You probably remember Marc Fennell as ‘That. Movie. Guy.’ from triple j, a title he held for 11 years at the national youth broadcaster. You may know him as the face of The Feed on SBS, or as one of Australia’s more seasoned interviewers.
You might not know him as a chilli addict, but it’s this tiny aspect of Fennell’s life that has spawned Audible’s first Aussie podcast, It Burns: The Scandal-Plagued Race To Breed The World’s Hottest Chilli.
And believe me when I say that the premise of this podcast is a whole lot spicier than it seems on the surface.
“I was raised on chilli — my mum’s from Singapore, she’s Indian and as a kid we used to have chilli-offs,” says Fennell. “I’ve always loved chillis. And then a little while ago I got stuck in a YouTube vortex of watching professional chilli eaters, which is just the most wild and alarming thing you’ve ever seen.”
“I realised that once upon a time, the world’s hottest chilli pepper was about two hours away from my house. I’m like, well, I’m gonna go see about that.”
So off Marc pops to Morrison in regional NSW, to meet up with two brothers responsible for breeding this tiny destroyer of tongues. It’s just the beginning of a journey into what he calls “a war filled with larger than life characters, sledging, broken friendships, getting high off extreme heat, addiction, BDSM, mental health, misguided spirituality and death threats.”
“These two brothers in Morrison, NSW, they’re lovely, they’re like this double act,” says Fennell, “and they casually dropped that they thought that their world record had pretty much been stolen. That the person that has the world record now, currently, didn’t deserve it. And so a little bit of my nationalism kicked in here; I’m like, hold on, were you cheated out of a world record?”
This is where It Burns starts off, before taking the listener along with Fennell to the US of A and around the world in search of others connected to the nasty fruit. “It’s absolutely wild — the level of like drama was way, way higher than I expected,” he says.
And thank goodness, because with the rise of long-form narrative podcasting and huge successes like Serial and S-Town, there’s clearly an audience starving for more crazy stories like this. It Burns uses the fuckedest lil’ fruit as an entry point into a deeper story, in much the same way that other foodie hits like Ugly Delicious and Chef’s Table have — but with far more loose units.
“There’s an incredible intimacy to long form audio podcasts … and what the audience is bringing to that is imagination,” says Marc. “You can take people to places where, you know, you would struggle to do so on an Australian TV budget. Technically in this series we take you all the way to the sixteenth century and then to a dominatrix parlour and then into Aztec torture tombs. And that’s all stuff that you can do in audio that you can’t do quite as easily in vision.”
Let’s unpack that last bit there a little.
Hurts So Good
“The dominatrix we spoke to is incredible.”
You don’t hear that in every interview.
In one of the most surprising examples of lateral thinking I can think of, Fennell ended up speaking to a sex worker in the business of dominating her clients and administering pain for their pleasure. All because of a couple spicy bois in his childhood meals.
“As much as it is a story about the world’s hottest chilli, it emerged that it’s really about pain because each of the main characters have this unusual relationship with pain — they either use pain to paste over an emotional trauma or they’re using pain to kind of access euphoria.”
Considering the Los Angeles dominatrix featured in It Burns also holds a PhD (grow up) in psychology, she’s undeniably an expert in well versed in “the transactional nature of pain and how it reshapes a person”. Was that something you expected from a foodie podcast? Fruit that fucks harder than Christian Grey?
With the sheer madness of the story, it’s no wonder Audible greenlighted It Burns faster than Fennell could blink. But it’s not the drama that keeps him or his audience hooked to their headphones. It’s the connection we all share through eating, even when eating vicious little spite-bulbs like chilli.
“Food is our number one most tangible connection to our history and our culture; it binds us to that story and it binds us together,” says Marc. “Food is at its greatest expression when it brings people together. That is why meals are important. Food isn’t just sustenance, it’s cultural, its social. Seeing people be torn apart by it reminded me of its incredible cohesive power throughout history.”
“This race to breed the world’s hottest chilli was actually tearing friendships and relationships apart.”
The takeaway is, that which binds us can also divide us. And that incredible, life-shaking passions can be aroused by something as simple as a tiny little pepper. I don’t normally put something this spicy in my ears, but this series is bringing the heat in a big way. Can you stomach it?
It Burns is available now from Audible.