When Chefs Make Hot Sauce: The Lacto-Fermented Saga of Willy B’s

A lot of hot sauces are amped up like the X Games, marketed as high-flying acts called "Crazy" Mother Pucker or Ass in Hell, full of shock value and aggressive masculinity.

You can find both of those bottles at the LA hot sauce shop Light My Fire at the Original Farmers Market, mere yards from Short Order. There, in the back of the kitchen, chefs Christian Page and Willy Barling began tinkering with raw, lacto-fermented hot sauces until they came up with a small, hand-bottled line all their own. They kept the name simple—Willy B’s—and chose the tag line "Hot, yet approachable."

“Everything at Short Order was made in-house,” says Barling (pictured below), who left the restaurant two months ago along with Page. “We were grinding meat, making buns, mayo, and jams. We looked in the pantry and saw that we hadn’t attempted a hot sauce yet.”

High-octane hot sauces tend to leave you with little else besides heat, but Page and Barling were more interested in developing a heat that imparts flavor. As Page likes to point out, all of the best things—beer, liquor, wine, charcuterie, cheese—come from fermentation. Why not apply the same technique to hot sauce? They zeroed in on the fermentation process using fresh, uncooked chiles, like the makers of Tabasco and Sriracha do, only on a handmade scale.

Over in Culver City at the Willy B’s commissary kitchen, Barling stands in front of three massive piles of chile peppers. Two members of his staff are cleaning produce and cutting off the stems of approximately 60 pounds of Fresnos for the red sauce, 40 pounds of habaneros for the orange, and 60 pounds of serranos, jalapeños, and poblanos for the green mix.

Page and Barling source most of their produce from organic farms in Mexico, but now that it’s chile season they’re surveying growers’ markets for varieties like manzanas to add to the orange and cayennes for the red. “The hot sauce states our base chile, but we’re looking to switch things up when it’s appropriate to do so,” says Page. “That’s why we call them by colors.”

The initial tanginess you taste in each bottle derives from a four- to five-week fermentation process, long enough for the lactic acid to react and produce the good kinds of bacteria and probiotics that develop into complex flavors. A batch of chopped peppers is first salted, which allows moisture to leach out and create a brine. Spices, including cumin and coriander, are toasted, wrapped in cheesecloth, and packed into fermenting crocks.

The sauces rely on natural sugars from the chiles and other ingredients, like citrus, for balance. Habaneros have a sweet nose but not necessarily a sweet taste, says Barling, so carrots, oranges, and onions ferment along with them. After the heat mellows, you end up with a savory, umami-laden flavor.

In Los Angeles, Free Range LA, Pizzanista, and Guerrilla Tacos have been carrying bottles, and you can now purchase them directly from Erewhon Market (in the refrigerated section, since the hot sauce is unpasteurized), Heirloom LA food truck, Urban Radish, and now, from the delivery site Good Eggs.

By the way, Willy B's also makes sauerkraut and tomato jam. And if you're the type who likes to bolster popcorn with a pinch of nutritional yeast or a drizzle of Sriracha, stay tuned for their latest: chips and popcorn dusted with dehydrated hot sauce.

Photos by Gil Riego Jr.

Justin Bolois is a writer living in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBolois.