Yes, New Zealand has its own chilli eating competition, and it’s just as horrible as it sounds. Hussein Moses went to witness the burn.
They called him Chilli Jesus, but this was a case of blind faith.
Everyone could tell that the wildcard entry at this year’s NZ Chilli Eating Champs had no chance at sweating it out with the pros. His friends had paid the $50 entry fee, presumably come up with that charming nickname, and they were standing behind me having a good laugh about his chances of survival.
Chilli Jesus was among the nine men and two women that had rolled up to Auckland’s Sweatshop Brew Bar over the weekend with high hopes of winning the $500 cash prize and $150 bar tab. But as I nudged my way closer to the stage so I could see, it was obvious that the two frontrunners had already been established.
First up was Dangerous Dave, a former winner from a few years back, who had got his own t-shirt printed especially for the occasion. Then there was Josh ‘Hotter’ Shotter, the reigning champ who had explained to me in frightening detail what the aftermath of taking part in these extra-curricular activities was actually like.
After a heat in Rotorua, he had found himself lying on the couch in absolute agony. “I wanted to go to the hospital. It was painful. It was like bad food poisoning. It just felt like acid in your stomach,” he said.
“The toilet experience the next day was not good.”
The rules for a chilli eating competition are simple: you cannot drink anything, you cannot leave the stage, and you cannot throw up. If temptation gets the best of you, it’s over.
For the first of 24 rounds, contestants would need to ingest a Jamaican chilli that weighed in at 150,000 SHU on the scoville heat scale. That’s 30 times hotter than your everyday Jalapeño, which usually measure about 5,000 SHU.
In other words, things were going to get much, much worse.
In pretty much no time at all, we had our first dropout. Shortly after downing some hot sauce in the second round, Dangerous Dave stood up and rubbed his tummy, signalling that maybe he wasn’t as prepared as he had thought. Un-bloody-believable.
The ex-champ was gone far too soon, but other crowd favourites were already emerging:
Jess was the youngest contestant at the table and she was spending most of her time on her phone taking Snapchats, which immediately made me want her to win. Then there was Andrew, who seemed to have an entire fan club of friends and family cheering him on from the tables in front of the stage. It was a power move if ever there was one.
MC Slave was called upon for DJing duties and he kept with the theme of the afternoon by loading up Drop It Like It’s Hot, Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire and Prodigy’s Firestarter. It was also about this time that Chilli Jesus would have to face the fact he was a mere mortal just like the rest of us. He only made it four rounds before conceding defeat.
Throughout it all, Josh looked totally unphased. The competition, now in its sixth year, had never seen anyone win twice, let alone twice in a row. He seemed determined for that to change.
Chilli pizza was next on the menu (a jump to 500,000 SHU, if you were wondering) and some leftovers were offered out to the crowd who were sitting up front. Someone decided to give it a hoon, then got straight up and ran for the toilets.
Meanwhile, some of the contestants also seemed to be feeling the burn.
It would take until round 14 for us to get over the 1 million SHU mark and down to our final five. Josh only seemed to be getting more powerful, while Jess and Andrew were still hanging in there as well. The sold-out crowd was fully into it now and I too had turned into one of the sickos encouraging this self-torture. I was in my element and wasn’t about to leave anytime soon.
The playlist continued: Talking Heads’ Burning Down The House, Jimi Hendrix’s Fire and, weirdly, Van Halen’s Hot For Teacher. For whatever reason, there was a suspicious lack of Red Hot Chilli Peppers songs.
After a good hour and a half, we had our two finalists: Josh and Andrew. It was hard not to feel a bit gutted when Jess gave in, but she had lived through a nightmare and the crowd saluted her like a fallen soldier. People were now chanting Andrew’s name, which prompted him to stand up on his seat and raise two fists in the air, Stone Cold Steve Austin style. But two minutes later, after taking down a Carolina Reaper (2.2 million SHU!), he was officially done.
Josh had gone back-to-back and already he was thinking about next year. “It’d give it a go,” he said of a three-peat. “And if I won that, I would probably step down.” Perhaps he was caught up in the moment, but he also admitted that it wasn’t just his strong pain threshold and iron gut that had got him through the ordeal; shortly before it started, he had sculled back one of those “$1.90 tins of bloody Watties creamed rice” to help line his stomach.
But the key to surviving the aftermath of the grand final, Josh had told me, would be to force himself to throw up at the end. And so, after accepting his award, he did what needed to be done.
Forget Chilli Jesus, we had found our Chilli God.