Some have a burning desire. For others, desire burns. The latter is true for Parker East, 28, a writer and performance artist living in Gainesville. On Fri., June 28, East became the first person to conquer the much feared and much coveted Inferno Soup Challenge at Nitally’s Thai-Mex Cuisine in St. Petersburg.
The Inferno Challenge is a traditional Thai chicken soup consisting of long egg noodles, some veggies, and a spicy broth with heat set to supernova. Habañeros and more than 12 other pepper varieties are strategically prepped before being combined to create the base for one of the food world’s most impossibly hot food challenges.
The star of the show is the infamous Bhut Jolokia, aka ghost chili. Coming in at over 1 million Scoville units (a bottle of Tabasco is about 2,500 Scoville units, so this thing is really hot), the ghost chili is piquant enough that India’s Defense Research Laboratory has decided to use it in hand grenades and pepper spray as a method of non-lethal immobilization. The broth is so effective that much of its preparation has to be done outside for the safety of patrons and staff alike.
Combined, the soup comes in at a hefty 48 ounces, or 3 pounds. Even without the blazing heat, the sheer size of the challenge is daunting.
The Hall of Shame on the restaurant’s wall is home to hundreds of pictures of failed competitors. Over the last three years, each has been given 30 minutes to consume the bowl's contents without leaving the table. The Food Network show Heat Seekers stopped by last year and, after barely getting started, Chefs Aaron Sanchez and Roger Mooking both fell prey to the soup's fiery wiles.
Parker East once ate three habañero peppers in high school. In college, he and a friend chugged a gallon of milk in 16 seconds. Other than that, he had never entered any food competitions, though he does say he usually orders the highest level of heat when given the option. Based on his tolerance for heat, and victory over a milk jug, he figured he could handle the challenge. The potential prize money helped, too.
“I kind of string myself along how I can and live cheaply so I can concentrate on my art,” says East. “Fifteen hundred dollars is a lot of money for me.”
For every contestant, there is a victory pot that grows with every failure. What was once $100 grew to Parker East’s win for $1,500. Close to finishing a novel based on his own nomadic experiences, East, a recent Jeopardy champion, says he sustains himself with winnings from “challenges and feats.”
After the soup was ready, East took a seat outside (where the challenge was recently moved due to other contestants' projectile failures), signed a waiver and was off.
Having studied video of other contestants, East came prepared with a funnel and an empty two-liter bottle. He quickly poured the soup into the bottle, knowing he could chug pure liquid quickly after eating the solid ingredients from the soup first.
With less than a minute to spare, he did just that. While speed helped, the ghost chili is known for its creeping and lasting effects. (It took East at least 24 hours to return to some state of normalcy.)
Besides being painful, the challenge was also physically exhausting. East combined ingenuity and will to scorchingly go where no man had gone before. For some, this challenge has meant bragging rights; for East it meant survival.
“No dive bars,” East told friends he was meeting up with after the challenge. “Wherever we go needs to have a nice bathroom.”