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Contents May Be Hot: Chef Cooks With World's Spiciest Peppers

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The chocolate naga is one of the hot peppers Chef Tom Elder grows in his organic garden. It's in a cage to keep away the deer, who love munching on the leaves and stems.
Rebecca Sheir
The chocolate naga is one of the hot peppers Chef Tom Elder grows in his organic garden. It's in a cage to keep away the deer, who love munching on the leaves and stems.

An organic garden in Northern Virginia is now home to half a dozen of the world's hottest peppers, thanks to the executive chef at a new restaurant in Tysons Corner.

As any devoted spice-phile will tell you, the world's hottest pepper is the ghost chili. Tom Elder, executive chef at härth, is more than familiar with them; he's growing the fiery fruits and serving them in various dishes on his menu.

"When we first started reading up on the ghost chili, they had articles on it, and said, 'The heat of the ghost chili is similar to drinking battery acid with shards of glass,'" he says. "Like, that's the descriptive that we had. It's like, 'What?'"

The chef, who helped open the new American cuisine spot in Tysons a few months ago, says the peppers have been a hit at härth, especially among people who crave the endorphin rush brought on by super spice.

härth is in the Hilton McLean hotel, and Elder grows fresh produce and herbs for the restaurant in an organic garden behind the restaurant. As you approach the ghost pepper plants, "Caution" signs act as a sentry.

"Only the chef should touch these peppers. All of the peppers in our garden have the potential to cause pain and/or discomfort upon contact," the signs read.

Or, more simply, as Elder says with a laugh: "You've gotta be careful."

Here's why. You measure the hotness of peppers using the "Scoville scale" - named for American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville. The more Scoville units something has, the more heat it packs.

If you measure the ghost chili, it registers right around 1 million Scoville units. To give you an idea of what that means, a jalapeño is only 4,500.

Elder's other hot peppers include Trinidad scorpions and devil's tongues, (around 800,000 on the Scoville scale), bishop's crowns (roughly 700,000), and several types of habaneros (anywhere from 400,000 to 600,000).

Peppers grace various menu items at härth, from soups, to ketchup, to a new work in progress, a hot pepper marmalade. A key ingredient in the recipe is another of the chef's labors of love: honey.

Elder has four beehives on the restaurant's roof, each of which can house up to 200,000 bees. And it's been a good summer to get into the honey game. "Bees produce the most honey, and are the most active, the hotter the weather is," Elder says. "My friend out in California calls me, and he gets mad because he sees we have these 90-, 100-degree days, and he's like, 'You're making honey! I'm jealous! I can't believe it!'"

There's another benefit to the beehives on the roof; the honey acts as an excellent chaser for a taste of ghost chili paste -- which, incidentally, does taste like pure fire.

It doesn't phase Elder, however, who downs the stuff by the spoonful.


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