When it comes to food, don’t mess with Alabama-native Cara Haltiwanger. The self-described street cook, who has been grilling up a storm of deliciousness from behind her custom barbeque since 2010, knows how to throw down. And now with Whole Foods in her court and a line of BBQ and hot sauces on deck, she’s primed to turn pro.
While Los Angeles has been home for the past 13 years, Haltiwanger’s Southern roots are evident in more than just her sass, flavorful language and favorite ingredients—pork and butter. You can also see it in the passion she has not just for cooking, but for using doing what she loves to create community. For her, food is more than tasty sustenance, it’s a means of bringing people together.
“I simply love making food, having people eat it and getting to know each other, when maybe they wouldn’t have otherwise,” she said.
Haltiwanger’s unconventional path to Calabama, her brand’s identity, is inspiring, to say the least, and her break with tradition has, if anything, only made her food all the more richer. Read on for a homespun tale about how Haltiwanger keeps it real and why intense arguments over who makes the best mayonnaise is actually how people in the South bond.
Tell us about how you became interested in and fell in love with cooking? When did you know it was a passion you wanted to pursue professionally?
I had always been into food, and come from a family of great cooks. Bartending in more mixology-based bars is how I segued into food. I got really lucky and snagged an internship at Animal when they were still fairly new. I worked there for a while, and then after that, decided to open up Honey Sugar’s in 2010, the motivation being that I just wanted to make my own food and work for myself—not make other people’s recipes. I had my grill custom made, and I literally just started cooking and setting up where people would let me.
I fell really hard in love with cooking in about 2008 or 2009. It was just one of those things that I realized made me the most happy while I was doing it. Nothing else made sense, I just wanted to cook for people. And I wanted to cook the food that I know and love, traditional Southern food.
Talk to us about Honey Sugar’s. How did Honey Sugar’s come to be?
Honey Sugar’s literally came to be out of my desire to work for myself, cook my own and my family recipes, and to build a sense of community here in LA. Being from Alabama, I have always felt that a city like Hollywood lacked the same community vibes I grew up with. In the South, people always, say “Hey Honey, Hey Sugar,” and that is where the name came from. I started catering parties and doing pop ups all over WeHo and DTLA.
You got a lot of things going on. Can you tell us about all the different aspects of your cooking life?
Now, six years later since I started in 2010, things have really changed and evolved. By doing the pop-up restaurants, I was able to grow and expand and grab opportunities that came available. Honey Sugar’s Catering has became Calabama. I now have a hot sauce and bbq sauce that will be bottled very soon, and plan to build a brand of sauces, spices and condiments under the Calabama umbrella. I also work with Whole Foods as a brand ambassador and teach demo classes in store that range from tutorial, to how to shop on a budget within the store.
Then I do a weekly AM pop up at CoffeeCoffee in WeHo every Saturday and Sunday, where I sell delicious breakfast sandwiches along with my hot sauce. I get to talk to people and cook for them while we all hang around my grill and drink coffee. It’s dope and so my favorite.
How do you maintain the energy to pursue your passions so fiercely? What keeps you fired up and charging for your dreams?
I think if you’re gonna commit to a hustle, you have to commit fiercely. Especially in LA! LA is not playin’. It will eat you for breakfast. There is so much competition here that you have no choice but to try to find your path and stay on that bitch.
In fact, I decided when I started Honey Sugar’s that I was literally just going to try to do what I truly wanted and see how long I could get away with it. Then it became a personal challenge and THAT is the motivation to keep hustling. Also, I just really love feeding people and sharing ideas and recipes with them, which also motivates me.
We are so curious about the product development process - what has that been like?
Developing the hot sauce and bbq sauce has been such a huge learning curve for me! It’s just one thing after another trying to get a product made. I worked on both of these recipes for a long time. I have sampled and given them both out at my pop ups or to anyone that will take them, and the response has been great. People love them and that makes me super stoked and happy. Recipe development is a fun for me and it always makes you a better cook.
What’s your favorite thing to cook? Do you have a signature dish?
My favorite thing to cook is almost always some kind of breakfast dish, and I also LOVE to cook Italian food and have a couple really amazing go-to pasta recipes. But I would have to say my signature dishes include homemade biscuits and gravy, shrimp and grits, and my breakfast sandwiches with my maple syrup/hot sauce dipping sauce.
How does your style of cooking differ from others in the business?
I think what makes me different is my approach to all this. My food is really good, but it’s not reinventing the wheel. The fact that I travel around in my truck with a skillet and a grill in the back makes the whole experience unique. I am not behind a kitchen line, I am not behind a wall, I am fully open and accessible to folks that want to chill and eat food and talk shit. And trust me, everyone always ends up hanging out in the “kitchen.” Feel free to bring me a beer while I’m cooking please. :)
What’s the best meal you’ve ever had?
This is such a hard question! But I think it has to be when I was in Italy. I was staying with a family there for a few weeks, and one night they cooked me fresh lamb over an open fire. We also had eggs fried up with truffles shaved on top—all from the vineyard they lived on—and that was on top of a rustic country loaf.
You’re originally from Alabama. What did you grow up eating and how do you think being raised in the South has influenced your cooking?
I grew up eating amazing Southern food cooked by just about anyone in my family. We are really big on breakfast where I am from—biscuits and gravy, hoecakes. My influences are no doubt my parents and family. If we aren’t cooking or eating food, we are talking ‘bout it. Almost every single one of my recipes is straight from my family cookbook or my version of those recipes. What I do here in LA is not a fusion of Southern meets West Coast. Calabama simply means I’m a Bama girl in a Cali world cooking my food that I know, that I grew up with. Not anything new, or fancy, just delicious, comforting and done well.
When you go home, where’s the first place you go to eat?
Waffle House. I also stop at the first road-side produce stand I see and buy boiled peanuts. Also, Krystal Burger and Whataburger.
How do you think living in LA influences your cooking?
Man, LA is a great place to be if you love food. And you don’t have to be a good cook to enjoy what LA has to offer in the world of food! LA has definitely influenced me and my cooking. It also drastically changed my eating habits. Portion control isn’t really a thing in Alabama.
I do love the massive accessibility I have here to farmer’s markets, fresh produce and so much variety!! And avocados. I think more than LA influencing my actual cooking, it has influenced the how and the why I cook. I love community, the idea of it, and I think that LA could use more of a community vibe and feel. It did not start exactly that way, but creating community had become one of my hugest motivators.
Who do you admire and who has perhaps influenced you as a cook? Anyone you’d love to cook a meal with?
Cooking inspirations and who I would want to cook a meal with include Action Bronson, Matty Matheson and Anthony Bourdain. But once again, the people that have influenced me personally are my family. Both of my parents are amazing cooks and we all just love food so much. Maybe too much? I can recall full-blown conversations and arguments over things like, who makes the best mayo and why. People in the South take mayonnaise very seriously. Both of my parents constantly send me cool ass recipes they have tried or want to try. Bonding over food is something that feeds my soul.
p.s. Have you met The Screenwriter?