When I came across a bottle of Dalston Chillies chipotle ketchup in a shop in Bethnal Green, I got very excited. Chipotle was, until fairly recently, harder to come by in London than affordable housing. And being from California, this was a bit of a problem for me.
As a measure of thanks I tracked down the creator of this ketchup who, it turns out, is Ben Kulchstein: a jungle/drum 'n' bass DJ and graphic designer who loves growing chillies at home and sampling hot sauces from around the world (every time a friend goes travelling, he instructs them to come back with a bottle). Ben left his job in December 2014 to start producing a range of heat-packing products under the banner of Dalston Chillies, a brand he hopes to expand into pickles, chutneys and flavoured salts, among other things. We met in a pub and had a chat about food, his childhood in Clapton, north-east London, and his deep love of all things spicy. Seriously, the man is infectiously passionate about hot food. It all began with his original, Scotch-bonnet laced potion inspired by an Ital cafe owner.
“Before I knew it I was selling bottles of sauce over the decks”
I moved from Suffolk to Clapton when I was 12 years old. I went from a town that was not the most forward thinking – I used to get racist abuse because my last name sounded a bit German – to a place where my classroom had 32 students of 20 nationalities.
Clapton used to be somewhere you didn’t get off the bus unless you lived there. It was nicknamed murder mile because of the turf wars that happened in the late 90s and early 2000s. I was about 21 at that time. There was a school across the road from my house where someone got shot waiting for their kid to come out. Four bullets to the face through the windscreen of their car. That kind of thing just became normal, in a weird way.
During my childhood I remember Clapton as friendly. People spoke to each other, knocked on each other’s doors, went into each other’s houses. Within 30 seconds of my house there were 10 different houses I could go into without a second thought.
I’ve always been big into food. Even as a kid. My mum was a chef in a vegetarian restaurant, a “bistro” – because this was the 80s when everything was about shoulder pads and wine. She always had us helping out in the kitchen at home. We ate British, French, my nonna is Italian, and we had friends that were involved with the Hare Krishna so we ate lots of amazing Indian food. You name it, we ate it.
I was happy to make dinner for the family by the time I was 15, but the thing that really makes you a good cook is trying to show off to girlfriends. It was just simple stuff, like a pasta sauce made from scratch, but it wasn’t a jar of Dolmio! The fact that you’re a 15-year-old guy that can cook is pretty impressive.
Originally, the hot sauce was just something I made for myself. I was crazy about this sauce called Mitchell’s, which is made by an old Rastafari guy called Mr. Mitchell who has an Ital cafe in Tottenham. You can only buy his sauce in a handful of shops within walking distance of his place. Sometimes it would be out of stock for months. So I thought, I need to make sure I can have this all the time. I developed my own version which had the same Scotch bonnet chillies, but which actually now tastes nothing like his.
"When I’m cooking a large batch of Scotch bonnets I have to wear a face mask and rubber gloves"
The Scotch bonnet has such a big, prominent flavour. Cut one open and within 20 minutes the whole house will smell of it. It’s got that funky, musty, peachy, citrusy, fruity thing going on.
Once I’d started making my sauce my friends wanted some. And then my friends’ friends wanted some. The word got out. I DJ under the name Ben Kei, so at the time I was calling it Ben Kei’s Fucking Hot Sauce. One night I was playing at the Rhythm Factory and the guy running the night posted on Facebook: “Hey everyone, try and get Ben to bring you some sauce!” Before I knew it I had 60 people wanting some. I had to go down with two record bags, one full of records and one full of hot sauce. I was selling bottles over the decks.
I spent nine years of my life doing design-related creative jobs. Before that I taught sound engineering at Waltham Forrest College. Thing is, I had really long hair back then, like down to my ass long. I was teaching a load of kids who wanted to be grime MCs and write garage. I went in and they were like, “what the fuck do you know about our music?” I’d been writing jungle and drum ‘n’ bass stuff, so I brought in something I’d made: a really boisterous dancefloor jungle track. I won their trust by not being a stuffy old bloke.
Why hot sauce? It just happened, I guess. It was all driven by the demand. It took over my evenings and weekends. I quit my job last December and its going really well.
When I’m cooking a large batch of Scotch bonnets I have to wear a face mask and rubber gloves. But honestly, I’m pretty much immune to chillies these days. The chemical in a chili is called capsaicin – it convinces your body that you’re on fire. It also has medicinal properties, and releases endorphins. If you think of where they were originally cultivated, in the mountains of Bolivia and Mexico, it was probably eaten to warm you up. Plus I’m sure ancient humans were as macho as they are today – there’s always been some showing off in eating chili.
I’m around meat all the time, and my girlfriend is a carnivore, so a lot of people don’t realise I’m a vegetarian. It’s a cliché that someone who is into hot sauce must love a good barbecue. I have friends who come around for dinner and say, “you’d better make me something with meat in it because I’ll never be full from a vegetarian meal.” And I’m like, “look, I’m not gonna give you a salad. I’ll make sure you can’t walk when you leave”.
. . .
All photos taken by Feeder.