If you like your food spicy, chances are there's a bottle of hot sauce somewhere in your kitchen. It might be a generic store brand or the how-did-we-exist-before? Sriracha. They're good, sure, but are they crazy good?
Jim O'Brien would answer that with a big, fat no, though as the founder of the Crazy Good line of condiments, he's admittedly biased.
The 38-year-old chef-turned-entrepreneur is the brains behind peppery concoctions with names like Chaos Theory, Fruits of Fire, and Raging Pineapple. "I can't put out a product that I don't think is crazy good. It's about accountability for me," O'Brien says of the copyrighted name.
The Crazy Good line includes five hot sauces, a wing sauce, a salsa, and two chile powders and are sold at Cash Saver, Whole Foods, City Grocery, Miss Cordelia's, Superlo, and Krogers within Shelby County. It's also served in some 20 restaurants — Alchemy, Bardog Tavern, Slider Inn, and Young Avenue Deli, among them — around the city. O'Brien is planning to roll out 10 new products in 2014, including a cornbread mix, catfish breading, and Bloody Mary mix.
O'Brien is a St. Louis native who came to Memphis after dropping out of high school. He spent his early 20s learning the ins and outs of a professional kitchen under chefs such as Erling Jensen and Rick Farmer. He then left the city to go to culinary school and eventually wound up in Albuquerque.
The Southwest completely changed O'Brien's culinary landscape. He was introduced to hot and meaty New Mexico chiles, which are added to everything. "You order anything in a restaurant, they're going to ask, 'red or green?' Do you want red chile or do you want green chile? And if you can't make up your mind, you say 'Christmas,' and you get both," he says.
O'Brien was working for a food distributor when, on the side, he began working with clients who participated in barbecue competitions, bringing a level of standardization to their work. Soon, others began asking him when he was going to develop his own products, and he realized that actually wasn't a bad idea. He began brainstorming, set a few guidelines (all-natural, unique, gluten-free), and started experimenting with a few sauce concoctions of his own.
Though his sauces are indeed hot, O'Brien maintains that he focuses on the food before the pepper in his product development.
"I think when people focus on a certain pepper that they want to use, or a certain spice, those end up being almost a novelty product that becomes too hot for anyone to enjoy. I'm looking at 'What are we making? What are we using this for?' At the end of the day, everything's meant to be enjoyed and to be used on food," he says.
O'Brien created his hot pineapple, green-hued Southwest Sweet Heat sauce as a complement to fish tacos, and s'mores served as the fire starter for the Chaos Theory Ghost Pepper Sauce. Chaos Theory is O'Brien's personal favorite and is filled with flavors of cocoa, orange, ginger — and enough ghost peppers to give the back of your throat a nice burn. The Memphis-inspired Shabam! Sauce is a more tame option and can be used on everything from barbecue to red beans and rice.
"I was always kind of annoyed with the fact that Louisiana sauces are a go-to staple for everything when they don't truly fit the foods of different regions," O'Brien says, noting that his aim with Crazy Good was to create something that paired well with such regional fare as cornbread, greens, chicken, and catfish. "Personally," he says, "I think I nailed it."