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Mike's Hot Honey Founder Travels Between Pizza and Paleo

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September 19, 2017

To carry us into a balanced fall, we’re partnering with Whole Foods Market to highlight one of our favorite paleo-friendly condiments: Mike’s Hot Honey. The company's Brooklyn-based founder, Mike Kurtz, shares his passions for local agriculture and international flavor, plus tips for rounding out a pizza-heavy eating repertoire.

Born out of international travel, Mike’s Hot Honey is a fixture in New York kitchens and cocktail bars alike, and there's no end in sight for expansion of the company's national reach. Founder Mike Kurtz initially attracted a local following of pizza devotees addicted to drizzling the sweet-hot infusion all over their pies. As he continues to increase hot-honey awareness in the professional pizza world, when cooking at home, he turns to simple, whole foods and paleo-inspired dishes, like hot honey-glazed salmon for comfort and balance. We sat down with Mike to hear about his journey into hot honey-making land—read on for more:

Essentials for a paleo-friendly, sweet-hot feast for fall. Photo by Bobbi Lin

Food52: Given that you came up in the food world as pizzaiolo, how does paleo meal prep fit into your life?

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Mike Kurtz: I sell honey to lots of pizzerias. Mike's Hot Honey was born out of Paulie Gee's in Brooklyn, where I was a wood-fired pizza apprentice, and where the product took off. Still, I'm always in and out of pizzerias, sampling honey and eating pizza for my job. So when I cook at home, I try to stay away from heavy carbs and cook mostly vegetables, seafood, and meat. In the fall and winter, I love to broil really fresh seafood and serve it with a hearty roasted vegetable medley.

Food52: How did you get into making hot honey?

MK: As a college student in 2003, I was studying Portuguese in Brazil and went on a hiking trip to a national park with a few friends. After four or five days on the trail, we descended into a valley town. It was very isolated, with one dirt road in and out. In the town was a little pizzeria. We were so excited to eat something other than rice and beans. At the pizzeria, there were jars of honey with chile peppers for drizzling on pizzas, and I loved the combination of flavors. That's where the original inspiration comes from.

Food52: What came next?

MK: Back in the states, during my senior year at UMass Amherst, I started experimenting with honey-chile infusions. At the same time, I was writing my thesis on the development of hip-hop music in Brazil—I was a triple major in ethnomusicology, African-American studies, and Portuguese. After trying many varieties, combinations, and infusion methods of honey and chile peppers, I settled on a recipe to give to friends and family for holiday gifts in little glass jars. From the beginning, I called it Mike's Hot Honey.

Food52: How did you and your honey find your way to New York?

MK: I got a job at a record label here and used to joke with my colleagues about starting a hot honey company. Then in 2010, before working at Paulie Gee's, I started making a lot of pizza at home and became an avid reader of pizza blogs. I sought out the best ingredients: San Marzano tomatoes, the freshest mozzarella, and different kinds of flour and yeast. I used a baking stone, but now I prefer baking steel for my home oven.

When I first created the product, I just imagined it as a pizza condiment. Then I put it into hands of people much more talented than I am, and they put it into all sorts of things, including cocktails. I love mixing it into cocktails, especially Palomas. I combine tequila or mezcal, grapefruit juice, hot honey, lime, and shake it up, then top it off with soda water. It's gratifying to see it in so many places around town.

In fact, if you happen to grab a slice while shopping at a Whole Foods Market, you'll see our hot honey at the pizza station. PJ Damiano, Whole Foods Market's head pizza chef, and Christina Minardi, their northeast region president, have really upped their pizza game. Christina's family owned a bakery in New Jersey, and she's a seasoned pizza maker. Between those two things, she's a real expert on all things dough. On a recent visit to the Whole Foods Market new Newark location, I actually saw her making pies herself!

Mike's Hot Honey is also great on a cheese plate, maybe with a goat or blue, sharp cheddar, soppressata, prosciutto, and some figs. Also with fresh ricotta, especially Salvatore Ricotta, made in Brooklyn. Mike's Hot Honey is great to have in your pantry for every day and for impressing guests at your next dinner party. It makes ordinary foods more exciting. A little goes a long way, and its production also supports New York's agriculture and economy.

A big part of our mission as a company is to support local apiaries and help nurture healthier honey production domestically...No bees, no farms, no food.
Michael D. Kurtz

Food52: Can you tell us more about that local impact?

MK: Mike's Hot Honey is made from wildflower honey from Jefferson County in north central New York state. Our honey supplier has roughly 4,000 hives, and we take a lot of pride in that partnership. Those bees are collecting nectar from all different sources, from crops to wild plants, over a roughly two-mile radius.

American consumption of honey far exceeds domestic production, which means a lot of honey is imported. A big part of our mission as a company is to support local apiaries and help nurture healthier honey production domestically. That, of course, supports agriculture: no bees, no farms, no food. Without bees to pollinate crops, farms won't have the same yield, and agriculture as we know it will suffer.

Food52: So bees are the best, obviously. What's the story behind your other key ingredient, chile peppers?

MK: We use chile peppers imported from Brazil. We really like this variety because the heat hits you on the back of your palate. So when you eat Mike's Hot Honey with food, you taste the sweetness and floral notes of the honey up front, then the flavor of the food it's on, and then the heat one second later. That sequence creates a really nice—and memorable—duality of flavor.

How do you experiment with paleo-friendly ingredients? Tell us in the comments below.

To carry us into a balanced fall, we’re partnering with Whole Foods Market to highlight one of our favorite paleo-friendly condiments: Mike’s Hot Honey. The company's Brooklyn-based founder, Mike Kurtz, shares his passions for local agriculture and international flavor, plus tips for rounding out a pizza-heavy eating repertoire.

1 Comment

Azora Z. September 19, 2017
Am a huge fan of Mike's and am so glad that it's in a WF near me!