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The first week of October marked a special milestone for spicy-food fans in the United States. Number 1-ranking spicy food fan site in the country (or if you want to refer to them by the proper insider term, “Chilehead” site) opened a bricks-and-mortar store named iBurn in Houston, Texas. Chileheads from near and far came to celebrate and sample. We asked founder and main chilehead James “Wreck” Beck for a list of some favorite products—and those with the best stories—for a view of the Western Hemisphere through a chilehead’s palette.

Tabanero Hot SauceTabasco, Mexico

You think you know Tabasco. But aside from being the brand name of the USA’s most mainstream spicy condiment, it’s also the name of a – completely unaffiliated – state in the Yucatan Peninsula area of Mexico. The makers of all-natural, preservative-free Tabanero hot sauce not only source their ingredients but create the products in Tabasco, Mexico. They export to a few specialty stores like iBurn, and handle online orders for customers from as far away as Alaska. Soul-warming extra: They also donate a percentage of all sales to a community church in Tabasco.

Smokin’ Ed’s – Ft. Mill, S.C.

Ed Currie has been on countless TV programs for cultivating “Smokin Ed’s Carolina Reaper,” currently set to break the Guinness record for world’s hottest chile. This friend of iBurn invites people to his own Main Street location in the small town of Ft. Mill, S.C. if you’re in the neighborhood, saying, “If you would like to try a bite of any of the thousands of varieties of peppers we grow, or sample any of our products, come on in and join us at the table with Smokin’ Ed. You never know what crazy concoction the Mad Scientist is brewing up on any given day.”

Half Moon Bay Trading Co – Nosara, Costa Rica

Former ad man Tom Nuijens is living the dream that basically everyone in today’s small farm-loving era might aspire to: He owns a small farm in Costa Rica and divides his time between there and Neptune Beach, Fla. He’s turned a passion-project side gig into a growing business, and finds inspiration for new products from his world travels. For example, his Iguana XXX Habanero Pepper Sauce was first dreamed up “in the middle of nowhere, at this killer little ranchito bar overlooking the surf… We saw this huge green iguana nipping these bright orange bonnet-shaped peppers off a bush and eatin’ them like peanuts. Overcome by curiosity, we stumbled over to join him for a snack that peeled the skin off our lips.”

Mad Gringo – Ontario, Canada

The name connotes another expat who’s set up shop in Central America, but it’s misleading. The Mad Gringo is actually a young Canadian chilehead, who sources his ingredients from the farms and fields around Ontario, and is currently hand-selling his fiery-hot sauces in farm markets and specialty retailers in the same geographical area. He’s a newcomer but one who’s already caught the attention of heatseekers like James Wreck for his ultra-hot products that also incorporate fresh berries, honey and other diverse ingredients.

Sparky’s Burger – Hatch, N.M.

As anyone from the Southwest knows, New Mexico is the heartland of chile farming, and the epicenter of it all is Hatch, the southern New Mexico farm region known as the “Chile Capitol of the World.” Just about every restaurant in the state serves a green chile cheeseburger, but James Wreck contends that the best burger of all might be—not surprisingly—in downtown Hatch, at a burger joint called Sparky’s.

Zane & Zack’s Honey Chipotle Sauce – Renton, Wash.

With a focus on fresh natural ingredients, this artisan brand found a spiritual home in the Pacific Northwest, and appeals to many niches: chileheads, gourmet foodies, farm-to-table fanatics. It’s more of a specialty food innovator than a hot sauce producer. Recommended by iBurn buyer Amy Beck, the honey chipotle sauce was Zane & Zack’s first product, “created from fresh smoked Jalapeños and surplus honey from our backyard beehives, combined with other fresh ingredients.”

Bajan Pepper Sauce – Barbados

Plenty of Caribbean locals like a bit of spice in their food (and their dancing…and their conversation), but probably no island is as hung up on hot sauce as Barbados. Though Trinidad might be home to the hottest pepper variety (the Moruga Scorpion), it’s Barbados that has nurtured a cottage industry of small Bajan pepper sauce makers. By now, successful island entrepreneurs like Aunt May’s have gone international –but a foodie explorer will still discover many local brands and one-off products in Barbados’ shops and markets.

Grumpy’s Foods – Thornton, Colo.

Spicy mustards, relishes and jams all exist, but the chile-centric condiment closest to hot sauce is BBQ sauce, and many companies specialize in it. Bold XX “Kansas City style” and Goodnight-Loving “Texas-style” sauces are two of the best sellers for Colorado-based Grumpy’s BBQ – a favorite at iBurn. Though available across the Southwest and as far east as Pennsylvania, this is a Colorado artisan producer with the locavore swagger and excellent product quality often found in Rocky Mountain farm-to-table businesses.

Cambridge Chilli Sauce Co. – Cambridge, UK

Although it seems incongruous given Great Britain’s legendarily bland traditional cuisine, iBurn reports that some of the most passionate chile eaters in the world are across the pond. In fact, some UK-based chile eating contests are stopped midway through to stop contestants being hospitalized due to capsaicin overload. This brand doesn’t just cater to extremists though. While products like the Trinidad Scorpion Sauce (featuring the worlds-hottest-chile contender) are for cast-iron stomachs, others, like Raspberry & Chilli Jelly, are for everyone – especially tourists shopping at Cambridge Market, where this family business sells its products every week.

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ORILLIA – Arriving home in the dead of winter was like stepping into an empty room. Jordan Engman hadn’t wanted to leave South America. He felt alive there. Every day had taste and colour, the promise of adventure.

Returning to Canada meant returning to long days talking business on the phone, attending meetings. Only, resuming a career in corporate trade proved more difficult than expected. None of Jordan’s job applications brought results. On the brink of 30, Jordan found himself a man at loose ends.

“Come to Florida,” his dad said, “for your birthday.”

But Jordan soon became fidgety sitting by the pool. His mind was too busy for sitting still. And being idle was impossible after his South American adventures, paragliding off towering cliffs, renting a house in Bolivia.

“Don’t go to Bolivia,” everyone had cautioned, worried it wouldn’t be safe. Just as they’d warned him about quitting his lucrative job in Toronto, he was crazy, people said.

But Jordan once spent a year abroad working in St. Martin; he’d watched the fishermen pull in their catch on a Sunday afternoon, eaten rice and peas with the locals at hole-in-the-wall establishments. It heightened his appreciation for stepping off the beaten path, for making up his own mind about what life had to offer.

The “death ride” in Bolivia was the best of his adventures, barrelling down the world’s deadliest road — narrow, foggy, dramatically free of guardrails — on a mountain bike. The slightest miscalculation could result in a wheel over the edge and a horrifying drop to eternity. Every five feet or so stood a cross. (An estimated 200 to 300 die every year on the Yungas Road.)

Charging down the mountainside answered Jordan’s taste for taking calculated risks, and beneath the thrill was the release of being absolutely absorbed, the satisfaction of a focused mind.

But riding a bicycle around the vineyards of Mendoza struck a deeper chord. Jordan felt peaceful among the vineyards; something about growing crops, the orchestration of food and drink gave him the same pleasant feeling he’d had coming home from school to watch The Urban Peasant. The way James Barber took charge in the kitchen was restful and stimulating; it made Jordan want to try his hand. “This way,” he’d say, adjusting his mother’s cooking methods, or better still, taking over.

“Take the car if you’re bored,” his father said to him in Florida. Jordan soon found himself pulling over at a Mexican market, drawn by scents and colours that reminded him of South America.

It wasn’t sensible to cart home bags and bags of dried peppers but Jordan felt the need to do so. Possessing all those peppers seemed to open up possibilities. It gave him a sense of being on the right track.

“What are you going to do with all those peppers?” everyone wanted to know. Jordan waited until he got home. After years in advertising and corporate trade, after travelling to another continent, he was back where he’d started, cooking in his mother’s kitchen, hydrating peppers, combining this pepper with that, hot peppers, sweet peppers, two or three kinds together.

Friends and relatives couldn’t get enough. “Have you got any more of that hot sauce?” they asked. And they asked for more at the Orillia Farmers’ Market, where Jordan starting selling his Mad Gringo sauce, first the Original blend and Chipotle Stand Off. Something hotter, his customers suggested, apparently sharing Jordan’s taste for combining adventure with kitchen comforts. Deadly Inferno immediately sold out.

Maybe in the food business Jordan has discovered the recipe of his life: just enough risk and challenge, just enough freedom and taking charge, just enough satisfaction connecting with the real and living world.

Maybe one day Jordan will get the food truck he’s been thinking about and will start selling South American-style tacos, or maybe he’ll open a bar or a restaurant.

Maybe one day Jordan Engman will even host his own cooking show that another young boy will come home from school to watch.

Kate Grigg is an artist and writer who grew up in Orillia and tells stories of local people in her column every week in The Packet & Times. If you have a story idea you think she may be interested in, email her at

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Some like it hot. Some like it spicy.

Some like it hot. Some like it spicy.

Jordan Engman likes both, and so do his customers.

The Barrie native decided to spice up his work life and add his own flavour by ditching the corporate sector and pouring everything into his own brand of hot sauce.

“It’s a labour of love that barely breaks even at this stage of the game, but it’s mine,” said Engman, owner of Mad Gringo hot sauce, which is made in Barrie. “It’s something I have a true passion for and the people locally who like hot sauce are crazy for it. I have an 85-year-old lady who buys a bottle off me all the time. She loves it.”

This saucy entrepreneur took a trip to ‘flavourtown’ after ditching the corporate sector when it was clear his present job wasn’t exciting enough for him.

“I was in the corporate trades business — big names. I was dealing with VPs and CEOs of companies all the time and I made pretty good money,” said Engman, who’s in his early 30s.

But, after a dream trip to South America, he came home to no job.

“I couldn’t find good work in this economy and there are some very qualified people finding themselves in the same position,” he said.

During a birthday trip to Florida with his father this past winter, Engman found business inspiration from a bag of dried peppers he purchased from a Mexican market there.

The peppers held the key to an exciting, and frustrating, new employment venture for Engman.

“It started in December (2011) when I bought my first bag of peppers and decided I was going to make my own hot sauce,” Engman said, handling a bottle of his milder Mad Gringo blend. “I started making it for friends, and then the demand for my sauces started to grow. I never went into it to make money. I was just really enjoyed it, and cooking is a great stress reliever for me.”

Suddenly, Engman found himself back to humble beginnings, cooking in his mother’s kitchen, hydrating peppers, combining both hot and sweet peppers to make his tasty condiment concoctions.

“A couple months after, I did the wackiest labels I could think of with my designer, and then started looking for sales locations,” Engman said.

He started selling at the Orillia Farmers’ Market, and his products — Original blend and Chipotle Stand Off — were big hits.

“The only complaint from the crazy chili heads was my sauces weren’t hot enough,” he said, picking up his latest creation, Deadly Inferno. “If you can take the heat of this, it’s got amazing flavour. I’m a foodie and I’ve built up a tolerance for it, but at the start I couldn’t take it.”

He’s combined ghost peppers with red habanero and Trinidad scorpion peppers, and, as the bottle says, three drops of pure evil.

It’s enough to set your taste buds ablaze, and give any dish that fiery kick, he said.

But, as much as buyers are fired up over his product, running his own business is burning a hole in the businessman’s bank account.

“Its a grind, honestly. It pays for itself and I’m making a little profit, but it’s not doing as well as I want yet,” Engman said. “You pour your heart, soul and time into it and it’s extremely difficult doing it yourself. You have to be willing to put more time into it than anyone else does.

“When I got my first store — Local Foods Market in Barrie — that was awesome. But until I hit 10 retail locations, this (business) won’t really start spitting out profit for me.”

Maybe one day Engman will get the food truck he’s been thinking about and will start selling South American-style tacos, or maybe he’ll open a bar or a restaurant.

Until then, he’ll keep cranking out his flavourful sauces for his local clientele.

“It’s little battles every day, but it’s fun. If it stops being fun, I’ll stop doing it,” he said.

Are ribs or wings your thing? If so, you can head over to The Ranch in downtown Barrie where Mad Gringo’s Deadly Inferno has been made the bar’s suicide sauce for both meaty snacks.

You can also purchase some of the sauce by checking out the Facebook page ‘Mad Gringo Hot Sauce,’ or by

— With files from Kate Grigg