Courtesy Queen Majesty Hot Sauce
Mar 28, 2022
Queen Majesty brings the heat … and the beat
How a graphic designer from Buffalo carved out a following as a hot sauce maven and reggae deejay
Get too close to Queen Majesty and you might get burned: A long-time deejay who specializes in Jamaican music, her royal heatness is the founder of an eponymous hot sauce startup that has itself gotten, well, hot in recent years.
Queen Majesty was born Erica Diehl in, of all places, Buffalo. But she has lived in New York since the mid-1990s. Here, Diehl has cultivated twin passions that lie less in the Great Lakes area and more in the Caribbean: From her kitchen in Long Island City, Diehl ships Queen Majesty sauces to 12 countries—they are available locally at stores from The Heatonist to Whole Foods. Her picante concoctions will also be featured on the hot wing talk show “Hot Ones” for the third time this season.
But Diehl is not a chef by trade, nor did she grow up with a fiery passion for hot sauce—except for Frank’s, a hot wing staple in her hometown. Instead, Diehl attended the Fashion Institute of Technology and began working as a graphic designer at a marketing agency that held hot sauce competitions for a decade. She walked home with the top prize on more than one occasion. At the same time, Diehl developed a deep interest in Jamaican music. Not content to be a hobbyist on that front, either, she’s been spinning strictly Jamaican music under the name Queen Majesty (a moniker she picked up from the Techniques’ 1967 rocksteady classic of the same name) for more than 20 years, playing thousands of gigs around the city and abroad. Her long-running Downtown Top Ranking party—shared with the popular Deadly Dragon Sound crew—was held at the Delancey for a decade and, prior to the pandemic, she curated and deejayed the summer reggae Sunday party at Public Records. As Queen Majesty, she has also spun on the Lot Radio and Jah Wise’s Sound Chat Radio.
As Diehl became more immersed in Jamaican musical culture and the abundant Caribbean cuisine in Brooklyn, she fine-tuned her hot sauce recipes, all of which are vegan, organic and made without sugar or preservatives. Queen Majesty was incorporated in 2013 and operated from a communal kitchen in Red Hook with a couple of friends until about 2016. Today Diehl, who is now in her 40s, works with a team of eight.
Diehl’s small-batch sauces have taken home multiple medals at the NYC Hot Sauce Expo. The bright orange Queen Majesty scotch bonnet and ginger hot sauce gained notoriety for its flavor and heat, and for featuring on the tear-inducing web series “Hot Ones” (“This is a nice sauce,” YouTube O.G. Casey Neistat said in season four, pausing to catch his breath. “Oh, this one’s a sleeper, isn’t it? That one lingers!”).
Queen Majesty has collaborated with Blue Point Brewing Company on a slightly hot, citric sauce for oysters and is currently revamping her charcoal ghost sauce to feature a more chocolate flavor. A chilly night can always use some heat, so Brooklyn Magazine caught up with Diehl to hear her spicy spiel. This interview has been edited for space and flow:
What inspired you to go from making hot sauces for friendly competition to making them professionally?
I couldn’t find the kind of hot sauce that I liked in the market. I didn’t think of it really becoming a thing. I thought, “I’ll just sell this at farmer’s markets and see what happens.” The first hot sauce that I started making outside of the competition was the scotch bonnet and ginger, which is pretty similar to the recipe that I had been messing with each year for the competition. Smorgasburg pushed me into more of a professional realm because they needed me to be incorporated and have insurance. It was a really amazing experience because I was getting hundreds and hundreds of taste testers and automatic feedback, right in front of my face, every weekend.
What’s the general process for making a hot sauce?
The recipe creation takes a couple of months. The basics for the kind of sauce that we make is vinegar, salt, peppers. You can literally just put that in a blender and you can use that as a fresh hot sauce. In order to make it shelf-stable, you have to go through a process of heating it in order to kill any bacteria, and then we have a hot-fill process which pasteurizes our bottles and caps. We experiment with it, we do a couple variations; we sit with it and live with it, eat it and send it to friends. And then there’s also the process of getting your recipe approved by the Department of Agriculture.
You make a Caribbean-inspired hot sauce in a borough with a lot of Caribbean people. You yourself are not Caribbean. What allows you to do it with authenticity?
It’s an important question. But just being in New York City, and getting exposed to so many different things, you find a little inspiration here and there. I was just trying to give our customers a rounded selection: The scotch bonnet would be really good with Caribbean or Asian dishes, or anything with ginger. Then I wanted something with less heat. I love jalapeños and am a huge fan of tequila, so we did a jalapeño, tequila and lime [sauce].
If I give my hot sauce to a Caribbean friend of mine or Jamaican friend, it’s not hot enough! A lot of other cultures, especially Jamaican culture, [hot sauce making] is throwing straight-up bunches of scotch bonnet in there, which is a whole other ball game. We blend the sauces with bell peppers to tame it down a lot. [My friend, DJ] Jah Wise is like, “Yeah, your sauce isn’t hot enough.”
How does reggae fit into all this?
My love of reggae started in ’94 when I first moved here, and it was just nothing that I had heard before. I’ve learned a lot from reggae, literally, with its music, with its lyrics. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to make friends with a lot of reggae artists and other legendary deejays. It’s like hot sauce in a way, too. It’s just something I really liked and the more you get into it, the more you realize that you have to take this more seriously. And the more you learn about it and respect it, it just keeps going deeper and deeper.
What has been on heavy rotation for you lately—at home or in the kitchen?
The last time I deejayed was for the Lee “Scratch” Perry memorial at Public Records; because of that I’ve ended up having a lot of Lee “Scratch” Perry on rotation lately.
What challenges are unique to either dejaying or hot sauce making—or both?
People are harder when they’re judging women doing something, so I’ve always felt that drive to push myself that much harder so I can be toward the top of the game. With deejaying, if you have a faulty turntable, no one is going to think it’s a faulty turntable, it’s you. So you have to be able to recover. You have to work harder.
Do you have any advice for small food business owners?
We actually have a lot of other little small businesses in the building [where our kitchen is], which is really nice and helpful. Jomaree [Pinkard] from Hella Cocktail [a company that makes mixers] has taken a lot of time to give me advice. One of his pieces of advice was just get out of your own way. When you start expanding, you have to unlearn doing everything; you have to find people that you can trust to take over certain aspects. And then you have to just let them do their job, like mentally get out of their way, but that’s also just getting out of your own way.
Make your own Queen Majesty Hot Sauce mushroom tostadas
Prep time: 15 minutes (plus 2 hours for marinating)
This recipe for an easy and delicious vegan mushroom tostada was created by Joshua Gabriel Lucio Lasso, head chef at Public Records, and goes best with Queen Majesty’s jalapeño tequila and lime hot sauce.
4 tostadas (Chef Joshua recommends tostadas from Tortilleria La Milpa de Rosa)
1-2 portobello mushrooms (or other mushrooms)
1/2 cucumber, diced or sliced
1 can refried black beans
1/2 red onion, sliced
1 small bunch cilantro, chopped
5-6 tablespoons Queen Majesty’s jalapeño tequila and lime hot sauce
4 tablespoons vegan mayo
To marinate the mushrooms
Cut raw mushrooms into strips. Combine 5 to 6 tablespoons of QMHS jalapeño tequila and lime hot sauce, a splash of tamari or soy sauce, and lime juice to taste. Season generously with salt and pepper. Coat the mushrooms well and let sit in the refrigerator for a few hours.
Prepare for assembly
1. Chop cilantro.
2. Dice or slice cucumber.
3. Thinly slice half of a red onion; store in ice water to crisp up.
4. Measure 3 tablespoons black beans and 1 tablespoon vegan mayo for each tostada.
1. Take a crunchy tostada and spread 1 tablespoon of vegan mayo on top to add a creamy flavor base.
2. Add 3 tablespoons of black beans and spread evenly over the mayo.
3. Add a generous layer of marinated portobello mushrooms
(about half a large portobello) and sprinkle cucumbers on top.
4. Garnish with the crisp, thinly sliced red onions and chopped cilantro and serve.
This article first appeared in the winter/spring 2022 issue of Brooklyn Magazine. Click here to subscribe today.
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