Heart of Clay
Using the freshest ingredients and the principles learned in the red clay fields of Georgia, Chef Geoff Rhyne has bottled more than flavor in his Southern hot sauce.
If you’re from the South, you know a little bit about red clay. You know that it sticks to your shoes, and makes your flowerbed a stone-cold mess. It makes for a road as slick as glass and leaves a stain that will still be there long after you’re gone. Chef Geoff Rhyne knows about the stuff first-hand because he spent much of his youth on a 1,300-acre red clay farm near Americus, GA, alongside his Granddaddy Jack and Grandma Mary Gilchrist.
He was working as a chef de cuisine at The Ordinary in Charleston when, at the urging of executive chef and owner Mike Lata (one of the more influential people in his career), he began to dabble with fresh ingredients to create a sauce to accompany oysters. Rhyne’s idea wasn’t the typical ‘hotter than heck’ kind of sauce, but rather one that would complement seafood, fried chicken, and the many other dishes that Southerners like to jazz up. He experimented with different peppers and vinegars, but didn’t want to fall prey to the traditional distilled vinegar-based concoction. “Distilled vinegar is great for cleaning your floors, but it doesn’t have the kind of flavor you want in a sauce.”
Using white wine vinegar, Fresno peppers, and a distinctive salt, the color of the mixture he stirred up reminded him of the happy days of a childhood where his grandfather, a retired Marine Corps fighter pilot, was the father-figure that helped shape his life. “It made me think of that red clay,” he says of his recipe. The significance of that color was not lost on the chef since at the time, his elderly grandfather’s health had begun to fail. The hours tagging along with his grandparents, who were journalists for several farm magazines, instilled in him an appreciation of fresh ingredients, and the philosophy of using whatever you happened to have on hand.
The chef once put that philosophy to the ultimate test, when as a participant in a Bizarre Basket-themed episode of the popular television show “Chopped” the ingredients he was required to work with included a goat head and a container of lox ice cream.
Their influence also turned him into a stubborn chef. “I never use anything but fresh, quality ingredients because of what I grew up eating. They practiced farm-to-table long before it was cool,” he says of the couple. “As a chef, the moment I began developing relationships with farmers, I knew that was the only way I would go. There is so much that I respect about the work ethic and principle and values of farmers and what they produce.”
His hot sauce creation, which became a tabletop staple at The Ordinary, began to disappear into the purses and pockets of diners who couldn’t get enough of the flavorful condiment. Chef Rhyne says it got a little awkward to ask, “Ahem…could you please return the sauce you just slipped off the table?”
When it started disappearing at a rate of one or two bottles a night, one of their customers recognized the marketability of the sassy sauce. At the suggestion of that customer, he decided to take the plunge, but it took about a year and a half of market research, ingredient sourcing, and pH testing to convert a restaurant kitchen pantry item into a product to be bottled and sold. Aging it in sorghum whiskey barrels was the pièce de résistance, adding signature richness, complexity, and a touch of sweetness to the sauce.
Just before the birth of his first son, Rhyne left The Ordinary to work with his friend Brooks Reitz at Leon’s Fine Poultry & Oyster Shop, securing a schedule better suited for a new father and budding entrepreneur. It was the right place and perfect timing to launch the new brand. Leon’s quickly became a darling of the media, and Reitz encouraged Red Clay to piggyback on that popularity.
Today, the Red Clay brand is hot as a proverbial pepper, and somewhat of a media darling on its own, earning it a spot on Southern Living’s coveted Top 10 Favorite Hot Sauces, and positioning it on the menus and shelves of the hottest restaurants and retailers across the country.
“We’re completely hands-on, from preparing the peppers to shrink-wrapping the bottles,” the chef says of the Red Clay brand production and bottling process. “It’s too time-intense for a big commercial packer.” Now offering an array of flavor profiles, hot sauce connoisseurs may choose from the original flavor, a Carolina Hot variety made with Carolina Reaper peppers, Verde for the jalapeno crowd, or Hot Honey, a sauce flavored with raw, wildflower honey and a fermented pepper mash.
As his family and the business have grown, the discipline his grandparents taught him has been invaluable both personally and professionally. Grandpa Jack passed away at the age of 92, but not before approving of both the sauce and Jackson, his grandson and namesake. The logo on Chef Rhyne’s hot sauce bottles reads, “The Red Clay Changes You.” The words and the sentiment behind them are proof that red clay not only sticks to your shoes, what it leaves behind will still be there long after you’re gone.
by Susan Frampton