How A Florida Couple Changed My Life With Hot Sauce

festival hot sauce

Anyone who’s arrived at Tampa International Airport as their final destination knows that the drive from there to, well, anywhere, is a visual treat. The ride to Clearwater Beach, for example, is an automotive cruise through the Bay, with vast stretches of water on either side of the Courtney Campbell Causeway, dotted with restaurants, taco stands and beach bars that are practically huts licensed to serve beer in buckets. In other words, Tampa is the perfect place for hot sauce.

I make this proclamation, not just because of the hot climate and beach scene, but also because I’ve had the privilege of getting to know Derry and Ann-Marie Montoute, the married creators of Festival Hot Sauce who call Tampa home. I originally met them at the Dunedin downtown farmers market, about 25 miles west of Tampa. Dunedin is to Florida as Austin is to Texas: A funky oasis brimming with restaurants, bars, art galleries and craft shops.

In December, I visited the market after just having quit my job and returning to my first love of food writing, hoping to find vendors with a good story to tell. There was something about Derry and Ann-Marie. Maybe it was their general kindness. Maybe it was the fact that they found my use of the term “drunk pizza” to sub-categorize New York cuisine so funny. Or maybe it was because their hot sauce packaging was just so damn pretty. Whatever the reason, I just knew: These two had a story to tell.

After weeks of email correspondence with the Montoutes, I learned a bit more about them. Both are originally from Trinidad (though Derry grew up in New York, and Ann-Marie in London), where the local culture dictates driving from house-to-house to enjoy music, food, and drink, more than it does dining out. The pair, it comes as no surprise, first met at a party. Derry is a tremendously talented home chef; he’s the one who makes the sauces, while Ann-Marie, who works full-time in hospitality marketing, manages the administrative side of Festival Hot Sauce. I also learned why, despite his considerable culinary skills, Derry has never opened a restaurant: He’s already undergone two kidney transplants and must be careful not to tax his health. Instead, he bartends, and treats extremely lucky guests to terrific meals cooked at home.

It’s interesting, what will happen when people begin to think of food in tandem with health. When you have a background like Derry’s or Ann-Marie’s, you know that food is something to be enjoyed. That doesn’t mean, however, that it can’t be enjoyed in good health. Each of the four varieties of Festival Hot Sauce, for example, are made with the purest ingredients: Squeezed-from-scratch fruit juices, vinegar, herbs, and, of course, habanero peppers. It doesn’t have to be outrageously high in sodium, Derry explains, or in sugar. Let the food do what it was grown to do, and taste the way nature intended.

Eventually, I returned to Tampa to learn more, accepting a generous offer from Derry and Ann-Marie to join them for lunch in their home. In their abode, it’s obvious where the name Festival Hot Sauce comes from. Their walls are decorated with paintings of musicians and dancers, and upon my arrival, I’m greeted with a quintessentially convivial bit of hospitality: “What can I get you to drink?” It’s a domestic festival from the start, with a delightful aroma of curry and sautéed garlic, a welcome bark and jump from Patches, the Mountoutes’ dog, and a giggle from Nevaeh, Derry’s 7-month-old granddaughter, who he’s watching for the week.

Derry moves around his kitchen like cooking is a fine, memorized dance; a show of which I’m enjoying so much, I don’t realize I’m on my third beer. Of course, it’s safety first for Mountoutes: After enjoying so many adult beverages, they ask me, “Who drove you here?”

“My Dad,” I said, explaining that I was staying at my parents’ Clearwater condo. “He’s at Starbucks, reading, until he has to pick up my Mom from the airport.”

Derry and Ann-Marie are appalled. What was I thinking, not inviting my father to join us for lunch? “Call him!” cries Ann-Marie. “Tell him to get over here and eat!”

My father arrives and, as the afternoon progresses and the four of us sit down to eat the rice, roti, chicken curry, stewed garlicky spinach and tomato-cucumber salad Derry has prepared, something dawns on me. First, it’s shock: My non-spicy-food-eating Dad, who grew up in a Jewish household where ketchup was used as pasta sauce, has enjoyed two plates of curry, voluntarily enhanced with Festival’s habanero mango hot sauce. Not only is Derry a talented chef, but also, it seems, a magician. See what I mean? Life-changing.

It’s deeper than getting my Dad to eat curry, though. It’s a very active reminder that, once upon a time, people did this sort of thing regularly, and not just in Trinidad: Invite each other into their homes, cooking and serving food, with no concern for the clock. That’s made especially clear when I realize we’ve been at the Mountoutes’ home for over four hours, during which time my father not only joined us for lunch, but also, left and returned with my mother after picking her up from the airport. She, too, enjoys two plates of curry. That’s the thing: For Derry and Ann-Marie, hosting three guests for lunch (two of whom were unanticipated) for several hours is about as big an imposition as blinking. At one point, they tell me that Derry’s friends think he would excel at Anthony Bourdain’s job. Forget that. After this meal, I believe the two of them should have their own reality TV show that consists entirely of guests coming through their home for lunch.

The next day, my beer haze having worn off, I send Ann-Marie and Derry an email to thank them profusely for such a lovely day. I tell them what a “happy accident” it’s been to get to know them and how, by telling their story, the one about the people behind their hot sauce and the love they put into it, I hope we can help people slow down, enjoy the flavors, and take the time to remember that life is, after all, a festival.

“The time went by so quickly!” Ann-Marie writes back, thanking me for introducing her to my family.

“Good food and music are riches we were blessed with, and [are] meant to be enjoyed by everyone of all ages, genders, rich or poor,” she concludes. “It has its own universal language, and ingredients that bring all cultures together.”

What a savory, festive philosophy.

For those who can’t make it to Florida, have no fear: Festival Hot Sauce can be purchased at festivalhotsauce.com. In the meantime, enjoy this recipe, courtesy of Derry himself.

Spicy Shrimp Salad

Serves 4

Ingredients
1 Pound uncooked large shrimp-peeled and deveined
1 red bell pepper julienned
1 head of iceberg lettuce (tear into bite-sized pieces)
2/3 cup cherry tomatoes
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
½ cup green onions, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 teaspoon finely chopped ginger
2 tablespoon Festival Hot Sauce (Cilantro Lime)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon fish sauce

Directions
Bring wok to high heat and add vegetable oil, garlic, ginger and shrimp. Stir for 4 minutes.  Add bell peppers, Festival Hot Sauce, fish sauce and soy sauce. Stir for 3 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand uncovered for 4 to 5 minutes. Add lettuce, tomatoes, and green onions. Toss and serve.

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Image: Festival Hot Sauce