We are so excited to finally sit down and talk to the man behind the hot honey bottles many of our customers have raved about! In this interview, Michael Kurtz, founder of Mike’s Hot Honey, shares his passion for traveling, hot sauces and pizza. Join us as we uncover his story, from his first encounter with hot honey to where his honey can be found today!
You first discovered chili pepper-infused honey in Brazil when you visited a pizzeria with some friends. Can you describe that experience? Was was your first reaction like?
When I first tasted it, it was like a revelation for me! We were hiking in this national park for five days and hadn’t eaten besides canned beans. We were so excited when we found a pizzeria in the small town we were in. I’ve grown up making pies and hanging around my friends’ families’ pizzerias and I loved eating pizzas and making them at home. The pizza I ordered was drizzled with chili pepper-infused honey, which just blew my mind! When I got back to the States, I started experimenting with my own infusions, which turned into a hobby. I made batches for families and friends for 6 to 7 years, but never thought it would become a business.
You’ve experimented with different infusion techniques, chili peppers and honey. How was that like? How many tries did it take until you found the “one”?
I tried 15-20 different varieties of chili peppers and even grew my own at some point! I eventually settled on the Brazilian chili peppers because of its unique taste. While most chilis hit the front of the palette, this one hits the back. The sweetness comes first then the spiciness lingers in your throat after.
In an interview with Food Curated, you mentioned you love condiments and have a passion for hot sauces growing up. Can you tell me more about that?
I grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts in a family who loved to cook. There wasn’t a lot of international food where I was from. The selections in supermarkets were so limited, you couldn’t even find Tapatio or any other common hot sauces! I remember there was this one company called Hot Mama’s that sold fresh salsa packaged and refrigerated, not canned, and I thought it was such a great thing! I started going to Chinese grocery stores in New York and Boston to check out their chili sauce and fish sauce. I would bring them home and cook with them, not knowing what I was getting myself into.
When I was 26, I worked as a travel blogger for the Boston Globe. I went around the world with a friend for a year trying condiments in 30 different countries. I got to taste Rémoulade, which is similar to tartar sauce, in Northern Germany and Denmark. I also had Akabanga, a hot chili oil from Rwanda, which was so concentrated that you can only add a drop or two!
How did you end up becoming a pizza apprentice at Paulie Gee’s? Did you always have a passion for cooking?
I was at Paulie Gee’s one night when Paulie came by my table to talk to me. I was asking him all these questions about pizza doughs and ovens. He saw how curious I was and invited me to make pizzas in his restaurant. At that time, I was working in the music business, which is what I studied for in college. I would go to my day job, make pizzas at Paulie’s at night and make hot honey until 1am. One day, I brought in a bottle of my hot honey for Paulie to try. He liked it so he started using it on some of his pizzas. Soon customers started approaching me asking if I was the guy behind the hot honey and where could they get their own.
You mentioned that your family loves to cook. Did your parents play any part in your business?
My parents were always supportive of me going out and finding my place in the world. They nurtured my curiosity of the world and other cultures. Their support gave me the chance to change career paths and jump into a different business, despite the risk. Witnessing Paulie’s success also motivated me to follow my passion. He was a computer IT guy in his late 50s when he started his restaurant. Seeing him quit a job he wasn’t happy doing inspired me to take the plunge to do something I really enjoy. He always said, “Fear is just a small pain, a thin pane of glass, you just push right through it to pursue what you love. If you’re not doing something that you love, you’re just wasting your time.”
You went to Brazil for college – did you grow up with a lot of Brazilian influences and does the culture play any part in your hot honey?
Definitely! My parents actually met in Brazil in the 50’s. My dad joined the Peace Corps and stayed in Rio for a couple years. He came back to study Portuguese and led a team of undergraduates on a trip to Brazil as a grad student. My mom was among one of the undergraduates and that’s how they met. My parents listen to Brazilian music and speak it so I’ve learned a lot about Brazil growing up. I speak Portuguese every time I’m ordering chiles over the phone.
Have you ever tried using your hot honey to make Brazilian food?
All the time! We work with a restaurant in here in Brooklyn called Beco and there they make passionfruit cocktail with our hot honey. They call it the Fogo da Paixão, which means the “Passion of Fire”. We also work with Berimbau, another Brazilian restaurant that makes fried dough you can dip in Mike’s Hot Honey in.
Being in New York has really nurtured my love for food. We have a lot of interesting restaurants and talented chefs here. My favorite part of doing what I do is putting my product into the hands of a chef and seeing what neat things they can come up with!
What’s the most creative way you’ve seen someone use your hot honey?
Anything from Blue Hill, another restaurant we work with in New York. They are a farm to table restaurant so they only use locally grown ingredients. Their bartender, Ben, would make cocktails with whatever’s in season. During the spring time, he would make strawberry cocktails with Mike’s Hot Honey. In the fall, he would switch it up with Concord grapes.
What do you hope your customers will feel when they’ve tried your honey?
I hope they feel joy and happiness, a little bit of sweet and a little bit of heat. We want to make people happier and give them more control over the flavors that they are putting in their mouth. Mike’s Hot Honey is like a tool for home cooks and chefs to get a little more creative in their kitchen. We want them to look outside the boundaries of traditional condiments and recognize that there is a plethora of flavors they can use to enhance a dish or a drink!
Check out these recipe cards Mike shared with myPanier’s blog followers: