Although burnt-tongue cultists may know them for their fiery little bottles, Stellar Gourmet makes more than just hot sauce. There's pecan-smoked maple barbecue sauce, hibiscus-vanilla jelly, green-chile mustard, aged habanero salt, and, of course, lavender-candied jalapeños, among other creations. But founder and purveyor of Stellar Gourmet Chris Johnson will likely tell you he's making something entirely different. Johnson will likely say he's creating love.
That love is apparent in all of his handcrafted condiments. And it also shows on Johnson's face. He and fiancée Amy V. Cooper have become fixtures at local farmers' markets, selling very small batches (only 15 to 20 bottles are filled at a time) of Texas flavors to a devoted fan base. The direct approach is relatively new. Johnson was exclusively retail in the early days, but says it's his relationship with farmers and other market vendors and customers that ultimately makes his venture worthwhile.
"We kind of went backwards." says Johnson. "When I had my product on the store shelf people didn't know who I was. They didn't get that interaction. They had no idea if my stuff was worth messing with, if it was worth trying, or if it was worth buying ... I needed to get out and actually build relationships with my customers."
Named in homage to the stars, the hot sauces are – at least figuratively – out of this world. Says Johnson, "I had thought at one point about having my product named after a constellation and all this stuff was kind of built around it, but realistically what I wanted it to say is exactly what people hear when I tell them, 'I make sauces. We're called Stellar Gourmet.' They go, 'Oh they must be really good.' Yup, they are. It was meant to be kind of a silly little thing that just kind of stuck in a weird sort of way."
The unique and well-balanced hot sauces are each prepared by hand in a stock pot – in 15 gallon batches – while most of the ingredients are sourced from within 100 miles of Austin. The day I spoke with Johnson, he'd just purchased 15 pounds of habaneros from Johnson's Backyard Garden. When he can't readily find local ingredients for his sauce, he'll go to great lengths to bring his ingredients back home. He recently convinced an area farmer to grow red Fresno chiles. "He put in about 150 plants for me so I won't have to buy California peppers anymore," says Johnson. "I'll be able to buy them from Lampasas."
Local sourcing makes a difference in the freshness. Made with serrano chiles, avocado, and citrus, the Calaverde forever changed my increasingly banal relationship with morning eggs. Tangy with a swift kick of fire, the green sauce added another dimension of flavor to the breakfast staple. The Red Headed Step Chile adds a punk kick to the everyday red table hot sauce. Its low heat and discrete smoke allows liberal doses atop calabaza con pollo, tacos, and pizza. Smoquito packs a wallop with chipotle and pasilla peppers. The boldness easily holds up to game and beef. It could easily become your chili secret weapon come tailgate season. For summer, King Calaverde uses fully ripened serranos paired with Mt. Etna lemons. The subtle sweetness adds a dash of complexity to micheladas.
Looking forward to his second year competing and vending at The Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival, Johnson says he's been amazed by the support from the chilehead community. "I'm a chile guy, and that's what I really love," says Johnson, "I haven't bought hot sauce from a grocery store in five years."
Stellar Gourmet products are available at the Lakeline Mall and Mueller farmers' markets and local specialty shops. For a full list of local stockists, visit www.stellarsauce.com.
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