It's lunch on training day for Patrick Mitchell.
For this meal, Mitchell will eat:
- Five bowls of soup.
- A plate of vegetables, topped with a mound of tripe.
- A heaping plate of broccoli, chicken and shrimp.
- Three pitchers of Diet Coke and a pitcher of water.
- Two plates piled high with meat and fish and more chicken.
- A plate of egg rolls.
- A plate of sweet-and-sour chicken.
- A plate of steamed dumplings.
- A plate of rice and mac and cheese.
- A plate of typical Chinese-buffet fare.
- A plate of rolls.
- A plate of fruit and two jumbo bowls of pudding for dessert.
Along the way, he will also consume large bowls of gravy, duck sauce and ketchup, as well as a 20-ounce glass of white sugar.
And three bowls of melted margarine. Melted margarine, you see, helps make everything go down easier.
Mitchell, standing 5-foot-7 and 135 pounds, is a competitive eater. And if Richmond had a Clean Plate Club, the South Sider would be its president for life.
Many napkins will die this day.
Helpful competitive-eating tip No. 1: Don't participate in jalapeño-eating contests, or any contest involving fiery food. There's hell to pay later. Oddly enough, the same applies to pickles.
"I hate pickles," says Mitchell.
Mitchell, 29, follows a strict training regimen during contest season, which generally runs from early April to late September. He eats only every other day, but his one meal — lunch — consists of pretty much everything that isn't nailed down. His training site of choice is Super King Buffet, a Chinese restaurant on West Broad Street. He used to chow down at an all-you-can-eat pizzeria, but he wore out his welcome there, for obvious reasons.
If Mitchell were a tornado, a pizza buffet would be a trailer park.
The folks at Super King welcome him, as long as he doesn't eat too much of the expensive stuff. So Mitchell stays away from the sushi, even though that's his favorite food. And if the servers point out some rice or noodles that are drying out and past their prime, Mitchell is more than happy to make it all disappear.
He'll drink a bowl of soup in five seconds. Using a spoon would take too long. The same goes for forks — pretty much everything becomes finger food.
As he eats, Mitchell constantly seasons his food with salt, pepper and soy sauce.
"I do try to enjoy it somewhat," he says.
Helpful competitive-eating tip No. 2: Lots of liquids make the food go down. Famous competitive eater Takeru Kobayashi, who regularly eats 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes, ingests so much water during events, Mitchell says, "that he's pretty much drinking the hot dogs."
So how does this work, eating without gaining weight? For starters, Mitchell is blessed with a high metabolism. He exercises every day. He runs a lot. He played basketball at James River High School and continues to play roundball as often as he can.
His build — slim as a rifle, with so little body fat that his skin is paper-thin — is typical of the best competitive eaters. A top competitive eater has no excess belly fat to restrict his stomach's expansion as he chows down. The 300-pound guys, it seems, can eat only so much before they max out. They're built for speed eating, not volume.
Mitchell doesn't like competing against large men. He worries that "they're going to drop to the floor."
When Mitchell is in training, a typical eating session takes two to three hours. After that, it's two or three hours of nappy time — the eating makes him so sleepy, he has trouble driving home.
By the way, there's a name for folks who professionally consume vast quantities — they're called gurgitators. "I don't care for that word," says Mitchell.
Helpful competitive-eating tip No. 3: If it's a speed-eating contest, you don't want any family or friends in the audience. The mess involved in speed eating, says Mitchell, "can look pretty bad."
These competitions have time limits — usually eight, 12 or 15 minutes — as opposed to the contests where you simply eat until you can't eat anymore.
"I don't like speed-eating contests, and I avoid them when I can," Mitchell says. He makes exceptions for speed events with particularly good prize money.
Last year, Mitchell took part in some 25 contests, earning a total of about $25,000. In his other life, Mitchell is working on his master's degree in economics at Virginia Commonwealth University. Until recently, he did a lot of day-trading, but like everyone else, he lost money — about $150,000 — in the stock market last year. He has some rental properties and a small catering business for which he works as the chef. As for girlfriends, he says, "My lifestyle is not conducive to a steady commitment."
Is he wrecking his health? No sir, he insists. He sees a doctor a couple of times a week ("I'm his experiment") to have his vital signs checked. His cholesterol, he says, is "outstanding." And his metabolism "is higher than it's ever been."
"At some point when you're eating like this, your body kicks into overdrive."
Helpful competitive-eating tip No. 4: Hide during training. You can't get any serious gluttony in if people are coming over to ask what the heck it is you're doing, so Mitchell sits in a corner of the restaurant and uses an old chef's jacket to build a little wall on his table. From across the room, it looks like he's eating at a table where they're stacking dirty linens and dishes. He keeps his baseball cap pulled low and his head down. The members of the wait staff are his willing accomplices.
Competitive eating has been around for a long time — think pie-eating contests at the county fair — but its status as a big-time sport is a relatively recent development. Two brothers formed the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE) in 1997, which has since hosted such events as the annual Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest. Japan's Kobayashi became the sport's first true celebrity when he ate 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes during a Nathan's competition, giving new meaning to the phrase "fast food."
The Nathan's event, which dates back to 1916, remains one of the sport's top draws, but these days, there are competitions everywhere, sanctioned and otherwise. The IFOCE hosted about 35 events last year, and that number doesn't include the numerous "qualifier" competitions for the majors. Total prize amounts range from $35,000 for eating Krystal burgers down to nothing more than "eternal glory" for eating cannolis.
For years, Kobayashi was pretty much the king of all things consumed — including 20 pounds of rice balls in 30 minutes — until he was finally bested in a Nathan's contest by Californian Joey Chestnut in 2007. Chestnut is now the man to beat when you eat — in February, he downed 10 1/2 pounds of macaroni and cheese in seven minutes.
Virginia's claim to fame in the realm of sanctioned Hoovering is Alexandria's Sonya Thomas, aka "The Black Widow." Thomas, who weighs about 100 pounds, is the undisputed Queen of Quick Cuisine. She's famous for such feats as eating 173 chicken wings in 12 minutes. She holds the current record for baked beans. If she went up against Cool Hand Luke in a hard-boiled-egg-eating contest, Luke would lose by 15 eggs. Word.
Thomas holds the current records for a couple of particularly unsavory foods. She once ate nearly five pounds of fruitcake — a lifetime supply for most of us — in 10 minutes. She ate 8.62 pounds of sweet-potato casserole (pause, if you must, to shudder) in 11 minutes at the North Carolina State Fair in 2004.
Competitive eaters, it seems, will shove down just about anything. Some other eating records that you don't want to think too much about:
- Seven quarter-pound sticks of salted butter in five minutes.
- One and a half gallons of chili in 10 minutes.
- Kobayashi's 17.7 pounds of cow brains in 15 minutes.
- Forty-nine glazed doughnuts in eight minutes.
- Forty-seven cream-filled doughnuts in five minutes.
- Twenty-one pounds of grits in 10 minutes.
- Four 32-ounce bowls of mayonnaise in eight minutes.
You get the picture.
Mitchell blanches at the mention of the mayonnaise record. This man, who once ate six pounds of raw squid in a sitting, can't imagine eating mayonnaise. We all have our limits, it seems.
Helpful competitive-eating tip No. 5: Don't barf. If you upchuck, yak, blow or make street pizza during a competition, you're disqualified. That would be the same as cheating.
"That's what makes competitive eating so hard," says Mitchell. "You have to learn how to keep it down — you have to train to build up a tolerance to it. It's dangerous. When I was starting out, I almost choked a couple of times."
Choking seems almost unavoidable, considering the speed at which competitive eaters work. Mitchell concedes that when he's in training, "I'll chew my food, but about an hour into it, with rolls and rice, I'll just start swallowing."
The old "Don't try this at home" warning is more than just a cliché with the sport's governing body: "The IFOCE is against at-home training of any kind," reads a statement at the organization's Web site. "The IFOCE strongly discourages younger individuals from eating for speed or quantity under any circumstances. The IFOCE urges all interested parties to become involved in sanctioned events — do not try speed eating [at] home."
Helpful competitive-eating tip No. 6: Know thine enemy.
Pickled fish sounded innocent enough, but that was not the case. "It's called lutefisk," Mitchell says. "It's made with lye. The contest was in Minnesota, and the fish was awful — I had to douse it with butter."
Lutefisk and hot peppers aside, Mitchell can gorge on most any food. Eggs are easy — he's eaten them a few different ways in competition: hard-boiled, scrambled and in omelets. And he's a whiz with breakfast cereals, winning two cereal-eating contests.
His first-ever event was six years ago, when his friends goaded him into entering an untimed chicken-wing competition. He won the contest, eating 150 wings.
"I already knew I could eat a lot," he says. "I killed everybody."
That first year, he won nine more events. But that was around the time that the sport really became popular. The competition has become so intense that Mitchell has averaged only five wins a year since.
"It's getting crazy," he says.
Helpful competitive eating tip No. 7: Stay humble. In February, Mitchell entered an oyster-eating contest near Norfolk, fully expecting to win. "I went in a little too cocky," he says. The result: "A girl beat me." He ate 14 dozen oysters; she ate 18 dozen.
"I also had to deal with all that iron and magnesium in the oysters," he says. "You have to drink a lot of milk."
Helpful competitive eating tip No. 8: Know thyself. Here's where it gets weird. Mitchell doesn't really take pride in his eating accomplishments. For the most part, he'd prefer not to talk about it.
"If I was a professional basketball player, I'd be telling everybody," he says. "But this is not my passion. I'm embarrassed about it. It's not something to brag about."
Other competitive eaters are making a living at it, achieving a kind of low-tier celebrity. Mitchell wants no part of that. He won't promote himself, doesn't have a Web site and doesn't go after sponsors.
"But strangely enough, girls seem to like it," he says. "They're attracted to a guy stuffing food in his face. That's just absurd."
Mitchell says there's "no question — no question" that he could make a living off his eating. But he finds such a notion to be ridiculous.
So why does he do it at all?
"There's the money, of course," he says, before adding, "And there's no getting around it: I'm competitive."