Food & Culture

"Customers in the queue asked if he had been beaten up": Chilli disaster stories, according to chefs

A touch of chilli can be wonderful, but a rogue seed can have catastrophic consequences. Chefs and restaurateurs share their cautionary tales on what not to do with chilli.

By Georgie Meredith
CAMERON STEPHENS
Condimental, NSW
"I once visited a chilli seed specialist on the Central Coast on a research mission, and boy, he was a total character. It was 10am and he roped us into a tasting session of his super-hot chillies, fresh off the tree; Chocolate Scorpions, Carolina Reapers, etc. 'Come on,' he said. 'Just bite off the ends, that part of the chilli barely has any spice in it.' He then told us how he had cross-bred a chilli hotter than anything he had ever grown, that had potential to set a new Guinness World Record for the hottest chilli on earth.
"The problem was, he'd eaten the only chilli on the tree that contained the seeds needed to grow more. He proudly told us how he ran to the kitchen and grabbed a strainer, before barfing into it to pick out the seeds he had ingested, then planting them again to successfully grow the chilli that we had just eaten. We were all hallucinating by the end of the tasting... we drove home feeling extremely squiffy but well-educated."
JERRY MAI
Phở Nom, Vic
"It's pretty common to get a bit of chilli in the eye in our kitchen, especially when making nahm jim because you have to pound the garlic and the chilli. It happens so often that we keep goggles in the kitchen. We have either welder's goggles or sunnies. When you pound chilli like that it happens quite a lot and it's the worst thing ever, because you can see it coming towards you. I've had one incident that lasted for about three hours and I had to go into dinner service. The eye that was injured was just weeping and crying. I had a bucket of ice water next to me and I was just continuously having to flush my eye out."
LENNOX HASTIE
Firedoor, NSW
"While some like it hot, chillies can often be a game of Russian roulette. I was once cooking for a special guest and tasted one of the Jimmy Nardellos just as we were sending out the main course – only to discover it wasn't a Jimmy Nardello on the plate. Instead of a fruity aromatic sweetness, my mouth was filled with the intense heat of a fiery cayenne. I felt like I had flames in my mouth. Luckily, the dish didn't go out to the guest but I couldn't taste a thing for the next 24 hours!"
From left: Lennox Hastie, head chef and owner of Sydney's Firedoor; chef-owner Jerry Mai of Melbourne's Phở Nơm; Cameron Stephens, founder of Sydney's Condimental.
MILLIE TANG
The Gresham, Qld
"Before I worked at The Gresham, I helped open a bar in Brisbane called Deathproof. We had a series of food challenges, one of which was named Fear the Reaper. It was basically all the hottest ingredients you can imagine on a burger. It was a chilli-dusted bun with fried chicken that had Carolina Reapers in the batter and sauce and then chips with chilli salt on them.
"I never tried it, I only tasted the ingredients and it was like seeing hell. You had to eat the entire thing, the chips and the burger, in two minutes or less and finish with a shot of 42 Below Carolina Reaper vodka, which we made in-house. Not a lot of people were able to finish it. More than 100 people tried but only four were able to keep it down. They had to sign waivers before they did it and we made them wear gloves. One guy sat in the gutter outside the venue washing his face with a bottle of cold milk. We'd discourage people from trying it if they were just starting their night because there was no way they'd be going out afterwards. Sorry not sorry to everyone in Brisbane who had the misfortune of trying it."
ADAM D'SYLVA
Lollo, Vic
"I was once with my daughter who was about eight years old at the time. We were making burgers and I put about three scuds, which are hotter than birdseye chillies, in my burger. I got the burgers confused when serving, so she went in and grabbed my one and started taking a few bites out of it. She started crying uncontrollably and I was like, "Oh no, she took the wrong one!" I tried to give her cucumber and milk but her mouth was burning for about half an hour. Now she always inspects my food to make sure there's no chilli in it."
KARENA ARMSTRONG
Salopian Inn, SA
"When we first opened Salopian Inn I would run food out to customers. One really hectic day I was chopping chilli and a seed popped straight up off the knife and into my eye. I rubbed my eye with the same hand I'd been cutting the chilli with, which left me with a burning eye that was crying uncontrollably. I took the food to a table who, by pure chance, had just got engaged. The happy couple thought my tears were of joy for pending nuptials, so in true hospitality style I just went with it."
From left: Chef Adam D'Sylva of Melbourne's Lollo; Millie Tang of Brisbane's The Gresham; and Karena Armstrong, chef-owner of The Salopian Inn, McLaren Vale.
AMY HAMILTON
Liberté, WA
"When I was 16 I was at my friend's house, whose dad had recently married an Indonesian woman called Risa. In a bid to introduce her to the family, he invited his kids and their friends around for an Indonesian feast. I remember spying a ramekin of soy that had some very finely sliced, tiny chillies floating on top. Risa noticed me eyeballing the sauce and excitedly asked if I wanted to try some. She then mentioned that these little bullet chillies were actually very hot. 'Much hotter than the long red ones you get everywhere here.' Always the risk taker, I was like, 'Yeah, yeah, step aside.'
"I smashed my dumpling into the chilli-laden sauce and within seconds I knew I had made a terrible mistake; I had lost all control of my sweat and mucus membranes. I remember so vividly how invasive that heat was in my mouth and how nothing helped. There's nothing like a tiny, red, inanimate seed pod to remind you just how powerless you are! I was sweating, my vision blurred and I was crying from both my eyes and my nose. If I wasn't temporarily blinded I would have seen my friends all laughing at me. Strangely, like all good chilli addicts, this did not deter me from eating chillies."
DJ LEE
Le Vietnam, WA
"A young guy came in one lunchtime with his girlfriend to eat bánh mì. He ordered his usual, the Dragon Breath, and she ordered the Original. He requested I amp up his order with all the chillies and extra sauces. I asked if he was sure, explaining it would give him
a good punch and he said, 'Hit me.'
"They sat facing me in the middle of the dine-in area and halfway through his bánh mì I could see him breaking a sweat, with sauce dripping onto his fingers. All of a sudden his face turned red and he started wiping the sweat off his forehead, which got into his eyes. He realised too late that he had hot sauce all over his fingers. He closed his eyes as they started to burn and his girlfriend tried to help with serviettes. I ran to the taps to get some water, splashing it on his face as his girlfriend wiped it dry. By this stage, the queue had stretched out the door because the place was full and everyone was watching to see what had happened. At last, one eye opened, he cooled down and limped outside with the assistance of his girlfriend. Customers in the queue asked if he had been beaten up. About three months later we saw each other and he broke into laughter, then said, 'Well, you did warn me. I got knocked out!'"
ADAM LISTON
Shōbōsho, SA
"A couple of years ago my team and I were testing recipes for Matty Matheson who was doing some events at Shōbōsho. One of my staff was making his Nashville hot sauce for a spicy fish sandwich. The staff member accidentally doubled the amount of cayenne pepper required, and my team came to me saying the sauce was ridiculously hot. Unaware that the recipe had been incorrectly followed, we were confused as we knew the dish was meant to be spicy. Being somewhat of a hero I prepared the dish to eat myself. After taking a significant bite, I felt my throat tightening and burning. This quickly escalated to my stomach feeling as if I had swallowed boiling water. My eyes became red and even my tears felt as if they were dripping with boiling water. It got to the point that I seriously considered a trip to hospital. After multiple glasses of milk and a stint lying down with a cold towel, the symptoms began to ease. We reluctantly re-tested the recipe and found where we went wrong. Needless to say, cayenne pepper and I now have a cautious relationship."