Just a few weeks ago at the first annual Arizona Hot Sauce Expo, daredevil chile pepper eater Greg Foster of Irvine, CA break the Guinness World Record for consuming the largest amount of Carolina Reaper chile peppers in one minute.
Greg was able to set a new record by munching down a mind-blowing 120 grams of Carolina Reapers (which came out to be 16 pepper pods) within 60 seconds. These Guinness World Record Reaper Challenges are held at all of the hot sauce expos produced by Steve Seabury and High River Sauces, which included the aforementioned Arizona Hot Sauce Expo, plus the NYC, California, and Portland Hot Sauce Expos.
For those of you who don’t know, the Smokin’ Ed’s Carolina Reaper peppers are the Guinness World Record hottest chile, and average at around 1,569,300 units of the Scoville Heat Scale. Carolina Reapers were developed and grown by Ed Currie of the PuckerButt Pepper Company.
So how exactly did Greg did it? I recently chatted with him and asked him how he got into fiery foods, what he did to prepare himself for this challenge, and what it was like to go through the nuclear heat pain after consuming all of those chile peppers…
Scott: Greg, how did you get into spicy foods?
Greg: Oh, man! I started enjoying spicy food from a very, very young age. My mom kind of encouraged me into it. She always took me to funky restaurants, trying Chinese food, trying Japanese food, trying Thai food. We always wanted it spicier and spicier. I remember even as a young kid asking at a Mexican restaurant for the “secret stash” of the spiciest salsa they had for their chips. I really can’t remember a time where I didn’t like spicy food.
I got more and more into the food culture and became a foodie. I worked in the restaurant business for a long time. The more my palette developed, the more I looked for bolder flavors. The trend of Ghost Chiles started to come around, and I tried to find that as much as I could. You know, living in the those mountains in Colorado, it was difficult finding some of those special ingredients. I did pretty good, and I was able to feed my spicy gene a little bit.
When my wife and I moved out here to California in 2008, is where the spike kind of hit, when anything and everything I could find was at the next spicier level; dried Ghost Chile pods, hot sauces. Then I started to get into my vegetable gardening. My brother sent me a bunch of seed packs that had the world’s spiciest pepper in there. At that point, I was still kind of uneducated on what the hottest pepper in the world was. I was still under the belief that it was the Ghost Chile! There were some Trinidad Scorpions in there, I think a pack of Carolina Reapers in there as well. Once I sliced into the first piece of ghost chile that I grew, after the 45 minutes of searing pain and recovery…
Greg: …the giddiness and laughter that the two of us where going through, it was a high like I had never experienced! I wanted it to continue.
Scott: Yeah, a lot of non-chileheads don’t realize that you get this incredible endorphin rush after eating spicy foods like chile peppers and extreme sauces.
Greg: Yeah, the dopamine dump that goes right into your system as soon as you feel that spicy “pain”…your biology is trying to counteract what your brain is experiencing as pain, and you get that “runner’s high.” Some people equate it to a “less legal” version of a high. It really is something to experience, especially that first time. I mean, we were on the floor giggling for about a half-hour. [laughs]
Scott [laughs]: When you say “we,” are you referring to your wife?
Greg: No, it was actually my brother and I. My wife…it’s funny; she can’t really handle spicy food at all.
Scott: Ah, okay. Is your brother as big of a fiery foods aficionado as you are?
Greg: He tries. He puts on a brave face. I can see the sweat pouring out of his head when he’s trying to hang with me. There are points where I’m three or four Reapers in, and he’s tapping out. He tries really well, though.
Scott: When you say “three or four Reapers in,” you talk so nonchalantly about it. [laughs] I mean, even some of the most hardcore chileheads I know typically don’t eat that many all in a row!
Greg: Well, you know, it took me a while to get to that point where I could consume that many. I eat probably one or two Reapers a day. If not Reapers, we’re talking Scorpions, or some variation of one of those. I still grow peppers. Living in Southern California, I have a hydroponic system out of my deck. Every season, I’ll have 400-500 plants in the ground.
So, my life is consumed with peppers. I’ve tended towards the hotter for my own consumption. There’s fun that I have making sauce, and zinging my friends, and really bringing that scientific understanding do not only to your body, but for your health as well.
I always say, “well, this season I’ll grow some jalapenos” or “I’ll take a step down and grow some habaneros,” and it never happens! It’s always like, “wow, there’s a new hybrid or a Jay’s Peach Ghost Scorpion. I’ve gotta grow that one, obviously!” [laughs] Or “this one looks cool and gnarly, and I’ve gotta grow it.” So I end up on the spicier side. Just having the peppers around, I feel bad if I see it going into the garbage or if it rots, so I’ve got to do something with it. Usually it’s just eating them.
Scott: So, it’s normally just slice and dice them and put them on food, use them in cooking…?
Greg: Yes. I love to cook. From the years working in the restaurant biz, I picked up great culinary technique. If I’m sauteing up some mushrooms, for instance, I’ll slice up a pepper, and throw it in the saute. If I’m making rice, I’ll cut up a pepper, and throw it in with the steamed rice. If I have a sandwich, or I’ll go out for a burger, I’ll slice up a couple of peppers that I bring with me and throw it on the burger, while the wait staff look at me in amazement and go, “how can you do that?”
Don’t get me wrong. I feel the burn. I feel the heat. But the feeling and the flavor and the joy I get from consumption is great. The heat really doesn’t bother me. My brain and my body kind of know what to expect. It’s not as much of a “shock” to my system anymore.
Scott: Yeah, I think you’re just about dead-on; a lot of chileheads feel that way. We can still very much “taste” the heat or “feel” the heat. It’s not like we’re immune to that sensation. But we just like that extra added dimension of spiciness that chile peppers give to food.
Greg: Oh, yeah. Don’t get me wrong; when I broke that record, I was in a lot of pain. [laughs]
Scott: Still, even to attempt something like the Guinness World Record Reaper Challenge, your heat tolerance must be extra, extra high. Have you found that same tolerance among your friends, or among the other chile pepper fanatics you’ve run into?
Greg: Hands down. Having ingratiated myself into the hot sauce world. Ed Currie and I are real close. I’ve been working with Ed, growing his peppers. He’s gonna help me launch my sauce line here in the coming months. Ed’s one of the most gracious people in the world; he loves to share, he loves to help uplift the industry.
Whenever we’re at the hot sauce expos, there are always the vendor parties, and the breakfasts with the hot sauce producers and what have you, and he’ll bring what he calls “Ed’s secret stash,” with some of the plumpest, biggest, most voluminous Reapers you’ve ever seen! He’ll slice some up on plate, and he and I will be munching on them like nobody’s business. And then one of the other guys…well, I don’t want to throw down any names to avoid embarrassment…[laughs]…but some of the other guys talk a big game, and then they eat a slice of this stuff, and they’re down for a good fifteen, twenty minutes. They’re turning beet-red, eyes tearing up, and just moaning and wailing about how hot it is. And Ed and I are just sitting there saying, “yeah, it’s spicy, but…” We just kind of chuckle to ourselves about what kind of reaction we can get out of other people.
Scott: [laughs] Yeah. Even within the chilehead ranks, there are a few people who are seemingly superhuman with their super-hot chile pepper heat tolerance. Even me, I won’t regularly munch on Reapers every day, or even Scorpions or Ghost Peppers on a daily basis for that matter. Probably my heat tolerance for the last couple of years has been down because I got to the point where I said, “well, I don’t know what else to do as far as ‘proving’ my machismo and my heat tolerance to other people, so I’ll focus more on flavor now.” Using chilehead terms, my preferred heat level is about “medium” nowadays. But the way you describe you and Ed, that’s almost a superhuman level. [laughs]
Greg: It’s pretty remarkable. I never in a million years, when I started this journey, I never thought I would get to this point of, what you said, of being “nonchalant” in consuming this high level and high concentration of peppers. Even I have to sometimes sit back and go, “man, I must be a little bit insane to do this and not ruin myself!”
Scott: [laughs] Let’s go ahead and talk about your Guinness World Record feat. This contest that you won for was at the brand new Arizona Hot Sauce Expo. Had you tried this Reaper Eating Challenge at the previous expos?
Greg: I’ve been attending the California Hot Sauce Expos. They’re practically in my backyard. Yet the first attempt I made was at the new Portland Hot Sauce Expo this year, which is another one that High River Sauces put on. Amazing events! They tried to get me to do it in California, and I wasn’t at that mental capacity yet.
But when I got to Portland, both Steve Seabury and Ed had been encouraging me, “you know, Greg, if anybody’s going to be able to to do, it’s you.” I went into Portland with a lot of trepidation, a lot of nerves, not really understanding what I was about to get myself into. I made a good college try at it; I won’t lie. But there were some hiccups through that minute of consumption that led to my ultimate…well, I don’t want to say failing, because anyone who can eat a Reaper at all isn’t failing. But my inability to reach that target number of 119 grams [a record previously set by Wayne Algenio at the NYC Hot Sauce Expo in April 2016] was still a great experience in understanding the physical demands, and the mental demands more importantly, and the timing of it all. A minute goes by REALLY, really quick when you’re trying to shovel a lot of food, let alone the spiciest pepper in the world, down your throat! It’s almost insurmountable to think about how much you actually have to consume in that short period of time. As soon as they count down and you’re off to the races, it literally felt like two seconds later and they yelled, “TIME!” In Portland, it was just kind of that discovery phase.
And then going into the Arizona show…it was funny leading up to the contest on Sunday in the afternoon, I actually had more butterflies in my stomach than in Portland. My heart was racing. I had to do some meditation and some simmering to get my heart rate to go down to really relax, because I think I was just amping myself up too much. But going into it, I think I learned from some of my mistakes and hiccups in Portland to come anywhere near that to put down that amount that Wayne had put down in New York City in April.
I watched the video with a friend of mine earlier this afternoon. I’m still in disbelief that I was able to put away that much! Frankly, it’s an experience I never, ever want to have to go through again, but it’s an experience I’m glad I did.
Greg doubling over in pain. After consuming the Carolina Reapers in one minute’s time, contestants also had to wait an additional minute before their challenge attempt was to be deemed official. Any vomiting during this time would result in an immediate disqualification.
Scott: Well now, you’re going to have to defend your title…or maybe not. [laughs]
Greg: I’ll be there in April when the next contest happens [at the next NYC Hot Sauce Expo]. I’ll put my name on the register, but I’ll be praying to the holy gods up above, or the chile pepper demons, or whatever, that no one will be able to topple that 120 grams record. Because if I had to try that again, it would not be for fun! It would be to defend my title. If somebody does it and eats 140 grams, I’ll say, “you know what? You can go ahead and have the record!” [laughs]
Greg: If somebody does 121 grams, I’ll go into it. I’ll do it.
Scott: How did you prepare for the contests in Portland and in Arizona? Did you get a bunch of peppers at home and do practice runs?
Greg: I did. I tried it with Serranos; it was 150 grams of Serranos. It’s not really a lot of Serrano peppers. And as a chilehead, you know the difference between a thick-walled, meaty, fleshy, watery pepper versus a thin-walled, dry, super-spicy pepper. There’s a big difference in getting either one of those down.
So yeah, I practiced. But I knew going into it that it would be an experience like no other. The thing that I did do leading up to Portland, especially a few weeks out, was that I upped my daily consumption to a point where I could handle a half-dozen super-hot chiles a day without much to do about it. I would have a couple with breakfast, a couple with lunch, a couple in the afternoon, and then have a couple with dinner.
The real problem when you start upping your capsaicin intake like that is it causes, well, a lot of internal issues, shall we say. [laughs] But there are things you can consume to counterbalance it so that it’s not as severe.
Scott: So, let’s go back to the Arizona Hot Sauce Expo. You ate 120 grams. For those reading this, describe what you had in front of you. I know there are videos online, and I’ll post one up. But when you got up on stage to do this, tell everyone what was in front of you and what was the process about which you ate these Reapers?
Greg: I was the first contestant. On the table, there were little paper bowls with pre-weighed-out Reapers. I think each bowl had maybe ten Reapers. They were pretty sizable. Each one was a little bigger than a half dollar. So you have these bowls of bright red pods that were all gnarly and bubbly the way Reapers look, and then you have a couple of empty bowls that you use to discard your stems, plus at the end of the minute, you have to put in whatever’s in your mouth in the discard bowl.
As I got up to the table, I had all of these Reapers staring at me. I had the audience staring at me. For the uninitiated, it was definitely a pressure situation! They give you a couple of seconds to kind of prepare, so I set the two bowls they gave me, with the discard bowl right above those. The adjudicator from Guinness was on my left, and I had Steve Seabury screaming into the microphone right next to me. Ed Currie was up there as the sponsor of the event with all of his Carolina Reaper peppers, just kind of there cheering everybody on.
Scott: When they said, “go!”, did you have any specific strategy? Or did you really not think about it and just tried to chew as fast as you could?
Greg: Again, I go back to my comment that a minute was not a lot of time to eat that amount of peppers, so the real strategy is you got to figure that you eat one pod every three to four seconds to come anywhere near the record. What I was looking for where the largest pods in the bowl, because it’s less movement, it’s less motion. You don’t have to eat as many large pods as you would small pods. For example, when Wayne Algenio did his record in New York, he did 22 pods at a total of 119 grams. I did 16 pods at 120 grams. You can see the variation, which is why they do it in weight instead of pod count.
Greg: So I had these big honkin’ peppers. I went for the biggest ones I could find. After that, it’s all about, “in the mouth…chomp, chomp, and swallow.” You don’t want to emaciate them too much, A) because of the heat, and B) because of the time.
What I did in Portland was rather than swallowing each pod one at a time, I just crammed as many as I could in my mouth as quickly as possible. It was like, I have a mouth full of half-chewed Reapers, so I had to stop and try to swallow all of that mass in my mouth, which obviously didn’t work out. So I changed it up a little bit for Arizona. So I was very focused on, for all intents and purposes, flattening the pod into a swallow-able amount. Some people have better capacity than others. My wife is a sipper, and I am a chugger. [laughs]
Greg: [laughs] It all depends on how you chew and swallow that mass.
Scott: Exactly. I’ve done hot wing eating contests before, and that’s always been my Achilles Heel. I just can’t take a couple of bites and swallow. I take forever chewing up a big wad of chicken meat and chicken skin, and people are yelling, “Come on, Scott!” I really can’t do speed eating. I’m just hoping to finish it in the allotted time. So just to do something like what you do is insane!
Now, as you’re going through a Reaper eating challenge, can you even “feel” the heat at all in that first minute? Or is that not even on your mind?
Greg: I’ll be perfectly honest, Scott. If you watch the video, you’ll see me put my hands on the table and put my head down. I am “shutting off” that conscious part of my brain to a point where, what I’m focusing on now is more movement than sensation.
As you watch, in that minute of consumption, I feel no heat. In retrospect, did I “sense” it? Most assuredly! But did I feel it and let my body react to it? No. Because I know how to react to a Reaper pepper. I do it every day! I was able to shut that off. If you fast-forward the video to that minute after the consumption period, you’ll see when I kind of bend over. That’s when “BOOM!” my awareness really kind of takes hold and says, “you have a lot of heat in your belly and in your throat right now.”
I’ve found a way that I’ve been able to compartmentalize the pain part of it, and really move into the movement part of it. AND…I’ll be honest…there are a couple of secrets to help ease the pain. But [knowing what they are] is “record holder privilege.”
Scott: Oh…I was hoping to get a little bit of info on that! [laughs]
Greg: [laughs] If you are an intrepid researcher, you can find all kinds of tips and tricks on how to do that. It really is about what works for you. Like, there’s this guy in Arizona, this 72-year-old guy, he put in 60 grams [in the Reaper Eating Challenge]. He made a real college try out of it. And he didn’t react to the heat at all! He was making fun of the rest of us for reacting to it. He was like, “what’s the matter with you guys? That’s just a chile pepper!”
Greg: This guy ate as much as I did in Portland, and I was just as bad in Portland for that 20 minutes after the show. But this guy was standing there like nothing had happened, like he’d eaten a carrot. So it’s all about how you’re able to handle it. Some people handle it better than others.
Scott: That’s beyond my tolerance, I can tell you that. I can feel it from just one whole Reaper pod. Speaking of that, how long did you feel the pain in your stomach? Hours later? What about the next day?
Greg: It’s funny; on social media, of course everyone’s like, “I bet your toilet’s gonna suffer!” and talking about the “ring of fire”…that goes to my pre-contest preparation. Leading up to that show for the entirety of that weekend, I went on a pretty specialized diet of specific fruits and vegetables that kind of work with counteracting the physical reaction that the body goes through when consuming capsaicin. I make sure I’m eating properly.
To answer your question more pointedly, my suffering on average for the two contests, it was about a half-hour before I was about to purge the balance of what was in my stomach. Beacuse the idea of trying to pass that amount of Reaper is true insanity….TRUE insanity! I don’t know if it’s really physically possible or physically a good idea. All the times I’ve seen this specific contest, I don’t think a single person has passed the full amount he has consumed through his entire digestive system.
So it takes me about a half-hour of mental olympics to get everything out and to purge it. Once I get the bulk of it out, it’s like a switch goes off, the pains stops, and the body is good. That night, we went out to dinner, I was so hungry. [laughs] I had a giant steak and dessert, and we had a grand old time celebrating the victory.
Video courtesy of Fiber Joe of ILoveItSpicy.com.
Scott: That’s good that you were able to feel that way! I’ve seen, and I don’t to mention names, people do much smaller chile pepper feats, and they would be in severe pain for a long time afterwards with the cramping, and they couldn’t hardly eat anything for dinner.
Greg: Yeah, the level of cramping and pain I was in for a half an hour after I stopped consuming, until I was able to purge…Scott, it was an out-of-body experience. The profuse sweating, the doubling over…you know, your body kind of goes into shock. My arms started shaking uncontrollably and my hands were cramping up. It was definitely not a pleasant experience.
That’s really the difference of knowing how your body truly reacts to this kind of thing…you get these people who eat these contests and eat two or three Reapers, and they’re on a stretcher and being attended to by paramedics. They don’t know that if you give it a half-hour, 45 minutes, the pain’s going to go away., and you’re gonna be fine. If you’re able to set your mind up for that “I need to suffer for twenty minutes, and then I’ll be good.” But people, they get into shock, they get into panic, and then they start flipping out.
I slowly built myself up to the point of being able to consume a Reaper without panicking, without freaking out.
Scott: Interesting. Good advice. You did mention that you were coming out with a lineup of sauces. Anything you want to mention about it right now before it officially debuts?
Greg: I’m actually launching a Kickstarter in a few days. My company is called Inferno Farms, just like Dante’s Inferno. I’m going to be launching a line of four of my sauces that have spent a few years in development; testing and tweaking and playing around with. I’ve got a bevy of maybe two dozen sauces and other products that I’ve been working on for the last few years. But I think to flood the market by launching with all of them would be kind of silly. So I’ve picked my four “home run hitters” to be launching. I’m hoping to be hitting the local farmers’ markets here in Southern California. Then the big “coming out party” will be at the NYC Hot Sauce Expo in April. Ed Currie in his amazing generosity is going to help me do a little fanfare out there and get my line going. I’m super excited! It’s been a passion project for years. I eat more hot sauce than you can possibly imagine. I’ve got counters filled with bottles from hundreds of different producers…
Scott: I know exactly what that’s like. [laughs]
Greg: Yeah. And my wife, she looks at me every afternoon and she rolls her eyes when I start playing with a bottle of sauce. [laughs]
Greg: I’ve got peppers coming out of my ears. I’ve got plants everywhere. It’s one of those weird obsessions that I don’t think is unhealthy. But it’s just one of those things that brings so much joy to me to be able to do these things, and the friends and family and the people in my circle that I’ve been able to have as test subjects; the reactions have just been amazing! It’s gotten to a point where, a few of them were buying a bottle at a time. This season, they’re like, “I want four cases of this, four cases of that,” and another month later they’ll come back, “I need another case of that!” They’re buying it at the case level now. It’s at the point where, I’ve gotta get launched, I’ve got to get commercial viability with permits and insurance and everything like that. That’s what the Kickstarter is for, to fund that initial permitting, licensing, and everything like that, to get in line to be a real hot sauce company.
Scott: I can’t wait to try the products! Greg, thank you very much for talking with me tonight.
Greg: Likewise, Scott. It’s been an honor. Thank you!