When Michael Kurtz returned to New York after a trip circumnavigating the planet, he decided to elevate his obsession with making pizza at home by apprenticing as a pizzaiolo at Paulie Gee’s in Greenpoint. Little did he know that working the majestic Neapolitan oven at Paulie’s would provide a stage for his most treasured concoction – Mike’s Hot Honey.
While living in Bahia, Brazil for a year, Mike and a few friends embarked on a five day hike through the rain forests of the interior. At the end of that trek, at a little pizza place in a remote, tiny town surrounded by jungle-draped mountains, Mike discovered a chili-infused honey that rocked his world. Upon returning home, pining for a taste of the matchless vitality that permeates life in Brazil, he decided to set out on a journey to recreate that hot honey himself.
When he presented a bottle of his fiery ambrosia to Paulie Gee, the maestro began featuring it on one of his pies. Patrons soon started asking where they could get their hands on some of their own. With more and more people clamoring for it, Mike decided to take the leap – he began making, bottling, and selling Mike’s Hot Honey.
Mike agreed to share the story behind Mike’s Hot Honey, on the condition that we not ask about the specific chili he uses or the exact location of his discovery. We’d agree to pretty much anything to share this epic tale.
So Mike, what’s the story? How did you end up making Mike’s Hot Honey?
Well, I think I was sort of destined to end up in Brazil at some point. My parents actually met in Brazil. My dad was stationed in Brazil with the Peace Corps in the ‘60s. He spent some time in Rio and in a really remote area of western Brazil called Mato Grosso, just south of the Amazon. It was like the wild west there at the time – vigilante justice and the whole thing.
After that, he came back to the states and went to grad school. While he was in grad school he led a six week trip to Brazil for undergrads. My mom was one of the undergrads on the trip and that’s how they met. They ended up getting married and eventually moving to Amherst as grad students in education at the University of Massachusetts.
And they stayed. I grew up in Amherst. My passion from a really young age was music. My dad’s a saxophonist. His parents were both professional singers in Atlantic City and the Philadelphia area. I played the trumpet and piano, and picked up the guitar in college. I had a radio show at UMASS, where I went to school too.
When I was growing up, my father listened to a lot of Brazilian music. He was heavy into the Bossa Nova scene and Brazilian jazz. In college, I decided to major in ethnomusicology. UMASS didn’t have an ethnomusicology department, but they had a program that allowed you to create your own major, and I decided to study Brazilian music, to learn Portuguese and to combine that with Afro-Brazilian history and cultural studies.
So for my junior year in college I did a study abroad program in a city called Salvador, in the northeastern part of the country, about thirty hours by bus north of Rio. Salvador is the capitol of the state of Bahia. It sits on the coast on a peninsula, with the ocean on one side and a huge bay on the other, so there’s a lot of shipping and trade happening there. It was the biggest slave trading port in the Americas at one point, and it was the capital of Brazil for a long time. It’s an old city with great colonial architecture, and it’s really the capitol of Afro-Brazilian culture. And it is an amazing place. An incredible place.
I was there to study music, and the music is…I don’t think there’s a better place for live music anywhere in the world, and Bahia specifically has an incredibly rich live music culture. There is music everywhere, all the time – there are bands playing in tiny little bars, in restaurants. There are huge free outdoor concerts throughout the year.
Every neighborhood has its own samba groups and local bands. Kids grow up surrounded by music. In Bahia you’ll see kids banging out songs by pounding coins on the back of a bus. You see full samba bands playing music on buses on their way to their nightly gigs – you see stuff like that all the time. It’s way beyond anything you see here, even in New York. It’s like a different world.
And the food is amazing. There’s this incredible abundance of fruit and vegetables from the region, and seafood from the ocean and the bay. There’s fish and shrimp everywhere. Chili peppers everywhere. The cuisine has a lot of West African influences – you find a lot of the same ingredients and flavors – even the same dishes, in West African countries that you’ll find in Bahia.
One of the most classic Bahian street foods is called Acarajé. It’s like a large fritter made with mashed peas, deep fried, then cut open and filled with shrimp, chilis, tomato, and vatapá – this yellow, creamy paste made from boiled peanuts, coconut milk, palm oil, chilis, and shrimp or sometimes fish. And you eat it like a sandwich and it’s totally amazing.
Another big dish is Moqueca – this traditional fish stew usually made with red snapper that they marinate in lime juice or ginger and then cook with shrimp, onion, bell pepper, palm oil, chilis, tomato and coconut milk. Moqueca and Acaraje are two of the really big Bahian specialty dishes.
In Bahia every restaurant makes their own homemade hot sauce. It’s almost like a pico de gallo, but a little bit hotter – they’re just fresh salsas, with chilis, onion, cilantro…and that’s a specialty in Bahia. Everyone makes their own.
The food is incredible. It was all kind of magical. There’s so much fresh food. Every neighborhood has all these food stands. You go out the front door of your apartment building, and halfway down the block there’ll be a stand – they’re kind of like newsstands – piled high with fresh mangos, bananas, and all these fruits that we don’t even have here, like cashew fruit. There’s just this incredible abundance everywhere.
We had a guy that drove through our neighborhood with a fruit truck. He had speakers on the top of the truck and he’d slowly roll through the streets announcing, “We’ve got banana, we’ve got mango. We’ve got this one sale and that on sale.” And people would lean out their windows and lower baskets down with money in them and he’d fill the baskets with fruit and they’d haul them back up. You didn’t even have to leave your house.
Another really popular snack is this peanut brittle stuff. It’s sold mostly by kids. They sell it out of a tin that they strap to their backs like backpacks, and they all carry triangles. The peanut brittle guys all play the same song on the triangle – the same rhythm. So you hear them coming up the block, and you know the peanut brittle guy is coming and if you want some you run outside and get it.
We had a guy that sold homemade popsicles in our neighborhood – an old guy who always wore a baseball hat. He had a really small route – he’d loop through the same six or seven blocks all day with a cooler over his shoulder. And he had a song that he’d sing all day, so you knew when he was coming.
And all these vendors did that – they all had their own songs and their own calls, and the air would just be filled with that all day and all night.
You also find these cafezinho guys everywhere, that have these pushcarts that are like model trucks made of wood. The trucks hold canisters of coffee, hot chocolate, decaf, whatever…They’ll have cigarettes hanging off the back, and they’ll push them down the streets, and you can call them over and for a quarter you can get an espresso and a cigarette and they move on. If you want a coffee, you never have to wait more than two minutes for someone to come by - wherever you are.
And then there are the juice guys. There’s so much fruit that there are juice stands everywhere, with piles of fruit and juicers. In Bahia, juice is always made from scratch, on the spot. If you want orange juice, you stop at a stand and the guy squeezes out like fifteen oranges into a glass for you, then asks whether you’d like sugar in it or not. It’s incredible. You would never ever see someone pouring juice out of a container in Bahia.
You have coconuts everywhere. On every other block there’s a guy with a wheelbarrow full of big green coconuts and a machete. If you want a coconut drink, you give the guy a dime and they hack it open and give it to you. If you want it cold, you pay a little more and they take one out of their cooler for you.
Then you’ve got açaí. Now you see it here everywhere. In Bahia they usually serve it in a bowl as a sort of sorbet. The açaí berries grow in the Amazon on the tops of these really tall palms. They make a pulp, and then blend the pulp with a little guarana syrup, which is made from another plant that is naturally caffeinated, and they make a kind of ice cream with it. It’s highly addictive. If you eat that for a few days, then try to go a few days without it, you can’t get it out of your head. I think it’s literally addictive.
It’s just out of control. The place is so alive. Life is very different there. There’s just this thriving economy on the streets that combined with the abundance of fruit and produce and everything creates this incredible scene.
Anyway, after being in Salvador for about a year, I did a trip with a group of friends to a national park to do this five day hiking trip. It’s a massive park with lots of trails. It’s so easy to get lost that they don’t let you into the park without an experienced guide.
The plan was to hike five days through the park to this really remote, isolated town, and to then hire a pickup truck to take us out. There’s one road that goes in and out of the town, but it’s not passable by normal vehicles, so you get taken out in these jacked-up trucks.
So we made out way to a little town at the edge of the park, hired a guide, made sure everyone had proper rations and gear for five days of hiking and camping, and we set out.
The park is really unique. You have these really high, arid plateaus sitting above deep valleys and ravines filled with really lush tropical rain forest, and there’s water everywhere below the plateaus – there are rivers and streams and waterfalls and natural water slides all over the place. There are all kinds of spots where you can sit on your butt and slide down fifty meters of rock into a deep pool of water. It’s beautiful.
The camping was kind of a drag because we’d camp up on these giant rocks, so it was a little hard on the back at first. But I grew up doing a lot of hiking and camping in Western Mass, so I was into it. Everybody was into it. It’s pretty tough hiking because there’s a lot of up and down – up through the jungle onto the plateaus, then back down into jungle and back up again.
We were cooking meals on the trail. We just had a bunch of dried beans that we cooked over the fire and ate every night.
On the last day of the trek we arrived at the base of this huge waterfall – I mean huge. It’s so tall that by the time the water reaches the bottom it’s just this cloud of falling, blowing mist. We spent the entire day hiking up to the top of it. You hike up these endless switchbacks for hours and hours, and when you get to the top you have this incredible view out over the entire park, with massive amounts of water spilling over the edge of the falls in front of you. It’s an incredibly beautiful place.
Then, the final descent into the town at the end of the hike is down the back side of this mountain, into a valley that’s completely surrounded by mountains. When you’re in the little town you look up and see mountains for three hundred and sixty degrees.
The town is tiny. It’s really beautiful. It’s a poor place – people live really simply but they have a decent quality of life because they’re really self-sufficient. They farm a lot of food right there in the valley – it’s a great climate for growing fruits and vegetables – and they have enough hikers come through that they can sustain a small tourist economy, with a couple of little guest houses, a couple of restaurants, and a little bar on the town square.
When we got there we’d been hiking and eating beans for five days so we were really excited to find some food and a cold beer. We were sitting in the town square having a beer, and a woman who was at the bar we were at told us there was a pizza place nearby. Brazilians are really into pizza.
This pizza place was awesome. A family had opened the pizzeria in the backyard of their house, and they were almost totally self-sufficient. They had a big garden where they were growing tomatoes and basil and all the vegetables they used on the pies.
We ordered a couple of margherita pies and they were really good. And then came the discovery – I noticed that on the table, there was a jar of what looked like honey with chili peppers floating in it. I had never seen that before, anywhere. I’d never seen honey used on pizza, and I’d never seen chili peppers in honey. I thought, “Hmm. That’s interesting.”
I looked around at some of the other tables, and saw that there were jars of the stuff on every table. And everyone was pouring the stuff on their pizza, or pouring it on their plates and dipping the crust into it…Everybody in the restaurant was eating tons of this stuff.
So I was like, “OK. Let’s give this a go.” So I put some of it on my plate and dipped a little crust in it, and proceeded to have this instant…revelation. It was like time stopped as I ate this stuff. It was amazing. It paired perfectly with the charred crust and the tomatoes and cheese. I’ve always been a big fan of spicy food and hot sauces. I’ve always been into trying different types of chilis. I was really impressed with the spice level and the flavor. It was amazingly good.
We ended up getting another pizza and pouring it all over the pie. And everyone agreed that it was amazing.
We talked to the owners and they showed us how they made it. They were growing the chilis in the back behind the restaurant and they would steep the chilis in the honey to infuse the flavor and heat. They didn’t strain out the chilis or anything – they just left them in there. And to them, it was no big deal. It was just something they had made.
So I told the family how much I loved it, and as far as I was concerned at that point, that was it – The next day we rode the truck out and headed back to Salvador. But I found that I just kept on thinking about how good that chili-infused honey was, and how good it was on pizza, of all things.
Soon after that trip, it was time to come back to the states. I got back from Brazil in July of 2004, and it was a little bit of a comedown. The whole experience of Brazil was so powerful. There’s this Brazilian word – saudade. It means something like a nostalgic longing and reverence for something that’s gone. I was definitely feeling that. Part of me just wanted to relive Brazil. And I kept thinking about that chili-infused honey and that pizza, and I decided to try to make it on my own – as a way to stay connected to that whole time in Brazil, and because I just really wanted to taste it again.
I started getting really into making pizza. I was making my own pizza, making my own dough from scratch, and I started experimenting with chilis and honey.
I started by trying to use local hot peppers, but that didn’t work very well. I mixed and matched different kinds of chili peppers, different honeys, and after trying a bunch of things I realized that I needed to use the same peppers they used in that small town in the mountains in Brazil. Those peppers had just the right level of heat, just the right flavor. I realized wasn’t going to be able to recreate it without those peppers.
In Massachusetts there are a few areas with big Brazilian populations around Boston and Cape Cod, so I started making trips to try to find the peppers, and I found them. I made a batch of honey with those peppers and when I tasted it, I knew that was it – it was right. It was perfect.
So that’s how Mike’s Hot Honey came to be. It started as a pizza condiment that I wanted for myself and to share with my friends – because it tasted so good and because it was a connection to Brazil.
How did you end up making pizza at Paulie Gee’s, and sharing the hot honey with the masses?
After school I moved to New York and ended up getting a job with Putumayo Music – a label that put out CDs of music from places all over the world. So I actually ended up getting a job because of a degree that I never really thought would be very useful. It was great, but it was also corporate. I spent a lot of time at a computer, doing emails, making calls. I started to get the itch to do something else.
So one of my best friends and I pitched this idea of doing a round-the-world trip on a shoestring budget to the Boston Globe. They sat on it for about a year, and then they came back to us and said they wanted to do it. They basically arranged it so that they’d cover all the expenses – we wouldn’t really make any money, but we’d get to do this incredible trip without spending anything and we’d blog about it, shoot photos, video, and they’d post it.
So we did it. I quit my job, sublet my apartment, and we hit the road. We went everywhere. We went to thirty countries – through Central America on down to South America. We went back to Brazil. Then on to East Africa – Kenya, Tanzania – and on to Europe. We travelled from Rome to Damascus by land, through the Balkans and Turkey. From there we moved to the Persian Gulf, Sri Lanka, India. We went through Southeast Asia – Thailand, Laos, Vietnam. We went through China – we were in Beijing for the Olympics. Then we came back to the U.S., and I came back to New York, moved back into my apartment, and tried to figure out what I was going to do next.
The recession had hit while I was away, and there were no jobs. I kept making pizza and hot honey. I started working on my own doing music licensing for film and television projects. But things were a lot different here when I got back than they had been before I left.
I ended up eating at Paulie Gee’s one night, and Paulie came by the table, as Paulie always does with pretty much everybody who eats there. We started talking about pizza – we talked about dough, and secrets for making the perfect pie at home – types of flour, yeasts. My pizza obsession had gone through the roof by then. I was making pizza all the time at home.
Paulie said, “You know, why don’t you come in sometime and apprentice? Work with the oven?” At first I wasn’t sure, but I thought about it and decided, “Why would I not do this?” So I’d come in a few hours before service and I’d practice making pies. I’d always wanted to make pies on that level, in a Neapolitan-style oven. And the only way to learn how to do that is to do it in a restaurant.
You’re never going to learn to stretch dough at home. At home you’ve got your two balls of dough that you spent a couple of hours making. You have two chances to practice stretching the dough. You don’t learn until you do like eighty dough balls at a time. You need the repetition.
Eventually I got good at it and Paulie asked if I’d like to work the dinner shift. So I did.
Very early on, I brought in a bottle of the hot honey. Paulie liked it and he started using it on a sopressata pie – it’s called the Hellboy and it’s got fior di latte, tomato, sopressata, parmigiano and the hot honey. As people started tasting it on the pie, they started asking for it on the side, to taste it on its own. They’d ask about it and Paulie would point to me in the back making pizzas and he’d say, “That’s Mike. He makes it.”
People started walking up to me while I was working and asking where they could get their own hot honey. So I started making more, and we started selling bottles of it at the bar at Paulie’s. Eventually I set up a website and started selling it myself. And if everything goes according to plan, it’ll be available in some other shops around the city soon too.
People seem to really like it. It’s versatile. It’s great on pizza, but also on ice cream, ricotta, fruit. You can cook with it – it adds a lot to Brussels sprouts, greens, seafood, meats. It’s a unique thing, combining honey and chilis. Honey has such a unique and special flavor on its own, and adding a heat component to that creates a really special dynamic or dimension. In my opinion, anyway.
You can order a bottle of Mike’s Hot Honey (and browse food pairing suggestions) on Mike’s website at http://www.mikeshothoney.com/ or you can pick up a bottle at Paulie Gee’s at 60 Greenpoint Ave., in Greenpoint.