Behind his calm, methodical approach to every hot chilli eating and super spicy food challenge, Dustin “Atomik Menace” Johnson is enduring a kind of physical pain and mental anguish beyond what most will ever experience in a lifetime.
In one of his most-watched YouTube livestreams, the 31-year-old Las Vegas resident downs 122 super-spicy Carolina Reapers, the Guinness World Record holder for hottest pepper, while fans watch and cheer him on. While there are clues that he’s struggling – his face turns a deep red color and shines with perspiration, and in the latter half in particular, he takes breaks – his low-key demeanor has made the growing chillihead community question whether he’s built like an average human, or if he’s human at all.
“I would say anywhere after 60, every few peppers I would say, ‘I don’t know if I can keep going,’” Johnson recounts via Zoom from the same black-lit, poster-adorned spot he shoots his videos in. “And people were like, ‘Nah, just keep going. You look like you’re fine.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not … but I’ll keep trying.’”
Two hours later, he finished the bowl.
Johnson concedes that he’s always had a higher-than-average tolerance to capsaicin, the organic compound in pepper seeds that interacts with receptors in the body to create the hot, burning sensation of spicy foods. He’s built that tolerance up with practice, especially when it comes to the mouth, the sensitive starting point of every competition. Some chilli eaters experience face spasms, thunderclap headaches, excessive sweating, tears and a gushing, runny nose, but just about everyone’s struggle peaks when the peppers proceed from the mouth to the digestive tract.
“You can effectively map your GI tract by feeling how it moves,” Johnson explains. It begins with a warm sensation at the base of the sternum, which quickly turns tight, like a sustained, never-ending ab crunch. As it continues down to the right side, Johnson says that’s where it stings the most. The pods have to wind through the intestines, and with every twist and turn comes a sharp, stabbing sensation.
Eventually, the stomach revolts, tightening even more into a stubborn cramp, seemingly begging for it all to stop.
“Luckily, what happens with me is I can stave that off long enough to get through a challenge or to get through a pepper contest,” says Johnson, who used to coolly solve a Rubik’s cube puzzle in competitions until fans complained it could give him an unfair advantage. “It’ll be later that night or even as late as the next morning – that’s when it hurts me the most.”
Some competitors are out of commission for days, unable to eat and tending to upset stomachs (and yes, that also sometimes means painful sessions on the toilet).
With first-place prizes in the most prestigious challenges hovering around the $1,000 mark, it’s a wonder why he or any of the thousands of YouTubers, TikTokers, Instagrammers and Facebookers regularly upload challenge videos to the internet for fellow pepperheads and friends.
While competitive chilli eating has existed for years in the US, Canada, the UK and Australia among predominantly white men between the ages of 20 and 45, it’s become more mainstream and organized through social media and events like New York’s massive Hot Sauce Expo, Albuquerque’s Fiery Foods Show and Smokin’ Ed’s Pepper Eating Challenge in Fort Mill, South Carolina.
The pandemic has driven everyone online, where people like Roger Trier, host of the Hot Dang Show, and Johnny Scoville (who is named after the Scoville heat unit, the way spice levels are measured in peppers and products) have built impressive followings for their hot sauce reviews and daring feats of strength.
There are innumerable types of challenges and products involved, sometimes with increasingly spicy raw pods, others with super-hot gourmet chocolate or gummy bears or tortilla chips, or a combination of all of the above. The most difficult has to be the extract challenges, where competitors eat tubes or chug bottles of extra-high concentrations of already overly hot peppers.
It’s largely driven by ego, showing off and a fondness for thrill-seeking, says Troy Primeaux, owner of Primo’s Peppers and the developer of the 7 Pot Primo, another one of the world’s hottest peppers at 1,473,480 Scoville heat units (SHU).
“I think there’s this innate morbid curiosity and fascination with peppers, just like there is with rock’n’roll,” he says on the phone from his home in Lafayette, Louisiana. “They want to be cool. It’s like getting on a roller coaster ride, you know. They might be getting a little bit more than they think they’re going to get, but they want to show off to their girlfriend or wife.”
Much to the delight of audiences (and said girlfriends and wives), the toughest-looking or loudest-talking guy in the room isn’t always the winner. Some of the strongest competitors don’t have neck tattoos or bulging muscles, and not every winner is a man. Take London’s Shahina Waseem, a petite, stylish and so far undefeated woman who notoriously beat Johnson in the final speed-eating round in a fierce competition in Sacramento in 2019.
Waseem, who goes by the name UK Chilli Queen, remembers it well.
“That was probably the scariest contest of my life,” she confesses. “I was just in my head thinking, ‘How do I prove myself? I cannot lose now.’ And it was just ridiculous, because this guy – he’s a good friend of mine and he is brilliant at what he does – but he doesn’t feel the pain like anyone else, you know? He has this great big tolerance. He could sit there for hours and just look like a machine with no reactions, no tears, no nothing. And I am the opposite.”
When Waseem competes, she appears to enter a trancelike state. Between regular nose-blowing and the occasional “I don’t think I can do this”, she rocks back and forth as she chews through each challenge, eyes tearing through firmly closed eyes.
Waseem’s partner, Paul Ouro, and fellow UK competitor Matt Tangent are the founders of the League of Fire, an elaborate global ranking system where points are allocated to competitors when they successfully complete challenges. Until the League of Fire was established, the community was disparate and disjointed, and there was no official ranking of competitors.
While it’s not always peaceful and there can be plenty of trash-talking and pettiness, Ouro says the League has created a camaraderie among pepperheads that he didn’t anticipate.
“This isn’t professional, no one’s getting paid, everyone’s just stepping up to get bragging rights,” he says. After that first challenge against Johnson, Waseem and the rest of the competitors drank beers at a local bar and became fast friends. They visit each other when possible and watch each other’s livestreams, cheering each other on and sending each other super-hot and hard-to-get products available in their respective hometowns.
Some chilliheads have large enough audiences on YouTube that they can produce content full-time. Others become “hot sauce influencers”, which can help with funding travel to festivals. There’s a huge and growing market for extra-hot sauce: retail sales are up, probably in part because restaurants have closed in the pandemic. Trend forecasters are predicting that spicy foods are going to reach a whole new level of popularity in coming years: “Ultra-spicy is the new umami,” says a recent Guardian article.
One contributing factor is probably Hot Ones, a wildly successful web series by First We Feast where celebrities eat progressively spicy wings while answering well-researched questions from host Sean Evans. Their YouTube channel has gained 1.3 million new subscribers since March of last year, and the show’s been able to continue production by conducting interviews remotely with stars such as Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Garner as they taste-test hot wings.
It’s also a compelling way to sell hot sauce. The show produces its own line that clock in at various Scoville levels – an innovative approach to funding pop culture journalism. A company’s inclusion in the 10-sauce lineup can be game-changing for entrepreneurs in the space, especially when it comes to the spicier selections like Kansas City’s Da Bomb Beyond Insanity, a highly concentrated extract-based sauce that consistently sends A-list celebrities into total meltdowns.
Despite the fact that it sent actor Idris Elba into a coughing fit, made the chef Gordon Ramsay cry tears of agony and Oscar-winner Charlize Theron said it tastes like “battery acid”, I too was drawn to trying Da Bomb, one of the worst-reviewed sauces on the planet. When I was notified that my local hot sauce e-store had finally received new inventory (it consistently sells out), I pulled the trigger.
Under Johnson’s advice, I had dinner before my tasting. He says it’s good to protect the digestive tract with alkaline foods like yogurt or a banana. I ate two moderately spicy cauliflower “wings” first to warm up. Then, after reassuring myself that if Paul Rudd and Halle Berry could do it, so could I, I popped it in.
First, the flavor: It’s terrible. I don’t know what battery acid tastes like, but if the makers of Da Bomb (who say it was invented to spice enormous quantities of soups and stews with just a few drops) said it was inspired by it, I’d believe them.
But it’s nothing compared to the shocking burn that followed. I ran to the bathroom for cold water, sticking my tongue out in the mirror, surprised it wasn’t bleeding. There was also an endorphin rush – not enough to block out the pain, but the high felt transformative, like I may never be the same.
I was careful to not touch my eyes, where capsicum residue on your fingers can wreak all kinds of havoc. Tears streamed down my sweaty face, and my stomach clenched up in anticipation. At a mere 135,600 SHU, I was experiencing a fraction of what Waseem and Johnson do when they eat peppers like Carolina Reaper, which come in around 2,200,000 SHU.
I turned to milk, often on the table in front of competitor at chilli-eating competitions, but it’s an immediate disqualification if they take even a tiny sip. I gulped it down, imagining myself in the ER explaining my state to frontline workers in a pandemic.
But true to Johnson’s word, the worst was yet to come.
I could feel the heat traveling through my digestive tract, but it didn’t get too far. Like severe menstrual cramps, waves of nausea sent me to lay on the bathroom floor.
Eventually, I couldn’t hold it down. Regretting the pre-tasting meal, Da Bomb departed my system along with everything else in a steady sea of vomit. Since throwing up is a post-challenge trick chilli-eating competitors recommend, I maybe evaded the worst.
I wondered how Da Bomb’s makers, Spicin Foods, were building on its popularity. I should have guessed: Jeff Hinds, president of Spicin, says the company cranked the heat, developing even hotter versions of the wretched stuff.
Da Bomb Ground Zero measures at 321,003 SHU, and Da Bomb the Final Answer comes in at 1.5m SHU. At Spicin’s tasting bar in Kansas (which is open through the pandemic), chilli-eaters have to be 18 or over and sign a waiver to try “the Source” – which is recommended to be used one drop at a time and not “around children or pets” – at an astonishing 7.1m SHU.
Johnson admits that even he is intimidated by the extracts. And yet YouTube is filled with videos by amateurs and experienced chilli eaters all willing to feed an audience’s sado-masochistic taste for pain.
But reducing the allure to ego, thrill-seeking and sado-masochism isn’t the whole story. For Waseem and Johnson, chilli eating has been confidence-building for the formerly shy introverts. For fans, it can definitely be funny. But it can also be deeply inspiring.
“I’m Johnny Scoville, and as you know I have issues,” says the triple-braid bearded host of Chase the Heat at the beginning of his Mad Dog 357 Plutonium extract challenge video, where he’s about to chug the 9m SHU concentrate. He’s nervous, he says – not because of the challenge, which he’s already completed twice, but because of a confession he’s about to make.
He continues, explaining that the party side of chilli-eating competitions had taken a toll. He’d been drinking too much, and it had become unhealthy. He was livestreaming the challenge not just to entertain the audience, but also to mark one year of sobriety.
“I’m a better version of me today. You guys don’t know how my life has changed for the better in the last year,” he says, explaining that his family life has improved, he’s fallen in love and has a thriving YouTube channel.
“So you guys can do this,” he says. “If you guys have something that you’re trying to conquer, you can do it. If I can, you can.” A few minutes later, he puts on a protective glove and unscrews the cap of the extract, wincing at the aroma before holding it up to the camera.
“First time I did it, it smelled like pain and regret,” he says. “The second time I did it, it smelled like misery and trauma.
“It smells like victory and accomplishment today,” he finishes. “Now get ready to watch my head change color.”