Foodie: My obsession with spice

Foodie: My obsession with spice
Charred habanero salsa (Photo Credit: @ShootJoeC)

By Chad Sparrow

Hot peppers are like a drug for me, something I have to eat on a daily basis. But where did this come from? Am I a glutton for the pain and suffering that comes from eating hot peppers?

I can trace it back to my dad. He would regularly have fresh chiles, hot sauces or dried peppers in the house. My family religiously consumed extra spicy chili dogs on Sundays while watching Redskins games.

Chad Sparrow (Photo Credit: @ShootJoeC)

When I was about 9 years old, I remember going to a family friend’s house where a chile-pepper-eating contest was underway. I wanted nothing more than to enter and prove my bravery. To appease me, the adults let me be a part of the contest, but they substituted my pepper for a mild green chili. I was proclaimed the winner and directed to pound my chest and say, “Give me another one.” This felt like some form of entry into manhood and a day I will never forget.

Now, my obsession with hot peppers never seems to subside. What defines my obsession? Is it the need to buy a new hot sauce anytime I find one that I haven’t tried? Is it the dehydrated chiles that my dad and I grind up annually from our summer crop to get us through the winter? Is it the fact that I take fresh chiles with me in small ziplock bags to restaurants that I know can’t meet my required Scoville rating? I don’t have the answer. My wife and kids think I’m crazy, but they’ve gotten used to it at this point.

Now, as co-owner and managing partner of Common Plate Hospitality, the restaurant group that owns Mason Social, Urbano 116, Catch on the Ave and soon-to-reopen Augie’s Mussel Bar and Beer Garden, I find myself pushing the limits of spice and heat any chance I get.

At Mason Social, I design and curate the menu, always incorporating heat. At Urbano and Catch, my other amazing chef partners, Alam Mendez and Eric Reid, do the honors, but I often find myself suggesting that they add additional spices or chiles to recipes during tastings and menu design meetings.

I don’t see my obsession with chiles changing any time soon, and each year as warmer weather arrives, I am inspired to plant my own peppers. I source pepper seeds and seedlings from online and local nurseries, and soon my garden will flourish with Chile de Arbols, Chocolate Habaneros, Yellow Thai Chiles, Purple Prince Chiles and the almighty Carolina Reaper. Each variety of pepper allows me to experiment with different levels of heat and flavor when I’m creating recipes.

I can think of no better vehicle to deliver the flavor and heat of chiles than salsa. This is a year-round recipe that I use occasionally at Mason Social and always as a great condiment at home. You can also make this exact recipe without cooking any of the ingredients – I typically prefer to use raw ingredients when peak summer tomatoes are in season.

Recipe: Charred habanero salsa


2 large ripe tomatoes (grilled until blistered and black)
2 jalapeno chiles (grilled until blistered and black)
4 habanero chiles (grilled until blistered and black)
1 small white onion (grilled until blistered and black)
4 cloves garlic (roasted in oven until brown)
½ of a lime, juiced
½ bunch cilantro
¼ cup olive oil
Salt to taste


Blend all ingredients in a food processor or blender until smooth. Serve warm or room temperature with chips, meats, rice or anything else you can think of.

Chad Sparrow is managing partner of Common Plate Hospitality, the restaurant group that owns Mason Social, Urbano 116, Catch on the Ave and soon-to-reopen Augie’s Mussel Bar and Beer Garden.