliet.

On Saturday, it was just plain hot with summer sun beating down on sauce tasters and wrestlers grappling in an open-air ring in a downtown parking lot.

“It’s as hot out here as the hot sauce,” said wrestler Alfonso Gonzalez of Yorkville while waiting for the next matches to start for one of the extra attractions of the expo, which included cold beer and live music.

And the sauce was hot.

“My stomach is on fire. My mouth is on fire. My lips are on fire,” said Kristen Lovett of Forest Park after getting what she called, “back to back to back” samples at the PuckerButt Pepper Company stand.

The samples were spoon-fed personally by legendary pepper grower and sauce mixer Ed Currie, known for having grown the world’s hottest pepper called Smokin’ Ed’s Carolina Reaper.

“That’s what people come here for,” Currie said of Lovett’s experience and the body’s chemical reaction to hot sauce. “People come here to experience life.”

The Carolina Reaper is rated at an average of 1.6 million Scoville heat units, meaning it can be hotter.

“That’s 500 times hotter than a jalapeno,” Currie said.

That gives you an idea of what they were doing for fun Saturday and Sunday in the city parking lot across Chicago Street from the Rialto Square Theatre.

The Carolina Reaper was mixed into the sauces being used in eating contests, which tested the endurance of contestants as they endured apparently friendly mocking if they paused when downing hot dogs, pulled pork and other delicacies loaded with more hot sauce than the average human being would tolerate.

Taking a sip of water or swig of beer in mid-contest was a disqualifying transgression.

Salvador Robles of Chicago won the hot dog contest.

“It’s fun because of the crowd,” Robles said.

Apparently a glutton for punishment or hot sauce or both, Robles later joined in the pulled pork contest, which he did not win. But Robles is a force to be reckoned with, having won a taco contest at a previous hot sauce expo held in Bridgeview.

The event was moved to Joliet this year thanks to a friendship between Steve Seabury, who runs these expos across the country, and Frank Mastalerz, who runs The Forge nightclub in downtown Joliet.

“We’re looking forward to bringing it back,” Mastalerz said. “We want to make it a long-lasting event.”

The event brought together 21 hot sauce vendors across the country, most of whom had 15 to 20 different hot sauces.

Seabury described them all as having “artisanal sauces” that give expo visitors a unique opportunity to see what can be put into their cooking.

“All these sauces are made using locally grown produce,” Seabury said. “Someone in California is making something completely different from someone in Illinois.”

There was someone not only from Illinois, but from Plainfield, Illinois at the expo.

Luke Lentz, who runs Papa Caps Foods out of his Plainfield house, said he was selling so much of his The Four Horsemen sauce that he was worried he would not have enough to last the weekend.

Lentz started a couple of years ago after growing a ghost pepper and creating a sauce that he tried on friends and family.

“All of my friends were like, you’ve got to sell this,” he said. “So, I started this company.”

Lentz said it’s a familiar story at Hot Sauce Expo.

Two Heads Hot Sauce out of Nashville, Tennessee started in Casey Maples kitchen, said Jeremy Fykes, Maples’ partner in the business.

“The first year we started with 10,000 batches,” Fykes said. “As of now, we’re in 35 stores and growing.”