Despite the overcast skies and chilly 43-degree weather, the energy at Papa Pancho -- a pizzeria that combines Italian brick oven-style pies with Indian ingredients in Edison, New Jersey -- is at a fever pitch.
All morning, the production crew of the hit Travel Channel series Man v. Food has been building anticipation to that day’s food challenge: to consume one pizza pie covered with four types of hot peppers -- jalapenos, red Thai chilies, green Indian chilies and orange ghost peppers -- and a ghost chili sauce in 10 minutes or less. It's a feat, according to the restaurant, that’s only been completed one time before. In order to take part in the challenge, competitors must sign a liability waiver agreeing not to hold Papa Pancho liable for any physical or emotional damage before attempting to eat all eight slices in one sitting.
This is the show, after all, on which host Casey Webb -- back for a third season after taking over from Adam Richman when the series was revived in 2017 -- submits himself to the most insane food challenges as he travels from city to city to explore the culture and unique tastes of the United States. While he says he is competitive and likes to eat, ultimately, it’s all about “traveling to a city and meeting folks and trying their food for the first time,” he says.
The new season, premiering Monday, May 28, sees Webb returning to his home of the Jersey Shore, which has both the host and producers in high spirits about reuniting with friends and family. The sunny weekend leading up to the spicy pizza challenge has seen Webb enjoy time outdoors as he’s filmed around the New Jersey area, including a stop at Bahrs Landing in Highlands to check out the 100-year-old institution’s 6-pound crabmeat-stuffed lobster and taking in a game of miniature golf in Leonardo.
By Sunday, on an unseasonably cold day in April, however, production has been forced inside to avoid the impending rain. But the weather hasn’t dampened any spirits, especially series producer Bonnie Biggs, who keeps the energy and anticipation up as the crew spends the morning prepping for the challenge. There’s filming of the pizza in its many stages of prep -- Raj, one of the pizza chefs, in the kitchen layering on all the ingredients; beauty shots of complete pies in front of the restaurant’s flaming brick oven -- and plenty of chatter about whether Webb can do it. The consensus is largely yes -- and these guys would know, having filmed with him all season.
Webb, who has incorporated dried ghost pepper into his diet leading up to today’s challenge, arrives a few hours into the shoot. He seems nonplussed about the challenge to come later despite the fact that none of the restaurant’s employees have completed it. In fact, Raj has only managed one slice.
Once on set, Webb starts filming with the employees -- capturing the story of the restaurant and its distinct Indian flavors -- before sitting down with locals to talk about the pizza challenge. The host, who is a self-taught chef and actor, easily chats up the customers, including a number of kids and teenagers. His Hawaiian-print shirt and silly personality -- which is reminiscent of the Ghost of Christmas Present from The Muppet Christmas Carol -- puts everybody at ease. At one point, he’s behind the counter filming pizza dough landing on his face -- footage the crew calls “sillies.”
But for all the fun Webb has brought to the set, there’s still a food challenge to complete -- and this is when the show ramps in high gear.
The key to understanding how Man v. Food is shot is that once it’s challenge time, it’s like a live sporting event. Everything has to be in place, because once the timer starts, there’s no stopping until time runs out or Webb finishes the challenge at hand. In this case, the small dining area of Papa Pancho is cleared out aside from one table and one chair. The surrounding space is filled with locals, including Webb’s brother, who have come to watch him eat. An EMT is ushered into the corner, in case Webb has an emergency -- any number of things could happen, including respiratory problems or an allergic reaction, the medic says. Biggs and the director get the crowd ramped up. And after filming some entrances and banter with the restaurant’s owner, it’s challenge time.
With a fresh spicy pizza in front of Webb, the timer starts and the crowd erupts. The first couple of slices go down fine, with only a hint of pain by the third slice. The cheering intensifies. It’s while eating the fifth that Webb’s face turns beet red and his pace slows down. His eyes are watering and there’s lots of grimacing. But, somehow, he makes it to the final slice, triumphantly standing as he takes it all down. With a loud groan of pain and a fist pump in the air -- to the elation of the crowd -- he’s finished with two seconds to spare. While watching people eat is not an everyday pastime, it was impressive witnessing Webb take down this pizza while still mugging to the camera, seemingly unfazed by the endless screams of support less than a foot behind him.
After disappearing for a few minutes after the challenge, Webb triumphantly returns to the restaurant to take pictures with the employees and fans. There’s a huge smile on his face and little sign that he’s just inflicted all that pain on his body. There’s even a rush of relief and excitement among the crew as they start breaking things down and cleaning up. Will any of them try the pizza? No -- most of them aren’t interested (or aren't stupid enough).
Later, I was offered the opportunity to take the challenge. A Travel Channel executive and the show’s publicist joined me for the effort, but I could only manage a slice -- despite loving spicy food, the pain was too much. How Webb could do it is beyond me.
Man v. Food airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on the Travel Channel.