To call Randy Clemens a jack of all trades might describe his range of culinary interests, but it probably wouldn’t do them justice. The L.A. native attended the California School of Culinary Arts and worked in Eric Greenspan’s kitchen at Patina before leaving to herd cheese for Artisan Cheese Gallery and Whole Foods. The hophead and certified beer judge recently signed on at Stone Brewing Company in Escondido as their Public Relations Coordinator. One of his latest obsessions is Sriracha, the L.A. made condiment that predominates at local Asian restaurants. Clemens literally wrote the (cook)book on Sriracha, and he gladly discussed his spicy love affair.
What’s your first Sriracha memory?
I had my first taste of Sriracha about 12 years ago. During high school, my good friend Phi invited me over to his house fairly regularly, and I started spending a lot of time there. True, I enjoyed his company, but I was also so blown away with his mom’s Vietnamese cooking. I’d never had anything like it before; it was incredible! I’d stayed over at his house one night, and awoke the next morning to what would quickly become one of my favorite smells on earth: Vietnamese fried rice (cơm chiên). And there was this little unsuspecting bottle of bright red hot sauce with a rooster on the front of it, set out on the table.
“Hmmm, lemme give this a try on my rice. There we go, a nice squiggle… derpdy derp…. Oh.Oh wow. Oh! Hell yes!”
Epiphany may not be a strong enough word for what happened that day. I was instantly indoctrinated into the Church of Sriracha, and there was no turning back.
How did the cookbook come about?
Over the years, I started branching out. I wasn’t just drowning my pho and Asian dishes with Sriracha, I took the advice on the bottle and started trying it on pizza, burgers, etc. One day, I was going to make a batch of buffalo wings, and instead of using the regular hot sauce, I subbed in Sriracha. They were incredible! Addictively spicy, wonderfully garlicky, with a touch of sweetness and a nice vinegar twang. I was intrigued, and I started to cook more and more with it. As time progressed, I’d amassed a little bit of a collection of Sriracha recipes, and the thought had occurred to me that I should put together a Sriracha cookbook.
I’d been doing food writing here and there for about 4 1/2 years, but I had no clue how to go about getting a book published. I mentioned the idea to my dear friend Sandra, and she just cut me off — not in a rude way, just very matter-of-fact — and said, “So… just do it.” Those four words stuck in my head until I went out and did it. Fast forward about a year and a half, and the book is finally here. I’m beyond ecstatic!
Why didn’t Sriracha’s parent company sign off on the cookbook?
I’d originally pitched the book to my publisher as “The Unofficial Sriracha Cookbook: A Collection of Zesty Recipes and the Story Behind America’s Love Affair With “Rooster Sauce.” It’s an awful title, and I’m glad they convinced me to bend on it, but I was rather keen on keeping it an “unofficial” book. It just seemed to play into the cult feeling behind Sriracha, and I honestly didn’t think Huy Fong Foods would be interested in endorsing a cookbook anyway. On top of that, I wanted to talk about all kinds of Sriracha and talk about the differences between traditional Thai versions and the American adaptation. But the publisher wanted me to approach them nonetheless, and I was happy to oblige.
I went to the Huy Fong factory in Rosemead (which is awesome… the whole block smells like Sriracha!) and gave them a look at the book. They seemed very interested, but ultimately decided that it was not an avenue they were looking to pursue. It’s not that they didn’t like the book or anything like that, they just weren’t interested in a cookbook project at the time. They’re understandably protective of their brand, which I understand and respect greatly. They were very nice and gracious, and I’m humbled to have been able to meet the family that has brought so many people the joy that is Sriracha!
How did that decision affect your approach?
When I finally got to meet with the family, the book was practically completed. We were already late in the editing stages, so not much changed after the word came down that they would not be officially endorsing the book. We tweaked a few little things here and there, but none of the recipes changed or anything like that.
What was the criteria for recipe inclusion?
1) It had to taste good, and 2) It had to be accessible. I have way too many cookbooks that tell me right away that I have no interest in making the recipes inside. I didn’t want that here. I want people to actually make these dishes… I want to make these dishes. The recipe title has to sound like it will work in my head; it needs to sound delicious. Then I set out to make sure that the flavor would back it up.
What’s an example of a recipe you tested that didn’t make it into the book?
Gosh, I think just about everything made it in. There is one phantom recipe that has reared its ugly head a few times, though: Sriracha Sangria. I don’t know if I’d brought it up as a potential recipe or if the publisher did, or what, but it got written down somewhere and made it onto an early press release or something. Amazon listed it as one of the recipes for a while, and Los Angeles magazine just mentioned that it’s in the book as well. It never existed, and I have no idea how it managed to creep its way into so many mentions. At this point, once it warms up a touch, I’ll develop a recipe for it and just post it on The Sriracha Cookbook blog. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!
What’s a misconception that people might have about the condiment?
I think Sriracha has a great reputation. Just seeing all the mentions that come through Twitter each and every day, it’s clear to see that there are tons of other people just as crazy about Sriracha as I am. But there are some detractors. There are some folks who think it’s overrated or overused. They are keen to point out that drowning your food in Sriracha greatly overpowers the food. But when you cook with Sriracha, it’s not overpowering in the least bit. I mean, it’s definitely there, both flavor-wise and heat-wise, but it also accentuates a lot of the other flavors in the dish.
What’s your preferred method of Sriracha enjoyment?
I keep a couple bottles handy in my cupboard at all times. Always the Huy Fong Foods version and usually the Shark brand version from Thailand. They have different flavor profiles and definitely different textures, so I like to have both around, using whichever is more appropriate for what I’m making.
Mr. Clemens was kind enough share his RECIPE FOR THE ULTIMATE SRIRACHA BURGER with Food GPS readers.
Clemens is hosting a Sriracha Cookbook event at Blue Palms Brewhouse on January 18 featuring supercharged food like Sriracha Baked Mac ‘n’ Cheese, the Ultimate Sriracha Burger and a special Sriracha beer from Eagle Rock Brewery. He’ll also be at the LAPL Central Library on February 12 to present a lecture on the history of Sriracha for the Culinary Historians of Southern California.