Think about what food would be without condiments. Can you imagine not dipping your French fries? How would a post-holiday feast turkey or ham sandwich taste on dry bread? What about a hot dog? Unthinkable.
I asked Sara Lancaster, the Saucy Dipper and owner of The Condiment Marketing Co., just what the fascination is. She says, “Sauces and dips are fun foods, and fun foods equal happiness.” It’s true; condiments are fun. They’re also necessary.
I’ve read numerous chef interviews in Westword and 5280 magazine, when one of the questions was what they have on hand at all times in their refrigerators, and most say condiments of every kind, from hot sauces to different kinds of mustard, as well as spice cabinets filled to overflowing. As an avid home cook, this is also true in my own home. I know I can take anything basic — whether that’s pasta or a piece of chicken — and make an exciting and delicious dish out of it with seasoning or sauce. After just a quick inventory, I counted 21 condiments in my fridge, everything from standards like mayonnaise and mustard to more interesting ones like green curry paste, mango chutney and peach bourbon BBQ sauce. I even had three kinds of ketchup. There could easily be upwards of 30 if I looked closely enough. I didn’t realize just how much of an impact they have in my own cooking until I took a count.
Yet, even with all those available on the market, more and more restaurants are choosing to forgo existing products and make their own from scratch.
“When we make our own, we know exactly what goes in them and from where,” said Bill Espiricueta, executive sous chef for OAK at fourteenth. “Red Wagon is one of the farms we use, and their chives, parsley and tarragon go great in our green goddess recipe. ” OAK makes a handful of standards, including green goddess aioli, chile garlic aioli, harissa and romesco, and in the summer, when the ingredients needed are at their peak, ketchup and BBQ sauce. Their green goddess aioli accompanies one of their best-loved dishes — their fried pickles — and that dish is made as much by the condiment as the pickles themselves.
“It’s important to us that we can control the balance of acidity to fat, sweetness to pungency,” Espiricueta says.
Freshness is also a major factor for OAK.
“The items you buy at the store have preservatives and other added things to help extend the shelf life. I and Steve [Redzikowski] would just prefer to make our condiments every day,” Espiricueta said. “Due to the volume and extraordinarily busy restaurant OAK is, we don’t ever have items that are older than a day or two, again assuring the quality and freshness.”
Kyle Mendenhall, executive chef for all of The Kitchen’s various restaurants, also makes his own condiments.
“We make our own aioli, which is a base recipe that then gets turned into all kinds of special sauces by adding either smoked paprika, or harissa, or lemon, like for the dip we serve with our crab cake,” he says. “Our eggs come from Widsom Natural Poultry and our extra virgin olive oil is a completely domestic product, so we’re proud of the ingredients that go into our dips and sauces, too.”
Local sourcing is a lived philosophy for The Kitchen, and they’ve led by strong example in Boulder County in terms of communicating this philosophy at every turn, from the chalkboards in their restaurants naming the local farms and purveyors they work with to stating it on their menus and website. Where it used to be diners didn’t know the vendors a restaurant worked with, now it’s standard that these are shared — particularly farms, purveyors and foragers.
Mendenhall’s chefs also make their own whole grain mustard, but opt not to make their own in-house ketchup, having found a high-quality organic ketchup they’re happy with.
“Chefs at respectable places feel like the more they can do on their own, the better,” Mendenhall says. “We can make something that tastes better than what’s out there, and give the guest something they can only get — with that particular flavor — from us.”
Another restaurant going the inhouse route is Mateo in Boulder. It makes a spicy ketchup — with Worchestire sauce, Dijon mustard, spices and hot sauce — they call Diablo, as well as an herb aioli.
“We believe that the house-made condiments enhance the guest’s experience and they are designed perfectly to be enjoyed with the food that we make here,” says David Vernall, the general manager.
It’s a level of attention to detail that a prepackaged product just can’t convey.
To help spread the condiment happiness — pun intended — Lancaster launched The Condiment Marketing Co. this year. Through her company, she works with sauce, dip, jam and seasoning companies to get the word about their brands out across the Web. Specialty work for specialty foods. This is how many condiments crowd the various sub-categories — they need a marketer specifically focused on them.
Lancaster believes that a great marketer is a great storyteller, and she gets to the heart of her clients’ stories, working to tell them in a compelling way in print and on the Web.
Many of the sorts of boutique condiment makers that Lancaster works with have also started making their recipes available online for people who would like to try making their own condiments. She has a page on her website, www.saucydipper.com, compiling 100 tips for home condiment preparation.
For example, No. 18 is key: About that lemon juice — if you make sauces and dips often, keep a lemon on hand always. So many recipes call for lemon juice.
There’s certainly a sense of satisfaction both the chef and the home cook can get from making their own condiments that can’t be found from a jar, but don’t worry if that’s all too intimidating, because the fun is still available on the store shelf, with more waiting for you in local restaurants.