‘Like lava dripping down your face’: Turning up the heat in chilli eating champs

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The air inside The B.East is so pungent it makes your eyes water.

Sitting at a table at the back of the Brunswick East burger bar, a dozen people grimace at the prospect of putting another chilli in their mouths.

Snot drips off one woman’s face. Tears stream down the cheeks of another. At the back of the room, a man contorts in his chair, breathing heavily.

A dozen competitors are fighting for a shot at being crowned the winner of the Melbourne Chilli Eating Championship, a coveted title among local spice enthusiasts.

The rules are clear: no napkins, no standing, no drinks, no vomiting, and all the food must go. Participants need to chew at least for 10 seconds.

But it is only a matter of time before someone reaches for the cup of milk sitting in front of them for relief and is automatically disqualified.

In the alleyway behind the bar, Ambulance Victoria paramedics wait for the contestants with sick bags, cups of milk, and antacid medication.

“It’s mayhem,” a paramedic says. “The whole street gets covered in vomit”.

Participants Sina Sucuka and Ritchie Stalls watch on in pain as the Oceania Champion Chilli eater Greg Barlow downs another chilli.Credit: Chris Hopkins

The championships began in 2016 after a spicy food-themed day at The B.East became a hit with customers. The event has since grown to attract more than a hundred enthusiasts from all over Australia every year.

“From the first competition we had lines out the door two hours beforehand and a massive crowd of people,” executive chef Jarrod Wood says. “Every year is just such a spectacle.”

To take part in the competition, participants need to swallow a teaspoon of a hot sauce made in-house that contains the world’s five spiciest chillies. If they pass the qualifier, they are invited to take part in two heats where they are challenged to try some of Wood’s flaming hot creations.

Participant Ritchie Stalls struggles to get through the heat.Credit: Chris Hopkins

The two top contenders from each heat are then invited to face off in a final. The winner takes home a trophy, cash and a raft of prizes.

In this year’s menu are cheese croquettes filled with pureed Trinidad scorpion chillies that squirt mouth-numbing juice when bitten into, chilli-infused tequila and a “turducken” of hot peppers stuffed inside each other.

“By the end of it, it’s chaos and everybody’s trying to hold on. That’s the most entertaining part, watching everybody try to push through,” Wood says.

At an earlier competition, a man was concentrating so hard to beat his rival that the capillaries in his eyeballs burst. Contestants have also been known to temporarily lose their hearing – and bearings.

Inside the bar, participants begin dropping like flies. A young man chugs three cups of milk before stumbling off-stage and into the care of paramedics.

Among those still standing is Greg Barlow, a 40-year-old refrigeration mechanic from Reservoir and the current reigning champion.

As others struggle to take a bite, Barlow, who dons a costume firefighter hat with the words “fire chief” emblazoned at the front, shoves whole chillies in his mouth without even flinching.

Barlow, who dislikes spice and rarely eats it in his day-to-day life, became a chilli-eating champion almost by accident two years ago.

The mechanic signed up for the 2021 championship after being encouraged by a group of hot wings-loving mates and inadvertently beat the Australian and New Zealand champion in his first heat, gaining online stardom.

Oceania champion chilli eater Greg Barlow.Credit: Chis Hopkins

“Everyone wanted to know me, and so I had endless messages on Facebook and friend requests,” Barlow says. “I’m being interviewed and people are all over the internet wanting to know my secret and what’s my training regime and how long have I been doing this. Literally 48 hours.”

Barlow said eating Caroline Reapers, a variety of chilli that is considered to be the world’s hottest and features heavily in the competition, is an extremely painful ordeal, but one he is willing to undergo for a shot at becoming the world’s best.

The 40-year-old plans to compete for the world title in New Zealand in May. If he wins, he’ll hang up the boots.

“You don’t even get to the juice of the chilli itself. Your whole mouth just goes numb. Your whole body is in pain, burning,” he said.

Participant Jennifer Chen in pain during her heat.Credit: Chris Hopkins

“Your nose starts to drip, and it feels like lava dripping down your face. But you can’t wipe it because then you’re just wiping lava across your face.

“I’m lactose intolerant, so I can’t even have milk or cheese or anything that goes along with it.”

It takes about three days for Barlow to be able to kiss his wife, Samantha, and two-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, after taking part in the challenge. The toll on his body is so intense, his sweat reeks of chilli for several days afterwards.

Wildcard entrant Richie Stalls may look like he has just been through hell, but the 40-year-old from Brunswick remains confident he has a shot at winning. He is one of four other finalists facing “Ironguts” Barlow in the final.

“I went to another place after the two Carolina Reapers at the start. So hot, so straight away,” Stalls says. “My mouth is absolutely burning, it’s like pouring acid in my mouth. Sulphuric acid. But there is a lot of flavour there too.”

As the sun sets over Brunswick East, the crowd inside The B.East goes wild.

Barlow has just beat a world record by eating more than 50 Carolina Rippers in 10 minutes during the break before the finals.

It is now down to two participants; Barlow and 25-year-old Monash University student and competition newcomer Gabby Del Castillo.

The pair scoff chillis, skewer after skewer, without cracking a sweat until Barlow suddenly reaches for the vomit bucket, effectively handing over the crown to Del Castillo.

Gabby Del Castillo – winner of the Melbourne Chilli Eating Championship. Credit: Marta Pascual Juanola

The crowd erupts in a loud roar, as a victorious Del Castillo throws her arms in the air. Her loved ones rush to the stage to embrace her while a friend hands her a can of beer.

“I’m pretty stoked,” she says. “I can’t feel chillies, so I thought I might have a pretty good chance.”

She lifts the trophy that will soon don her name above her head and smiles for her fans in the audience.

Competition newcomer Gabby Del Castillo took home the silverware. Credit: Marta Pascual Juanola

Barlow gives his rival a hug and the pair pose together for a photo.

“She’s the chilli queen of Australia now, she can start climbing up from here. It’s bloody awesome,” Barlow says, smiling.

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