Pepper grower Noah Robbins says the "heatless habanero" is a "real mindfuck": "Your taste buds brace for the heat, but it never comes."
The world is going pepper-crazy. Pepper tradeshows routinely pack out convention halls with thousands of attendees, while new hot sauces with kitschy names appear every day—and fly off the shelves. Today, the once almost mythologically hot ghost pepper appears in everything from peanuts to potato chips to Bloody Marys, and everywhere you look, growers and sauce makers are pushing the envelope still further, purporting to produce ever-hotter types of peppers. In October, it was reported that a man eating a hamburger slathered in ghost pepper sauce actually tore a hole in his esophagus.
Now, some pepper enthusiasts are going in a different direction, breeding peppers for flavor and aroma without focusing on heat at all. One such grower is Noah Robbins, the CEO of Ark Farms, who previously found fame by unleashing the usually mild shishito pepper on the American dining public. He has gone a step farther and thinks the next breakout pepper will be a strand of the notoriously hot habanero pepper… but without any heat at all.
We got in touch with Noah and Patrick Ahern, a senior buyer for Baldor Specialty Foods who championed the pepper, to ask what's so hot about a heatless pepper.
Hi, Noah and Patrick. Can you tell us a little bit about your backgrounds in food? Noah Robbins: I'm the CEO & Founder of Ark Foods. I left New York to work on a commercial farm after getting laid off from my gallery job and realizing I spent all of my free time in restaurants. I saw that there were a ton of interesting vegetables that weren't being grown on a year-round basis, and it frustrated me, so I started Ark Foods. The first veggie we grew and popularized was the shishito pepper, and we've been flying by the seat of our pants ever since. Our mission is to grow interesting vegetables and make them accessible to as many people as possible.
Patrick Ahern: I'm the senior buyer for Baldor Specialty Food Distribution. I was born in Australia, grew up in England, and spent ten years in The Royal Air Force repairing jets and helicopters. I moved to the US at the age of 27 with the choice of two jobs: laying carpets or delivering produce. No points for guessing which one I went with.
For those of us who can't taste the heatless habanero, can you describe what it tastes like? Noah: It's kind of a real mindfuck. Tangy, sweet melon-like flavor; your taste buds brace for the heat, but it never comes.
Patrick: It is actually sweet, a little floral.
When did you first start conceptualizing a heatless pepper? Noah: Like everyone else, I'd tasted a traditional habanero a bunch of times. Take a bite, and for a split second you get a smoky, fruity vortex of complex flavors… right before your mouth heats up. I knew there was something there, so I went in search of a pepper with a similar taste but no heat.
Over the next few years we tinkered with different seed varieties—you'd be surprised at how many pepper varieties actually exist, and we are constantly trying out new ones—until at long last we arrived at the vegetable [we're discussing today]. I actually tasted it for the first time at the farmer's market in [New York City's] Union Square. It has a shockingly sweet aromatic flavor. But they were only selling maybe ten peppers. We're not the breeder, but our goal was to make the pepper accessible to as many people as possible. What the farmer's market was selling, because there were so few, was too expensive for a normal customer to try. So basically, we took that pepper and started to populate it so that we had enough seed supply to grow on a larger scale. That took about three years, at least, and we're still working on it.
How spicy do you like your food, generally speaking? Noah: I love spicy food, but I can't say I am a spice fanatic. I like hot peppers, but I'm not exactly the guy that covers everything he eats in hot sauce.
Patrick: I am from England, so I am no stranger to Indian food and fell in love with Chinese and Mexican food when a arrived in the U.S. I like heat, not crazy heat for heat's sake but enough to clear the airways. My favorite is the shishito with salt at a bar, mostly mild and flavorful with the occasional hot one that get you by surprise.
What do you think of the dominant pepper culture now, trying to make the hottest peppers imaginable and one up each other in terms of heat? Noah: To be honest, I mostly think it's awesome that people are showing so much enthusiasm for a vegetable in the first place, but I'm way more interested in adding to the breadth of produce in the marketplace than all the YouTube hype.
Patrick: I think it is pretty pointless. We should be looking for flavor, and availability, and shelf-life, not just heat for heat's sake.
Noah, you've already found notoriety in popularizing the shisito pepper—another mild pepper. Do you think this pepper will be another hit? Noah: I think it will be a huge hit. The pepper category in both hot and mild flavors has been growing a lot in the past year. I've found that people are looking for unique flavors in vegetables more than anything else. People are tired of the old bell pepper, and they want new experiences.
Who do you think this pepper would appeal to? And why would someone who does like spicy food want to give this pepper a try? Noah: I'm not particularly interested in trying to cater to a spicy or mild preference, but more to people who want an interesting flavor. And that flavor is actually pretty weird and complicated because it really does make your mind do a flip of sorts. The first time I tasted the Sweet Habanero, I realized I'd never actually tasted a habanero in the first place, because I'd been to distracted by the heat of the thing. I think it adds a completely new dynamic to a dish than the other peppers chefs have access to. It also comes at a fairly reasonable price point, compared to other high-end items that seem to make a dish, so chefs feel more inclined to experiment.
Which chefs have championed it so far? Noah: I know Dan Barber at Blue Hill talks a lot about the pepper, but seeing it pop up more and more on some of my favorite younger menus around New York is the most exciting part for me.
Any other heatless peppers in your future? A heatless ghost pepper perhaps? Noah: [Laughs] Maybe? We have a lot of different varieties on trial, so who knows!
Patrick: The heatless habanero is just one of many, many peppers vying for position in a market that is only getting hotter every day.
Pun intended? Thanks for talking with us.