Competitive eating: ‘Randy squeezes his chips into paste, then gulps it down’
The American ‘sport’ of competitive eating came to Newbridge, Co Kildare, recently. It wasn’t a meal, it was a bloodbath
He’s cruising now. On the PA system, the DJ is playing Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA.
By the 10-minute mark, Santel has devoured three of his six steaks. McDermott, meanwhile, is still labouring over his first (and savouring more of the ambience than I would guess is traditional for competitors in this sport.)
On the PA system, the DJ belts out You’ll Never Beat the Irish and the crowd join in. I’m not sure I’ve never heard the song performed as ironically – and I was at Euro 2012.
Both contestants are now sweating profusely under the lights. Santel in particular is hacking and sneezing into a napkin. This is the part you don’t see on Man v Food. Virtually every spectator present is filming the spectacle on their mobile phones. But frankly, I can’t imagine wanting to sit through it again.
Finally, Santel throws down his cutlery and holds up his stainless steel plate for the cameras. Nothing remains on it but tiny meat particles, hacked into lint, while a small stream of red drips down on to the table below. This wasn’t a meal, this was a bloodbath.
After posing for photographs, Santel repairs to the front of the bar for a drink. His college football career was looking promising, he tells me, until injury ended any hopes of turning professional.
As a lineman, he had weighed 25 stone. In retirement he dropped down to 15 stone, winning Men’s Health magazine’s National Body Transformation contest in the process. While out celebrating, he and a friend polished off a 28-inch pizza in St Louis, Missouri, and pocketed $500 for their troubles.
Out of work and out of options, Randy Santel saw a new calling. He has since won 142 contests in his native country and tonight was the first night of a whistle-stop European tour, in which he will compete another 30 times in 44 days.
Everybody hurts sometimes
We head back to the bar, where REM’s Everybody Hurts is now playing on the PA. Less than five minutes of the hour are remaining, and McDermott still has two full steaks and a bowl of chips left to go.
(“Come on Dermot,” says the DJ, encouragingly. “There’s no shame in letting eeeeverybody down.”)
I talk to Santel’s sister Shelley, who is accompanying him on the trip. Her opinion of competitive eating as a sport, I would guess, is not very different from my own. But she loves her brother and she can see how much this means to him.
After signing an autograph for a young fan, Santel rejoins us. His niche, as he sees it, is the type of food challenge popularised by the success of the TV show Man v Food. “That got people interested,” he says. “Then the guy just quit. So basically, my plan is to take over that market.”
Adam Richman stepped down from Man V Food after three series, reporting that weight gain had left him depressed, and lamenting the public perception of him as a “human Dyson”. Does that really sound like Santel’s dream job?
“The food challenges are to get my resumé going,” he admits. “Then I’ll turn to the promotions side. That’s where the money is: helping restaurants find new ways to market themselves.”
“What I’m doing right now isn’t healthy, I know that. But I exercise every day. So the aim is to stay as healthy as I can for as long as I’m doing it.”