It’s little wonder Shani Farboud is in such a good mood.
The “Chili Wizard” of Cobble Hill’s Fat Chili Farm is surrounded by the key to happiness.
“They say people who like spicy stuff are happy people,” Farboud says, with a laugh. “That’s why I’m a really happy guy.”
Farboud says you can get a high from eating chili peppers — not in your mind, like certain substances provide, but a “body high.” Researchers from Northwestern University say it’s a release of dopamine comparable to a “runner’s high.”
Farboud has been growing chilis and turning them into delicious and complex sauces for the last eight years. A chef by trade, he wanted to be a full-time farmer when he and his family moved to Canada after spending the previous decade in China, where he ran a soccer club and a restaurant.
The family enjoys spicy food, so they started growing chilis for their own use. Shani’s oldest son, Avasta, a 12-year-old at the time with an entrepreneurial spirit, persuaded them to set up a market stall, and the rest is history.
“I would describe it as a hobby that got out of control,” says Shani’s wife, Penny.
“It kind of took off, to our surprise,” Shani explains. “It became a business, and now it’s my main business.”
Before they lived in China, the Farbouds lived in the U.K., where Penny is from. Shani is Persian, but grew up in six different countries, all of which inform his cooking.
The Farbouds usually have 2,000 to 2,500 plants each growing season, with over 30 different kinds of peppers, including the current four hottest in the world.
“Mostly, we concentrate on the really, really hot ones,” Shani relates. “It took us a few years just to figure out how to grow the really hot guys. They’re sensitive to moisture and heat.”
They include the Carolina reaper, believed to be the hottest in the world — for now — at over 1.5 million units on the Scoville scale, and the chocolate scorpion, which could be as much as 2.2 million Scoville units.
The Farbouds grow all their peppers from seed each year, the only economic way to do it in this climate.
“Chilis are perennials,” Penny notes. “But the heat cost of over-wintering is too much. We tried it one year. It’s not worth it.”
Everything is processed into hot sauce in a commercial kitchen on the farm, and sold at farmers markets in Duncan and Nanaimo. Farboud has taken his products to other markets in the past, but is limiting it to just the two this year because of a particularly short growing season. Last year, they picked between 1,200 and 1,400 pounds of peppers. This year, Shani says, they will be lucky if they can harvest 700 pounds.
Picking the peppers is one of the biggest hazards of the job, especially if the picker happens to absentmindedly rub their eyes.
“You learn to handle them lightly,” Penny says, wincing. “You have to be careful with them.”
Besides growing all the peppers themselves, the Farbouds try to source all their ingredients locally. The rare things they have to get from elsewhere include saffron and mangoes, which, so far, at least, can’t or haven’t been grown on Vancouver Island.
Peanuts from Saltspring Island go into a peanut butter, which happens to be the mildest of Fat Chili’s 30-plus products, with a two-chili rating on a scale that goes up to six.
“We give everything a heat level, but it’s so personal,” Penny notes. “People are wired differently. About two per cent of the population doesn’t feel heat from anything.”
For the Farbouds, that latter group includes an eight-year-old regular customer who will eat anything without hesitation. Shani cautions buyers to go light with the sauce, at first especially.
“I tell the customers, always go with less,” he says. “You can always add more.”
In addition to providing the shot of dopamine mentioned earlier, chilis have other health benefits. Capsaicinoids in chilis have anti-inflammatory properties, which are believed to help ease the pain of arthritis. Shani also says he hasn’t been sick in years, and neither have his kids.
“Lots and lots of people come to us for health reasons,” he says.
Fat Chili products contain zero sugars and zero oil. If they are sweetened, Shani says, it is with local honey or fruit. They don’t use any chemicals in their farming, although they are not certified organic.
“I tell my customers it is organically grown,” Shani notes.
At $10-$12 for a bottle, Shani admits his sauces are “a little pricey.”
“Yes, it’s expensive,” he volunteers. “But as soon as people try it and look at the ingredients, they know why it’s expensive.”
Last year, Fat Chili sold over 10,000 bottles of Wizard’s Choice, their most popular hot sauce, which is made with Shani’s favourite pepper, the yellow mushroom, a cultivar of the Jamaican habanero.
Although customers have come to Vancouver Island just to visit the farm and try Fat Chili products, Shani can’t imagine making his sauces available anywhere beyond the few markets where he currently sells them.
“I don’t have the energy to get bigger,” he says. “It’s just a hobby. Every year it gets bigger and bigger. It’s quite scary, actually, because I do everything myself.”
“I love it. I absolutely love it. I love food. I love spicy stuff. I’m my own boss. Nobody bugs me. I do whatever I want.”
For more information, visit www.fatchilifarm.com