The 7th Annual New Zealand Chilli-Eating Championships kicks off tomorrow in Auckland, attracting the bravest, craziest chilli-heads from across Aotearoa. Returning competitor Verne Koti (Maniapoto, Ngāti Hine, Mapuche) heads into the competition as the "Wildcard".
The Chilli-Eating Champs is part of the NZ Hot Sauce Festival which presents over 100 hot sauces from 15 of the country's top chilli producers, and includes at least six world award-winning sauces.
This year's festival will also feature the world's hottest chilli, the Carolina Reaper, which rates between 2,000,000-5,300,000SHU (Scoville Heat Units).
Dubbed "The Chillinator" by his whānau and friends, Verne says after attending his first chilli champs in 2015 as a spectator, he was determined to qualify for the 2016 finals.
He's looking to make a comeback this year after having to bail out of last year's competition when cigarette smoke made him ill. This year, the organisers have made the competition arena smokefree.
Verne says, "Some of the other contestants sparked up, and I'm not a smoker so while dealing with the intense heat from the chillies, I started feeling sick from the smoke. I had no choice but to bail."
While it's a tough battle going up against the best, Verne says it's really the chillies that you have to overcome. He says, "I've eaten the world's hottest chilli, the Carolina Reaper, but also have had lots of Bhut Jolokia."
Verne says, "I learnt a long time ago that chillies have fantastic healing properties. I have always loved the zing and flavours coming out nice and strong from fresh chillies, despite the serious heat factor. I have a great respect for all sorts of kai and am always trying new ways to celebrate its place in my life."
How about a ghost pepper for breakfast?
"I've been growing my own chillies for a little while now, I enjoy making homemade sauces and recipes for my whānau," explains Verne, "My favourite recipe at the moment is Scorpion Chilli Chocolate mousse, a great blend of sweet and spicy!"
Verne says chillies have become a real passion for him now - eating, growing, cooking - thanks to the festival and the supportive Chilli community across Aotearoa.
Josh Shotter from Rotorua has been the reigning champ for two years running, we'll see tomorrow if Verne can beat the champ and overcome the "Reaper".
For more information on the NZ Hot Sauce Festival & Chilli-Eating Championships, check here.
Here's a clip of the 2015 Chilli-Eating Championship finals: