CHICAGO — If you told Josh Downey five years ago that his passion would be the pickled pepper concoction Chicagoans relish on their beloved Italian beef sandwiches, he wouldn't have believed you, because he hated hot peppers — the key ingredient in giardiniera.
But after accidentally falling in love with the condiment and making his own as a hobby, he now hopes to be able to sell his line of giardiniera citywide. The first step, he says, is to raise just $2,200 by mid December through a Kickstarter campaign. While he had pledges amounting to less than one-fifth of the total Monday, if he's successful, he'll have enough money to start a large enough batch so he can partner with Antognoli & Company at 1800 North Pulaski Road.
The partnership with the company, which contracts space and labor at its production facility, can extend him the licensing needed to distribute his line commercially on a much wider scale.
And it all started by accident.
"About four or five years go, I wanted beef with sweet peppers, and they put hot peppers on there, giardiniera. I didn't know what it was, and I enjoyed it, even though I hated [hot] peppers," he said. "After that I started buying them, and I'd go through a quart every two to three days. I was putting them on chicken nuggets, grilled cheese sandwiches, everything. And that got expensive, so I started growing the produce in my garden, and my love for giardiniera just grew to a point where I couldn't keep up with it anymore."
Downey, who lives outside Chicago in McHenry, doesn't think of himself as a foodie, or even much of a chef. His only training was the years he spent with his grandmother in her kitchen, where he learned how to build recipes up from the ground, by taste.
"If you asked [my grandmother], 'How do you make bread?' she'd go, 'Oh you put this much of flour,' and they just show you, and throw it in," Downey said. "I didn't know how much that is. And the older generation died off, and none of them wrote anything down. So as I was coming up, I had to re-develop recipes for everything based on what I liked."
When he started making his own giardiniera, just to cut costs and feed his new obsession, he didn't know where to start. So just as he taught himself to re-create his grandmother's pizelle cookies, he went for trial and error.
The 28-year-old retail worker made 36 batches of giardiniera using all different spice combinations. Some ingredients were big flops, like capers, which "made it taste like sardines," and nutmeg, which was too sweet. He finally settled on red pepper, garlic, onion powder and paprika.
The combination was a hit, and just as he was getting a handle on meeting his family's demand for samples, word had spread, and his weekly yield of a few quarts began to vanish quickly.
"I'm a big spicy food person, so I can eat it straight," Downey's cousin Scott Spidale said. Spidale owns The Owl in Logan Square, a bar where Downey conducts much of his giardiniera-related business in the city. Spidale says Chicago eaters are savvy to sales schemes, and tend to vote with their mouths. "We're brutally honest."
If that's all it comes down to, he says, his cousin will be a success.
With just the demand from his family, he outgrew what his home garden could supply. As demand grew outside his family, he started building relationships with organic farms across the Midwest to get his peppers, carrots and cauliflower. Over the last year, he's spent almost every weekend churning through a grueling 36-hour production cycle, hand-chopping, seasoning, pickling and canning 20-gallon batches of giardiniera that he sells online and at farmers markets and a few mom-and-pop delis.
Downey has never advertised, and only recently made a rudimentary website, ChicagoJohnnys.com, to help him organize the orders that come in. And they keep coming in, from across the country, largely from customers who tell him "a friend or relative had some on hand, and once they tried it, they had to have their own," he says.
Now, he's trying to take it even further. But licensing his at-home operation for mass distribution would cost upwards of $35,000, he said. That is why he turned to Antognoli.
Downey has until Dec. 15 to raise the $2,200 he needs to start production on Antognoli's 75-gallon batches. Downey says Antognoli's far from his cheapest option, but it's the last Chicago plant that hand-packs their products, which is important to him.
"This is the dream," Downey says. "I've always been a creative person. I've built furniture, I've done lighting, all kinds of side work, and when I got here I was like, this is it, you know. This is what I love doing."