If “Hot Ones” and “No Reservations” Had a Baby, It’d Be “Heat Eaters”

Chef Esther Choi is on a mission to eat her way through the world's spiciest cuisines

July 25, 2023 7:26 am
Chef Esther Choi
Chef Esther Choi is the star of the new First We Feast show.
First We Feast

Esther Choi is a Korean-American chef from South Jersey who’s been a regular on food TV in recent years, appearing on the Netflix series Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend as well as Chopped and Beat Bobby Flay on the Food Network. She’s also had her own casual Korean restaurant, Mökbar, in NYC’s Chelsea Market since 2014 and recently cut the ribbon on her Lower East Side cocktail bar Ms. Yoo. And now, she’s set to host “Heat Eaters,”the first spin-off of First We Feast’s massively popular Hot Ones, which recently released its 300th episode of celebrities being interviewed while suffering through increasingly hot wings.

Dropping every Monday on YouTube, Heat Eaters follows Choi as she embarks on a countrywide spice crawl with dining companions including super chef Bobby Flay, Jet Tila and Justin Pichetrungsi, Hot Ones host Sean Evans, hot sauce expert Noah Chaimberg, taco scholar Bill Esparza and singer Justine Skye. The lineup of guests is eclectic, as is the list of spots they visit and the varieties of cuisine they consume, which include Korean, Chinese, Mexican, Thai and Caribbean. A blend of Hot Ones and Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, Choi’s show could easily have been called Woman V. Spicy Food had that title not bordered on copyright infringement. Either way, Heat Eaters definitely works.

“When they approached me about this show, I thought I was definitely the perfect person for it because I’m just obsessed with spicy food in general. It’s in pretty much every meal that I have,” Choi tells InsideHook. “I think it comes from my background growing up in a Korean American household eating spicy food. We did not skimp out on the spice. Korean food packs a punch and there’s a lot of heat in a lot of the dishes. Now I’m so completely addicted I can’t eat a meal without some sort of spice in it, whether it’s hot sauce or pickled chilis or kimchi or even just raw chiles.”

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We caught up with Choi to talk about Heat Eaters and hear more about her relationship with spicy food..

InsideHook: As a lifelong spice eater, have you seen your tolerance for heat increase over the years?

Esther Choi: Generally speaking, I can pretty much handle anything. I have a very crazy spice tolerance, but if I eat something like a ghost pepper it’s still going to be very spicy and effective. When I’m eating it, I’ll be sweating. But I will still take as much heat as possible. Now that I’m getting older, my body sometimes reacts a bit differently. If you don’t really have a spice tolerance, it’s the buildup of training your body to get used to the heat. I always say if you have an open mind and an open spirit, you can always tolerate spicy food. But building that tolerance will take time and you’re not gonna go from zero to 100, If you train yourself to build up that tolerance, it definitely works.

IH: Do you have a favorite hot food or type of spice? 

EC: That’s kind of like choosing between your favorite children. Korean food is my favorite cuisine to eat, but it is never that crazy to where you’re tearing up. If I wanna feel that type of heat, I love mala hotpot. It’s something that I consistently crave. The numbing sensation [from Sichuan peppercorns] gives a different quality of spice that makes it addictive and makes me think about it because I’m not eating it on a regular basis. The heat is very interesting and it’s still new to me. It’s such a cool sensation. It’s the type of sensation I love.

IH: Prior to shooting the show, did you seek out any advice about hosting?

EC: I definitely talked to Sean [Evans] about it. He gave me the rundown of how it is with the spicy food and what you should do. Everyone has their own advice on how to handle spicy food. I feel like everyone handles it their own way, but it’s fun to get insight and advice on it. I feel like I’m doing it in my own way.

IH: Is it easier to interview someone after you’ve both just ingested something really spicy?

EC: I feel like it’s a bonding experience between two people. There needs to be a little bit of suffering to experience pleasure. For me, it’s definitely that way. When you go through an extreme experience together, you end up getting closer. I really believe that. You break a lot of barriers and then you can really get into real conversations and bond. I feel like that’s why Hot Ones is so successful. They’re bonding over suffering together. I’ve definitely been experiencing the same thing on my show. I’ve had guests I’ve never met before and it can be awkward because you meet and then you’re on camera together. But when you start eating spicy food and sweating and laughing at each other, it breaks the ice and then there can be a more relaxing, open conversation. And it’s over spicy food.

IH: Have you ever eaten anything so spicy that you wouldn’t eat it again?

EC: It’s rare, but I ate Da Bomb on the Hot Ones, the sauce that makes everyone want to die, and I don’t ever want to eat that again. It’s the worst. It’s so painful, I was actually in shock. It’s freaking real. The tears just automatically come out. It’s that bad. I was a little shocked. I didn’t realize it was that level of crazy spiciness.

IH: What would your advice be to people who don’t like spicy food?”

EC: I think you have to have a bit of an open mind. Spice doesn’t always have to be so spicy that it’s hurting you. Spice can add flavor and I think it’s very necessary to have that balance with sweetness. Spice brings out all the other flavor profiles like acidity or salt. People should keep an open mind and try it out. There are different spice levels and you can build up your tolerance to it if you’re missing out and you don’t eat spicy food. It’s definitely a lifestyle. I need my spicy food. I get sick of food really easily if it doesn’t have some sort of spice added to it.


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