Pictured above: menu, the “wimp” white flag for tapping out, and L-R Carolina Reaper, Lemon Drop, another Carolina Reaper, Trinidad Scorpion
Tuesday night marked the 7th annual Inferno Dinner at 610 Magnolia. A four-course prix fixe that travels up the Scoville scale with each dish, Inferno Dinner provides a home for the masochist gourmand. You know the people who say, “actually, I want Indian hot,” at their favorite curry dealer, only to struggle through sweat and smoldering tastebuds simply to save face in front of the table? I identify as this type.
I was particularly excited to learn that the Carolina Reaper would be the featured pepper during the final boss. Engineered in 2013 and crowned the world’s hottest pepper ever since, this mistake against nature clocks in around 1.6 Scoville units — the measure of the active irritant in peppers, capsaicin, that creates heat — on average, peaking as high as 2.2 million. For reference, cayenne pepper averages between 30,000 and 50,000 units. Law enforcement grade pepper spray varies between 500,000 and 5 million units. So the Carolina Reaper is essentially weaponized produce. It’s absurd, and I wanted, nay, needed, to feel this type of near-death experience. Of course, when you’re going into war, it’s best to file in the ranks of a decorated culinary leader like General Edward Lee and his fleet of knowledgable servers rather than march with someone lesser, who just might send you back to the barracks injured and defeated.
To that end, Chef Kevin Ashworth, one of Eater’s 50 Young Guns, crafted beautiful concepts that allowed character to break through even in the presence of the most tenacious palatal firebombing.
As with any Welp-style, fortitude-testing challenge, I set a few rules. First, I could not call the next course until official induction into the Clean Plate Club. No bites left behind, no half measures. Secondly — no mercy, no fear, no milk.
Course One: Jalapeno Salt Cured Flounder
Water glasses: 0
Also pictured: Larceny bourbon on rocks. It was nice.
The first course offered up an excellent ceviche of fresh diced flounder strewed across a shallow bath of light coconut milk, giving this starter a smooth alkaline base neutralizing any back-of-tongue tingling from the jalapeño notes in both the candied peppers and infused salt. The citrus of the blood oranges and lime lobbed the assist that eradicated almost any resonant pepper to create a clean finish. Expectedly, this course was the Bee Gees of the night — appropriate for all tastes.
Course Two: Spicy Ramen
Water glasses: 1
Victorious: Most definitely
I haven’t had the pleasure of enjoying Milkwood’s ramen yet, but it’s my understanding that it answers the call of Louisville’s desire for great authentic ramen (the short-lived Rumplings does not count). Thankfully tonight, Chef Ashworth’s tour de force creation at Lee’s other concept made a cameo for tonight’s second course.
Forged in a foundation of spicy, pork-forward, absolutely delicious Tonkatsu broth, this Ramen showcased a smoky sausage augmented with Scotch Bonnet pepper (~350,000 Scoville units), savory pork belly, and a soft pickled egg. Blistered Peruvian Lemon Drop peppers topped the noodle soup, adding a remarkable complexity to the flavor with its crispness and citrus notes. I destroyed this bowl, save for the stems of the Lemon Drop peppers. Awesome. As a significantly hearty dish though, I had to call a 30-minute halftime.
Course Three: Nashville-style Hot Sweetbreads
Water glasses: 3.5
Victorious?: Yes, basically
In less than a year, Louisville will see three Nashville hot chicken joints opening their doors. Despite the Derby City’s eagerness to annex the Music City’s signature dish, many Louisvillians think hot chicken is spicy fried chicken and, my friends, no, it absolutely is not. Real hot chicken would make the Colonel’s bolo tie spin at a ridiculous RPM. Real hot chicken uses a powdery-dry rub with a pepper density that soaks into every succulent bite, rather than a mild breading of 11 weak ass herbs and spices.
Inferno Dinner knows though, and they shan’t phone it in, going so far as to consult with Nashville’s incomparable Hattie B’s on how to properly prepare the rub to achieve an unrelenting heat profile. Ashworth did put his own spin on it, opting for the rich and chewy offal meat of sweetbreads over chicken, while preserving the requisite bed of white bread and pickle slice on top. I have it on good authority the kitchen plated me an extra spoonful of their Trinidad Scorpion pepper relish. Perhaps they heard me bragging about my constitution.
Brutal. Kicked my ass. I, more or less, finished it, thanks in no small part to the asylum provided by the buttermilk drizzle. This solider was wounded, but my pride wasn’t — after all, peaking at just under 1.5 million Scoville units, the Scorpion ranks as the world’s second hottest pepper. I did not clean off all the pepper garnish, but I felt I followed the spirit of the law. I might be an idiot, but I don’t have a death wish. Yet.
Afterward I spoke with the affable Ricardo, manager of 610, about what I should expect in the final course, considering the remarkable jump in heat between the second and third dishes. He clued me in a bit on what’s coming with harrowing tales of the staff’s respiratory and other physiological reactions to preparing the fourth course. This instilled in me, how should I put this… palpable sense of existential dread. It felt akin to waiting in line to ride a terrifying roller coaster. Moving through the winding line, you slowly approach the turnstiles. On the other side, the carts. You make note of the riders, the height of the first ascension, the expression of riders exiting. Perhaps someone is vomiting. At that moment, your inner dialogue conjures a mean Will Arnett impression and you begin to wonder if you’ve made a huge mistake.
I also called another time out to let the heat dissipate and consider my life choices. No wimping out.
Course Four: Carolina Reaper Hot Pot
Water glasses: ∞
Victorious?: “We are not going in circles, we are going upwards. The path is a spiral; we have already climbed many steps.” ― Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
How do you approach a dish packed with upwards of 2 million Scoville units?
Tiny bites. Don’t be a hero. Avoid too much brushing against your lips. Find your inner chi. Wash your hands both before and after the restroom.
Native Americans believe the sweat lodge provides a place of healing and purification. It’s a refuge for meditation and spiritual elevation. The first bite of pepper-rubbed glass noodles saturated in a conservative slurp of Szechuan broth transported me to my own sweat lodge — intense and purifying of my physical being. As I strove for awareness, the aromatic adversity catalyzed an introspective atoning for my past transgressions against both man and nature. Like a real sweat lodge, there was sanctuary in the perspiration and discomfort, and a more profound understanding of the parameters of my body, which is my temple. I am but flesh and bone, obedient to the resplendent frequencies of Mother Earth, whose hum sang her bombastic canticle underneath the bartop.
Then I had the second bite.
The facade of my sanctuary, the sweat lodge, melted away into a vision that revealed something more akin to the Black Lodge. Some apparition of Laura Palmer and The Man From Another Place waited for me in the Red Room. And Chef Lee was there in the background too, towering over the black and white chevron floor… cackling… taunting… “only two bites?” he quipped in reverse-speech.
When does the dream become something else?
It’s around the time one’s aura shifts colors. The body buzz vibrates violently.
l i g h t.
Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream
It is not dying, it is not dying
Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void
It is shining, it is shining
Yet you may see the meaning of within
It is being, it is being
Love is all and love is everyone
It is knowing, it is knowing
Since human begins no longer sense flavor after the first trumpet described in Revelations 8:7 (“and there came hail and fire… they were thrown to the earth”) ominously blares in one’s mouth, the fourth course made prodigious use of texture. The steady wilting of carpaccio style rib-eye, the meaty hon shimeji mushrooms, and the leafy pak choi worked in tandem to create an incredible dimension while traversing other dimensions induced by the Reaper’s unabated grasp.
I tapped out after 10 to 12 bites — a respectable showing. Supposedly only two people made it to the bottom of the bowl. As I understand it, the first spent over an hour powering through, the other looked visibly in pain. But me, well, I look back to Hesse:
“When someone seeks,” said Siddhartha, “then it easily happens that his eyes see only the thing that he seeks, and he is able to find nothing, to take in nothing because he always thinks only about the thing he is seeking, because he has one goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: having a goal. But finding means: being free, being open, having no goal.”
No goals, and still no milk.