Chilies: Chefs Like it Hot

By Joanna DeChellis, Restaurant Hospitality Magazine

 Chilies are hot. They were January 2016 Herb of the Month for the Herb Society of America and are 2016 Herb of the Year for the International Herb Association. Chefs around the country concur. Learn more about the trend in this excerpt posted Feb 4, 2016, by Restaurant Hospitality magazine. 

hotOnce reserved for thrill-seekers and chili-heads, fiery foods have officially gone mainstream. According to market research firm Datassential, chefs are hardwired to look for new and interesting ingredients to elevate their cuisine. “Chilies offer the perfect playground. There are many varieties with vastly different flavor profiles from all corners of the globe,” says Datassential’s Colleen McClellan.

Very specific ethnic peppers are being used in non-traditional ways, like as a garnish or an accent point, she says. “Peppers like the Calabrian chili, ghost pepper, and shishito peppers are seeing triple-digit growth over a four-year period. The habanero pepper has seen 90 percent growth in only the past year.”

In addition to peppers, chefs are also turning to hot sauces to spice up menus. Gochujang, for example, has experienced triple-digit growth since last year.

For a fiery dish to work, though, it must be balanced. Heat for the sake of heat is rarely a recipe for success. So, as chefs look at temperature-pushing possibilities, many are drawing inspiration from personal experiences.

Ashok Bajaj, restaurateur

Restaurant: The Bombay Club, Washington DC (Knightsbridge Restaurant Group)

Favorite Fiery Ingredient: Green Chili

Favorite Fiery Dishes: Chicken Tikka Hariyali; Lamb Vindaloo

Born in New Delhi, India, Ashok Bajaj, who has owned and operated award-winning restaurants in London and the United States for more than 25 years, doesn’t actually like very spicy foods. For him, it’s all about balance.

“Heat is subjective,” says Bajaj. “The way I experience spice is completely different from how you experience spice. I don’t like dishes that burn your palate the moment you eat them.

“Growing up, my mother liked spicy foods, but my father did not. I learned from her how to use chilies to enhance flavor. They add complexity and give a glow that can’t be replicated. As I began to experience other types of cuisine, I was able to see how other cultures use chilies and find ways to fuse the different styles to add flavor without fire.

“When we develop dishes at The Bombay Club and other restaurants through our group, we adjust the heat based on our guests’ preferences. If they want it hot, we’ll make it hot. If they don’t, we won’t.”


Edward Lee, culinary director

Restaurant: Succotash, National Harbor, MD

Favorite Fiery Ingredient: Gochujang

Favorite Fiery Dish: Dirty Fried Chicken with Spicy Gochujang Honey Glaze, Blue Cheese, and Pickles

Edward Lee focuses on spice when developing dishes more than any other taste profile at Succotash, which features a progressive perspective of classic Southern favorites.

“Almost any dish can be enhanced by spice,” says Lee. “You just have to be careful to add the right amount. My goal is never to melt someone’s lips off.  It’s to add complexity and enjoyment to a dish.

“One of my favorites is our Dirty Fried Chicken, which is inspired by buffalo chicken wings. The contrast of crunchy fried skin and a thick hot sauce always pleased me when I ate wings. But I always want the hot sauce to have more depth. So we take our house recipe fried chicken and dip it into our dirty gochujang sauce right before serving.

“The sauce starts with gochujang and butter, but we add a ton of other ingredients like soy sauce, ginger, yellow mustard and pickle juice. It’s isn’t just spice for the sake of heat. It’s nuanced and layered. It has a sweetness to it and umami—lots of umami.

“I ate spicy food all the time growing up but always in Korean dishes that were balanced with other flavors like acids and fermented fish. I’ve had a lifelong appreciation for spice not as a main ingredient but as part of a backbone to complement other flavors.

Read about the favorites of top chefs.

Posted with the permission of Restaurant Hospitality magazine

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