A local chef and farmer create a condiment like no other
Farm to flavor: Pargh, pictured with Atkins this page, bottom left, tells a visual
story of Burn through her prolific Instagram feed.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY AMANDA PARGH
In an age when hot sauce is everyone’s favorite culinary accessory, Santa Cruz’s Burn Hot Sauce manages to burn the brightest. Wild fermented, probiotic packed, organic and rich in color and kick, its dazzling products make the company’s playful tagline “Wanna Burn?” an obvious rhetorical question. (For the record, this ringing endorsement comes from a writer who often finds garlic to be too spicy.) Burn is the combined powers of farmer-chef partners Chase Atkins and Amanda Pargh. Drawn to the symbiotic relationship of restaurant and farm, Pargh and Atkins relocated to Santa Cruz from Sonoma in 2014 to begin work at Michelin-starred Manresa and Love Apple Farms, respectively.
Shortly after their move, a fire at Manresa left Pargh (who had worked for years in prestigious kitchens like Animal and Lucques in Los Angeles and Ad Hoc in Yountville) with a flexible autumn, which she used to teach classes at Love Apple and experiment at home with all things fermentable. In the meantime, Atkins started to build relationships within the farming community through his job at Mountain Feed & Farm Supply in Ben Lomond and part-time work with various local farms.
By chance, it was helping with a pepper harvest at a Santa Cruz farm that provided Atkins with the fateful first load of peppers— 20 pounds of serrano pepper seconds—that he brought home to Pargh. But from the first vivid red batch of hot sauce they fermented, the couple knew they were on to something. “We had this vibrant product that favored flavor over spicy,” Atkins says, beaming. “As a chef, it’s important to make something that complements food, rather than competes with it,” Pargh adds.
The couple launched their business in April 2015, and in 18 months have grown from a first season of 200 gallons of hot sauce produced to the 3,000 gallons they were processing for a winter release as this issue of Edible Monterey Bay went to press.
Pargh and Atkins’ method is deceptively simple: They select, clean and slice vine-ripened, organic peppers and ferment them, still raw, with water and salt for 3–6 months in stainless steel vats. During this time, the yeast that is naturally occurring on the peppers is activated by the saltwater brine and converts the sugars in the peppers into lactic acid—a natural preservative that inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria. Fermentation also increases vitamin and enzyme levels in the pepper mixture, which in turn increases digestibility.
And unlike the process used by most hot sauce makers, which is to cook down the peppers and then add vinegar for tang, the naturally radiant colors and flavors of Burn’s different raw ferments truly showcase the peppers they are made from as well as the farms that grew them.
“It’s amazing how complex and nuanced the flavors get after fermentation,” Pargh says. “The serranos from 2015 are super citrusy and a little sharp on the tongue but fill the whole mouth with flavor, whereas the Thai Bird has a sweet and mild start and then a sneak attack spicy that you can feel in your chest and under your eyes.”
In addition to the 2015 batches of Thai Bird jalapeño and serrano, Burn offered their tamer alternative—“mild but wild,” Pargh likes to say—of cyklon sauce from Fire Tongue Farm in Hollister. The cyklon, tangy with the right amount of kick, allows even the most heat-wary customers to be part of the “hot sauce on everything” club.
Working with farms all over the Central Coast—and some from beyond—Burn makes its sauces single-origin to allow the terroir of each heirloom variety to come through. “A serrano from Rose Ranch in Sonoma is going to be unique from a serrano from Old House Farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains,” Pargh explains. “It’s important to us to respect those distinctions.”
A desire for a no-waste product spawned two other Burn goodies—pickles and probiotic powders. Pargh could only pour one batch of post-fermentation pepper brine down the drain before starting to experiment with reusing the beautiful byproduct to pickle seasonal vegetables. The pickles—raw and wild-fermented like the hot sauce—maintain a freshness, crunch and intensity of color that quickly made them a farmers’ market hit.
From baby carrots pickled whole with dill, green garlic and cayenne to cyclone coriander ginger beets, the pickles ($7–$9 per jar) give Pargh a chance to really play in the kitchen. They also offer an opportunity to highlight other local farms—Happy Boy, Blue Heron, Live Earth—that aren’t necessarily providing the company with peppers. Escabeche, the newest pickle line, was the perfect use for an abundance of green jalapeños in an otherwise slow growing season. It also is repurposed as an incredible brine for everything from bright golden beets to psychedelic pink radishes.
Burn’s honeycomb-hued probiotic powders ($3 per jar) are made from the fermented seeds and skins left after the hot sauce is passed through a sieve. They are dehydrated at a low temperature so as to not kill off the probiotic properties, and then ground into a powder. Says Pargh, “It’s nutritional yeast meets chili powder—umami goodness that can be sprinkled on anything!”
Currently, you can find the hot sauce ($9 per bottle) at most New Leaf markets and at specialty stores all over the West Coast from Portland, Ore., to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. But for pickles, powders and Burn updates from the owners themselves, visit the downtown Santa Cruz farmers’ market every Wednesday, or the Felton, Live Oak, and Westside markets on a rotating schedule.
Anyone who has had the chance to meet the couple at a market knows that they are as vibrant as their technicolor ferments. Pargh effuses passion and focus, her face in a permanent open-mouthed grin, while Atkins is full of warmth and knowledge. To approach their booth for a sample is to be welcomed into their home. “We are Burn,” Atkins emphasizes. “It’s important for us to be involved with our community and be at farmers’ markets to be able to share our vibe through our product.”
“It’s so special to be able to see first-hand people enjoying our creations,” Pargh chimes in. She often captures these first reactions of delight—and sometimes surprise at an unexpected zing—with her camera, which she then posts on Instagram, brightening Burn’s followers’ feeds with daily posts of product, preparations, process and, most important to Pargh and Atkins, people.
This winter, Burn will extend its lineup to include four new pepper varieties, including two habanero blends (habanero/orange bell pepper from JF Organic Farms in Chino and habanero/escamillo from Groundswell Farm in Santa Cruz) for those who like their hot sauce turned up to 11. The habaneros, as well as Bulgarian carrot pepper and golden cayenne sauces, will add vivid orange and yellow hues to an already eye-popping assortment. Some of the habaneros will even be aged in an agave spirit barrel from Venus Spirits for a VIP batch.
Other future plans include making prepared foods at markets and festivals. “We’re thinking market-inspired sandwiches and snacks,” Pargh says excitedly. “It’s a chance to put our product into play and promote many of the other vendors at the market.”
Gorgeous, delicious and good for both the eater as well as the planet, it’s no wonder Burn’s products have acquired something of a cult following. But Pargh herself remains awed at what she and Atkins are able to create with such simple methods.
“It’s amazing to see what these chili peppers become,” Pargh reflects. Organic peppers, water, salt and time are the main ingredients the couple lists on their website. “And love,” Atkins adds. “Definitely love.”
Rosie Parker, a native New Englander, likes to complain of missing home while living the Santa Cruz high-life—surfing, hiking, writing and working for a delicious craft brewery.
Burn Hot Sauce