As a child in Edinburgh, no-one would have predicted that Graham Ford would misspend his youth touring Europe with indie band The House of Love before making his own name in a hot (indeed, scorching) new career.
The son of a Royal Marine, the now 48-year-old had an unadventurous upbringing.
But after moving to London as a teenager, he became roadie and stage manager for The House of Love, a late 80s/early 90s alternative rock band, after sharing a squat with its guitarist.
The band, known for its psychedelic guitar sound and hits including Shine On and Christine, set the Indie world alight for five years until 1993 before splitting (they were to reform a decade later).
The House of Love played all over Europe and Graham was there every step of the way.
“If you’re going to have a misspent youth, make sure it’s a good one,” he says with a laugh. “We had a great time and I’m still in touch with some of the band even now.”
But Graham has moved on from carrying band gear to focus on a hit of his own making. Just over a year ago he launched Chilihound from his home in Saltburn.
The memorably named venture (the missing ‘l’ in chilli is deliberate) has certainly hit the right note with a public that can’t seem to get enough of fiery foods these days.
Curry is right up there alongside bacon butties, fish and chips and roast beef and Yorkshire pudding in the list of the UK’s favourite cuisines.
And now chillies have become the latest foodie love affair. Once only found in specialist grocery shops or the world food aisles in supermarkets, chillies are now in everything from beer and chocolate to breads, sausages and ice cream.
Chilli-based jams and sauces are selling like the proverbial hot cakes and chilli festivals proliferate. Chilihound is part of this new culinary craze.
From his domestic kitchen Graham produces four sauces: Holy Chipotle!, Holy Chipotle Extra!, Holy Habanero! and Holy Chobanero! These will soon be joined by Holy Hellhound! and an as-yet-unnamed cranberry and chipotle Christmas sauce due to launch any day.
Chilihound reflects Graham’s 30-year passion for the flaming peppers that spread across the known world in less than 50 years following their discovery in South America in the early 16th Century.
He left a job as a psychology teacher to concentrate on sating the public appetite for chilli-based sauces and condiments.
While he admits he has always loved good food (his mother was an excellent cook and he helped in the kitchen), chillies were never on his childhood radar.
“My dad was one of the most unadventurous eaters in the world. He was in the Royal Marines in the 1940s and 1950s and got to travel the world, but he was the sort who would end up in an exotic location like Hong Kong and go back to his ship to eat ham and chips rather than touch the local food.
“But my mum was a wonderful cook and I learnt an appreciation of good food from her.
“Thanks to her I’ve always enjoyed cooking – right from an early age. Besides enjoying the usual woodwork and metalwork, I loved doing home economics at school. Whether it was making Scotch eggs or lemon meringue pies when I was 12, it was always great to take the food home to enjoy at the end of the day.”
It was all very traditional, however.
“Growing up in Edinburgh we had access to lots of different cuisines but I was of a generation where our parents didn’t introduce them to us because that wasn’t the way they had been brought up,” Graham recalls.
“I didn’t have a curry until I was at least 17 and I can remember I didn’t have any tolerance to hot food.”
It wasn’t until he went to London, where his elder sister lived, that his eyes were opened to the wonderful melting pot of foods waiting to be tried.
“It was my sister who introduced me to things I couldn’t have got into in Edinburgh. It sort of went from there.
“I started tentatively using chillies in my own food and then I went to live in Greece for a while and that moved my chilli use up a gear.
“Then I was introduced to Mexican food and Mexican chillies. I decided to try making my own chipotle (‘smoked chilli’) sauce. I loved the smokiness of it.”
That was to be Chilihound’s signature Holy Chipotle.
The sauce, which Graham says is good with scrambled eggs, struck a chord with friends. “People started saying I should sell it. I took it as a compliment but never gave it much thought.”
Instead Graham, who moved to Saltburn 19 years ago, went to Teesside University to study psychology, graduating in 1999.
He taught at Egglescliffe School and then Middlesbrough College but in 2007 embarked on a year of travelling. On his return he got into home brewing and toyed with the idea of making it a career.
But as more people told him he should capitalise on his Holy Chipotle, it was chilli sauce making that won out.
The light bulb moment came when he attended a Surfers Against Sewage beach clean.
“I had made a big pot of chilli beans and took along a bottle of the Holy Chipotle. People loved it. I asked if they wanted me to make them some. I cooked up a big batch and I sold out.
“I just left it at that, but the idea was fermenting under the surface that I really should do something with the sauce. I took some into work, got my colleagues to try it and asked them for feedback.
“I didn’t really have a name for the sauce at that time, but a friend used to call me the Hairy Chilli. I knew I couldn’t call it that, but that name sort of became Holy Chipotle.
“People started passing orders my way and around 2011 I realised I could make a business from the sauces.”
He left teaching behind and came up with the distinctive Chilihound name.
It’s the mental picture Graham has of his sauces. “When I think of chillies I have an image of the American Deep South with heat and dust and lazy dogs with droopy jaws dozing in the sun.
“I think my sauces are easy-going like that. They have a lot of good heat but the chipotle is rich and smooth and that’s why I see it as being lazy. It gives you a good level of warmth.”
Now his sauces sell well at farmers’ markets like Saltburn, Yarm, Durham, Stockton and Middlesbrough’s Stewart Park. He’s also hoping to start selling on Tyneside and is developing a mail order side to his website.
Being an adopted ‘Saltburner’ he is a big fan of Saltburn Farmers’ Market and asked if he could join the team.
“Lorna (market organiser Lorna Jackson) was extremely supportive right from the start. She’s been a constant source of positive advice and guidance, particularly on good food provenance and the importance of using good local ingredients.
“So I use onions grown here in East Cleveland and chillies from fellow stallholder Yorkshire Chillies. I also use chocolate from Chocolini’s, a great independent shop in Saltburn, and I’m soon going to be using garlic from Garth Cottage Herbs in North Yorkshire.”
Now, with his home kitchen given a five-star hygiene rating, Graham can look back on Chilihound’s first year with satisfaction. “As much as I enjoyed teaching, I really wanted to take more control of my own life.
“Saltburn Farmers’ Market last September was the first big step, and I was a little nervous on the day itself. But the reaction of shoppers and all the other stallholders has been absolutely fantastic from day one.
“Meeting people and chatting with customers is easily one of the best things about the market. I love the reaction of people when they sample some of the sauces at the stall.
“It’s great to get an immediate reaction and a definite ‘Wow’ factor. It doesn’t get better than that!”
For more information go to www.chilihound.com<p/> <p/>