With 35 years under his Heaven on Seven belt Chef Jimmy Bannos has worked with and mentored some of Chicago’s top chefs. He’s celebrating these culinary standouts with Family Tree, a series of collaboration dinners. His first one brought Chef Cleetus Friedman back into the kitchen for “Hot as a Mutha.” Ostensibly an ode to the hot pepper, this dinner was a tribute to not only the expertise of these two talented chefs, but of the absolute joy they take in feeding people, pushing boundaries, and welcoming those who appreciate their art.
I was invited to attend this dinner, and with a surprising lack of hesitation I quickly accepted. The hesitation, if it had occurred, would have originated from the concept of the dinner. They were cooking with the hottest peppers in the world. I’ll try anything, and I do like some heat, but when it comes to spicy food I’ve never been too adventurous. My mindset has always been that I like it because of its flavor and don’t want heat just for heat’s sake. The two were mutually exclusive. If you went for the burn you sacrificed taste, and not just because you might burn your taste buds. I didn’t understand why people would voluntarily eat something so hot that it was physically uncomfortable.
I get it now.
After attending this dinner I have a newfound appreciation for the art of heat. It was hot; it was sometimes painful; it was, most of all, delicious.
Attendees were given the option of either a “Hot” or “Not” menu. My husband and I chose one of each so we could try everything. We began the evening with fried chicken skin. This was spicy, but not so hot to have us worried about the rest of the dinner. This was a good thing. If I’d had any idea what we were in for I would have selected two “Not” dinners, and that would have been our loss.
The Hottest Peppers in the World
The spiciness of peppers is rated on the Scoville scale and is reported in Scoville heat units, or SHU. Let’s put this dinner in perspective: a bell pepper has a rating of 0 SHU. Tabasco is a mild 2,500 to 5,000. The peppers these two insane chefs used ranged from 1,000,000 to 2,200,000 SHU. Yes, that’s MILLION. They used four of the top seven hottest peppers in the world. These peppers were so hot that the kitchen had to wear masks and gloves. Chef Jimmy said his arm was still burning. Chef Cleetus giggled – giggled – as they described the dinner that was to come.
You’d think they might ease us into it. Not these two. Out of the gate we were challenged with tater tots topped with red scorpion (#2 hottest pepper) pork debris and habanero ghost pepper (#7, previously #1) jack cheese. It was so good, but it hurt, but it was so good! I wanted to eat more, but I simply couldn’t. My neighbor began sweating profusely. The servers brought extra napkins. I downed a gallon of water and a full beer. I smiled. I grimaced. I ate another bite.
This was followed by 7 Pot Douglah (#3) Red Lentil Mulligatawny with smoked ham hock and a red curry cream. Like my table-mates who also had the Hot menu, I mixed the cream in with the soup thinking it would calm it down. Somehow I missed the “red curry” part. I took two small sips and that was it. I drank another beer. The tops of my ears turned red. I drank two more gallons of water, which only increased the heat. I looked longingly at the bowl of soup. I wanted more, but I just. couldn’t. do it. I thought that I’d never eat again.
Then they brought out the ghost pepper (#7) steak sope with Mighty Vine tomato, spring onions, and jalapeno pico and chili pasilla cumin crema. I took a bite; my neighbors took bites. We smiled, laughed, “this is nothing!” we exclaimed. Cleetus laughed, again. “You’re all trippin’!” he said with glee. See, normally this dish would send us all to a bucket of water, which we would pour over the tops of our heads, refill, and then bury our burning mouths in its cool goodness.
And then…oh god… and then they brought out the “Pissed Off” shrimp over rice. I’d thought the muligatawny was all I could do. That was it. Done. I could stick my fingers in that bowl and burn off my fingerprints. HA! What a neophyte I was. What a trusting soul, to think that Jimmy and Cleetus were cooling things down.
This dish was made with the hottest pepper in the world. In the WORLD. The Carolina Reaper, with a Scoville rating of 2.2 MILLION. It was the oddest culinary sensation I’ve ever had the, ahem, pleasure, to experience. One bite and my tongue was a separate organ. There was a metallic taste. Water seemed to glide right over my tongue. We all looked at each other with confusion. “What’s going on in my mouth?” we lamented, with a twisted, perverse sense of accomplishment. My husband likened it to testing a 9-volt battery with your tongue. “YES, that’s it!” we exclaimed.
We begged for crackers. I drank another beer. The servers made a round robin circuit of pour the water, fill the pitcher, pour the water, fill the pitcher. We ate more. We couldn’t stop. It hurts. But this feeling – it’s so odd – I’ve never felt anything like that before…My mascara ran down my face from the tears. I couldn’t look at the array of hot sauces in front of me. I wanted more.
By the time our mouths recovered we were served our final savory course: Nashville Hot Chicken, Bannos-style. The chicken was brined in buttermilk with a dry hot pepper rub, and then marinated again with scotch bonnet peppers. This “mild” pepper only has a heat rating of 100,000 to 350,000 SHU. Child’s play. The slaw, normally an accompaniment designed to be a cool counterpart, was also made with scotch bonnets. What would be far too hot for me on any other day was almost refreshing. At this point in the meal I could have eaten a jalapeno, with a measly 2,500 SHU, like it was an apple.
With our table fully bonded by Bannos, Friedman, and Scoville, we dug into the final course of the evening. Dessert can’t be hot, right? Especially when it’s made with gelato? And it certainly can’t be hot and taste good. Oh, ye of little faith. Cleetus took a cherry chocolate gelato pie and threw in some ancho peppers, then topped it with toasted almonds and habanero cherry syrup. Like all of the other courses, this one was amazingly, oddly balanced. The cool temperature of the gelato was like a soothing balm that made all the pain go away.
That was probably the most surprising aspect of the dinner for me. After ingesting the hottest peppers in the world our mouths were on fire and it seemed like the pain would go on forever. But then it disappeared, and quickly. We cooled off with “Not” dishes in between, including the famous gumbo. By the time each course came around we’d pretty much recovered and could handle the next onslaught.
Am I now a pepperhead? Not quite, but I’ll no longer avoid heat for heat’s sake. I just have to make sure it’s in the (gloved) hands of extraordinary chefs like Jimmy Bannos and Cleetus Friedman.
Heaven on Seven is located at 111 N Wabash Ave on the 7th Floor. Be not afraid, non-pepperheads. Chef Bannos offers cuisine for those of you who still have all of your tastebuds.
Featured photo courtesy of Heaven on Seven. All other photos ©The Local Tourist