Newswise — He originally thought he was entering a cooking contest.
So Constantine Alexakos, who trounced the competition in a Rowan University 2014 burger-cooking battle and 2015 chili throwdown, was onboard for the Wing Wars challenge featuring Houshmand’s Hazardous Hot Sauce held on Oct. 24 at Chickie’s & Pete’s Sports Bar & Crab House in Glassboro, New Jersey. (Watch the video!)
When the Rowan director of the Student Center & Campus Activities learned it was a wing-eating contest showcasing three levels of hot sauce, he still was game, showing up with his burger and chili trophies to intimidate the other Wing Warriors.
Good thing, because once again he prevailed, this time among a field of 10 faculty, staff and students and Glassboro first responders dueling in a “celebrity” round. They helped officially launch the hot sauce created by Rowan University’s president, Dr. Ali Houshmand, to raise money for scholarships for Rowan students in need.
“I’m burning,” said Alexakos (nicknamed “Lord of the Wings” for the contest) after the event, his forehead beaded with sweat. “It’s not just my mouth. It’s my lips. My eyes are watering. My nose is running.” He was, he said, “feeling good. . . kind of like a celebrity.”
Growing with a goal
And that’s good news for Houshmand, who loves hot sauce and who is widely recognized for innovative approaches to curbing the cost of a four-year degree. In the last few years, he has promoted programs, some in conjunction with area county colleges, that make an undergraduate degree more affordable. And he’s committed to increasing scholarship funds for Rowan students with a need—in fact this year alone Rowan is awarding $30 million in scholarships and waivers.
Recently, he got a bit more personal with his support of scholarships, combining his passion for helping students with his passion for making the hot sauce that he first stirred up for family and friends. What started as gifts initially made in his home kitchen and then in his garage morphed into much more.
Last year, Houshmand auctioned off six jars as part of a holiday fundraiser on campus. The demand was so high that the University started an immediate wait list for more than 50 people who wanted some, and as Houshmand made more jars—another six dozen or so—he cooked up an idea. Why not mass produce the hot sauce in a professional kitchen and sell jars to support students?
The president planted, tended, nurtured and harvested a portion of the peppers he turned into three types of Houshmand’s Hazardous Hot Sauce, first in a greenhouse on Rowan’s main campus and later on a 40’x40’ lot on the grounds of Rowan’s West Campus.
During early morning hours, well before the start of typical presidential duties, he watered his peppers. At the end of the season, he harvested them with the help of students. Then, he met with the food professionals at the Rutgers Food Innovation Center in Bridgeton, New Jersey, to produce and jar “Ali’s Nasty,” “Nastylicious” and “Nastyvicious,” with added support from the Cornell University Food and Brand Laband New Mexico State University Chile Pepper Institute. The hot sauces, depending on the version, include the relatively tame (like long hots) to the relatively combustible (like ghost and Carolina reaper), a collection of taste tinglers in green, red, yellow and brown.
Thanks to project funding from Houshmand himself and donations from others, all proceeds from the sale of the hot sauce go to the Rowan University Student Scholarship Fund. “It is important that we do that because there are many students out there that if they get a few thousand dollars of support they can finish their education,” Houshmand said.
The battle is on
Rowan began a soft launch 10 days before Wing Wars of 250 jars produced in September, selling hot sauce at a few special events. Funds promise to grow post contest, thanks to online sales, social media promotions and digital advertising. Things already got serious during Wing Wars.
Three times the normal Tuesday Chickie’s & Pete’s crowd turned out for the event, cheering on their favorites, enjoying some food and drink, and making some purchases themselves.
At the far end of the restaurant, waiters and waitresses served up three progressively hotter versions of wings on white plates to the celebrity competitors perched behind a table on a stage—followed by two versions of wings to 10 more competitors in an open round who each paid $25 to participate. In front of a TV screen and banner proclaiming the event and the hot sauce, Wing Warriors male and female, young and seasoned, thin and less so, 6’3” to under 5’ chowed down on the chicken, with plates of bread and plastic cups of milk at the ready should they opt to bow out of the war and need to cool their palate off a bit.
Rowan’s caped Prof mascot tossed hot sauce tee-shirts to the crowd and carried round cards to start each segment. Songs like “Hot Child in the City” played in the background, barely audible over an enthusiastic crowd. Houshmand, decked in hot pepper socks, sat with his wife, daughter and sister “ringside.” Students in yellow Houshmand’s “Hazardous Hot Sauce” shirts and black “Certified to Handle Houshmand’s Hazardous Hot Sauce” aprons assisted. EMTs sat stage left in case of a medical crisis (there was none). Veteran Phillies and Eagles announcer Dan Baker, a Rowan alumnus, emceed the event. Competitors, once it was finished, held their heads, fanned their faces and dabbed at their foreheads with towels. Ringo Adamson, Rowan’s women's head track & field coach and winner of the open round, suggested expanding the pepper fields. “It’s good stuff,” he said of the hot sauce.
Houshmand said he was happy to see such a large turnout and support from the Borough of Glassboro (and beyond—online requests have come from as far as California, Michigan and Florida). The contest, he said, summarized what’s important to Rowan and its push for increased access, affordability and quality. “We may not raise what some people believe is a large amount of money from the hot sauce, but we definitely are raising awareness of student need,” Houshmand said.
Chickie’s & Pete’s will donate $1 from each plate of Houshmand’s Hazardous Hot Sauce wings sold for 45 days.