The bearer walks in to cheers and groans. Flags flutter from the burden she carries.
My fellow competitors and I share a look of mixed anticipation and desperation.
“We,” I say, “are definitely screwed.”
Today, I’m a gladiator, and my enemy is two kilograms of burger, bun, bacon and cheese. And I am totally screwed.
Food competitions are not my thing. I’ve never gotten the idea of competitive eating, preferring to enjoy the taste of my food rather than having to purge it all back up. It seems a waste, and frankly unpleasant to endure. So naturally when Word’s publisher asked me if I wanted to do the Pullman Hotel’s challenge at their new pop-up Burger Bar, I said yes immediately. Why else work at a magazine if not to do stuff outside your comfort zone?
The Fight of My Life
Once I’ve accepted, I’m unsure how to proceed, and I spend an instructive several days researching how to stretch one’s stomach, open one’s throat, and cram potentially fatal amounts of food down the latter and into the former. I discover “Prince” Kobayashi Takeru, the skinny little Japanese rock-star of global eating contests, who once put away 62 slices of pizza in 12 minutes. He embodies the Japanese national spirit of taking things way too far, but I study his technique and expand my stomach with water and my mind with gruelling YouTube sessions.
The day arrives. I show up at the Pullman, and meet the other competitors, each hopeful of earning a year’s worth of free burgers. There are two other expats — one an American, the other an MMA fighter who has been in Vietnam for all of two weeks — and one chubby Vietnamese guy who doesn’t speak English.
We chat nervously until The Moment. After that, it’s all business.
2 Kilos of Heaven
Let’s get something out of the way: the burger is excellent in every respect. It’s a kilo of prime Wagyu beef, juicy and rich, with 250 grams each of crispy bacon and sharp, melted cheddar, with lettuce, tomato and bun making up the rest. Were it a normal size, I’d have happily chowed the whole thing down. But the sheer mass intimidates me. It looks as big as a hubcap.
However, this is for a noble purpose, so I get to work.
At first, I shovel away, but quickly flag. The Vietnamese guy slows drastically, too, the only one to do worse than I. Beef flies into the mouth of the other American at an amazing clip. The MMA fighter works his burger with fork and knife.
I quickly run into a problem of mechanics. I simply can’t chew and swallow fast enough. Used to long, luxurious meals, my jaw muscles are clearly not up to the task. My pace slows.
We soon gather a crowd. A middle-aged Indian fellow starts taking bets. I get terrible odds, partly because I waste time and jaw-power bantering with him.
Six minutes in, I realize there’s no way on Earth I will win. Being fully accurate, I realised that the moment I signed up, but I retained the faintest spark of hope I’d get out with my pride intact.
At a generous estimate, I manage about 400 grams, mostly beef and cheese. I barely touch the bacon, hewn from the belly of a mighty swine. The bun is a mountain of carbs, the cheese a heart-stopping mass of warm, melted cheddar. The patty is a wheel of Wagyu beef the size, as I said, of a monster truck’s hubcap, and for all my massive bites and frantic chewing, I’ve done barely a fifth of it.
The lettuce, though: I eat all the lettuce, because I will not be beaten by a vegetable (the unfinished mound of tomatoes are technically fruits. Take that, doubters.)
A Victor Emerges
But the other American — he does it. I’m stunned and proud; I feel honoured to stand in the same room as Mr. Charles Raezer, who ate 2,000 grams of food in 32.5 minutes. Raezer, a longtime Ho Chi Minh City resident, didn’t train. He simply didn’t eat for 24 hours before, and then managed to push through the pain.
The crowd cheers. I see men shaking hands, women crying and hugging. The Pullman staff salute Charles, who not only wins a free burger a month for the next year, but also doesn’t have to pay one million dong for the burger like us losers.
He shakes the hand of the Pullman Hotel’s managers; marketing, assistant, the main man himself. I watch and occasionally take cruddy pictures on my phone.
I notice the MMA guy is still picking at his food long after the competition ends. He seems to be enjoying himself.
My burger is still there, mocking me with how much is left.
“Hey,” says the MMA fighter. “Can I take your bacon?” Since I can’t imagine ever eating again, I allow him to stuff all 250 grams into a doggie bag and saunter off. He looks happy.
Competitive eating is not for the faint nor unhealthy of heart, and I’m not likely to ever venture into it again, but I’ve learnt something from the experience. It is this: I cannot eat two kilos of food in 30 minutes, not even such a fantastic burger. Not even with training.
Kobayashi-san would be so disappointed, but at least I’m not in the Darwin Awards. And yes, I loved every bite.
Think you can do better? The challenge is ongoing and you can also check out the Burger Bar’s massive array of burgers on the ground floor of the Pullman Hotel, 148 Tran Hung Dao, Q1, HCMC. The challenge costs VND999,000 unless you finish the burger in less than 30 minutes. Then it’s free of charge