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Hell served as inspiration for Krista’s hot sauces

Krista Van Wagner got her start making hot sauces in 1986, in Hell ... a town in the Cayman Islands.

A few years later, the sauces made a big hit in Western New York, after Van Wagner and her then-husband, Kirk, used them in dishes they prepared for the Taste of Buffalo.

“There were only 25 or 30 restaurants back in the day, not like there are now,” she said. “It was so much easier. We won the People’s Choice for Best Food three years.”

Van Wagner was third-generation co-owner of her family restaurant, Curly’s, in her native Lackawanna, from 1991 until 2013, when she and Kirk split. The Kouimanis family bought Curly’s the following year. Kirk still works there.

Meanwhile, Krista became an adjunct professor at Erie Community College and started to lead cooking classes at several spots across the region. She’s also retooled and rebranded two of her hot sauces, Jerkalicious and Hellacious, and is pitching them – and her classes at several restaurants and wellness centers – on her website, jerksauce.com.

Two different sizes of Hellacious Hot Sauce and two sizes of Jerkalicious Hot Sauce, the creations of Buffalo chef Krista Van Wagner.

Two different sizes of Hellacious Hot Sauce and two sizes of Jerkalicious Hot Sauce, the creations of Buffalo chef Krista Van Wagner.

“I started at Curly’s when I was 12 and tall enough to reach the bottom on the kitchen sink,” she said this week.

At 18, she was accepted at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park.

“I was able to write when I applied that Curly’s was some fantastic restaurant,” Van Wagner said, “when it was really a two-shot-and-a-beer bar with fish fries on Fridays.”

That changed when she and her ex, both CIA graduates, took charge. They’d traveled through Europe and along the Eastern Seaboard after they graduated, dishing up food at dining hot spots in four-and five-star hotels and resorts. Jamaica, and Hell, were among the destinations before the couple arrived at Curly’s to help Krista’s dad, Paul Warthling, run Curly’s. They transformed the restaurant into a top regional culinary spot noted for Jamaican Jerk fare and other fine dishes.

“I Americanized the Jamaican cuisine with a French flare,” she said.

“Cooking yourself is healthy,” said Van Wagner, who now lives in Hamburg. With a chuckle, she said, “My husband used to ask me, ‘Why do you want to teach cooking classes when we own a restaurant?’”

Here’s what else she had to say.

Q. You say you’ve been approached three times the last couple of years about jumping back into the restaurant business. No way?

Van Wagner: I’m 54 and I did all of that already. I’m onto the educational component, the nutritional, the healthy, and I’m doing the things I love. I have my Jamaican products, the Jerkalicious and the Hellacious. I’d really like to take that national.

Q. From one to 10, with 10 being the hottest, what is the heat quotient on these sauces?

They’re both running at probably a 6. I have an extra hot product that only sells online. Right now, it’s just got a big X on the label. That one would be 10. It’s 50 percent mash of habanero pepper, straight on. I don’t use any oils, just the real thing.

Q. Can you talk about the health benefits of the sauces?

Hot sauces are a wonderful replacement for other things. Mine is low sodium and also a flavor booster. If you’re trying to stay away from dressings and barbecue sauces, a lot of people start off with my sauces, especially the Hellacious, which is not too hot. You can put it on your eggs for breakfast.

We took care of a lot of people in the gym – did a lot of menus for them – and if you’re on a diet they’re told to eat tuna without mayo, so they can substitute the hot sauce. There’s zero fat. It’s got that real Caribbean flavor, with that fresh thyme, onions and peppers. A lot of others are made of vinegar and salt. Mine’s simmered for three hours and that really brings the flavor together. Mine is a bit chunky, kind of like salsa.

I just started making them in Rivera Beach, Florida. My peppers are all coming from a specific farm in the Dominican Republic, so it’s all kind of nice. We just made another batch. I usually make about 155 gallons at a time ... and head down to Florida every few months.

Q. How can you get your hands on them?

On the website, all the local Tops [Markets locations], Premier Gourmet, Guercio’s. Clark’s Poultry & Seafood sells the gallons. At Prima Oliva, I’ve got little bottles. I deliver to all the stores myself.

Q. Talk about your cooking classes. What are they designed to help those who sign up for them accomplish?

I love the classes. I start out with the basics and the most important is a knife skills class. ... I also have a children’s cooking series. We’re doing crepes, ice cream, homemade sorbets. I’m doing healthy mac and cheese and healthy chicken fingers with a peanut crust.

That’s five classes on Saturday mornings at the Complete Wellness Center on Kensington Avenue. That is a beautiful new cooking studio to work out of. I’m also doing adult cooking classes with different themes.

The Super Bowl is coming up so I’m doing a Super Bowl appetizer class: some empanadas and some chicken braised nachos, things that are a little different. Jerk wings of course. I’m doing a fun singles class on Caribbean cooking at Complete Wellness. I also have a date night in Italy. I’m trying to get people to get out and cook, people who otherwise might not, make it a social thing.

At the Roycroft in the summertime I’m on the Peristyle, they call it – the porch. In the wintertime I’m in the library. They want to give back to the community. The Roycrofters look at me as an educational component of their mission. Isn’t that wonderful? We probably make just enough money to pay for the food and some of the labor. I try to do the same international classes I do over at ECC.

Auburn Watson (Culinary Arts Center in Depew) is hands-on. It’s a beautiful facility. They have four different kitchens in one room. I recommend that. I love it. I do nothing. I go shopping, I write the menu and I bring out the food and put it in stations and lay it out and the students make the food. And I’m kidding. It’s a lot of work.

Jerksauce.com is all set up to register online for classes.

Q. Talk about the two sauces. What are the key ingredients?

In the Hellacious sauce, I’m making it just like I did when I lived in Hell. I’m using a non-fermented pepper mash. I saute out fresh onions and thyme and garlic and then I add my tomato and pepper and simmer it, so it’s more of a cooked sauce. Thyme is very indigenous to Jamaica. It’s everywhere.

The jerk sauce used to be a marinade in a 12-ounce bottle but I concentrated it into 5 ounces (at $5.99 a bottle), put it in the hot sauce category and made it gluten-free because my family’s all celiac. The gluten-free soy is three times the price, so I couldn’t afford to put it in a 12-ounce bottle and sell it and make money. You add soy and pineapple and it becomes a marinade in a 12-ounce bottle.

Just Pizza has been selling my Jerkalicious for 12 years. That was my connection at the Buffalo Chicken Wing Festival. Restaurants also buy it.

Q. So if someone’s had jerk chicken around town, they may already have had your sauce?

Yes.

email: refresh@buffnews.com

Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon

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