UAE: From 'stretch meals' to gulping without chewing, top competitive eater reveals lesser-known facts about competitive eating

James Webb, who holds the world record of consuming 276 chicken wings in less than 12 minutes, on what it takes to be a 'professional eater' and why Dubai is the ideal place for food challenges

by

Somya Mehta

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Photo: Rahul Gajjar/Khaleej Times
Photo: Rahul Gajjar/Khaleej Times

Published: Tue 28 Nov 2023, 9:02 PM

Last updated: Wed 29 Nov 2023, 2:28 PM

As we enter Mr Brisket in Palm Jumeirah’s Golden Mile 4, we see a tall man with a body builder’s physique fixing his neatly-organised 5-camera set-up in the middle of the eatery. Gearing up for a brisket-eating challenge, we meet James Webb, the top-ranked competitive eater from Australia, coming fifth on the global list.

Boasting impressive achievements in the world of competitive eating, Webb currently holds the world records for consuming 276 chicken wings in just 12 minutes and devouring 59.5 donuts in a remarkable 8-minute display.

Going by the social media name of ‘J Webby Can Eat’, Webb has also secured a commendable third place in Nathan's Hotdog Eating Contest held in Coney Island, New York City, becoming the first Australian to give Americans a tough time when it comes to competitive eating.

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How it started

Like many people around the world who found or rekindled hobbies during the pandemic, James started creating food videos for entertainment, as a way to pass his time. Faced with lockdown restrictions in Australia, he found solace in his love for cooking and creating videos, which soon started creating a buzz online.

Though, his first real experience with a food competition took place during a chance outing for lunch at a local burger joint in Australia. “There was a photo on the wall that seemed photoshopped, with this gigantic burger. I didn’t know it was Australia's biggest burger. Curious, I asked about it, and the owner proudly shared, ‘That's my undefeated Burger Challenge. No one's ever conquered it. Fifty-five people have tried and failed miserably.’”

For a prize money of $550, Webb decided to partake in the challenge and to everyone's surprise, including his own, he managed to devour the massive burger in just 23 minutes. “The restaurant owner actually filmed the entire challenge for his Facebook page. After I finished, he sent the video to the local newspaper and they decided to share the story with the biggest news network in Australia. The news circulated for a week straight, with headlines stating, ‘Boy from Sydney conquers Australia's biggest burger’. And that's how it all began.”

What is competitive eating?

Considered a sport in the US, competitive eating is an activity in which participants, known as competitive or professional eaters, consume large quantities of food within a limited time frame. These competitions, also popular in places like Canada and Japan, are often held at events or festivals, attracting participants and spectators from around the world.

A couple of months into it, Webb decided to take the plunge and quit his day job to pursue competitive eating full-time. “Though I was not fully convinced, my wife said, ‘Well, what's the worst that can happen? You come back and find a new job.’” Leaving his full-time job in sales and marketing behind, Webb took off to the US for two weeks, where he not only competed in several food challenges but also returned with a professional contract. Becoming the first Australian to qualify for Coney Island and the world-renowned Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest, Webb realised he belonged to this world and he had to make his place in it.

“Initially, I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” says Webb. “Being in Coney Island is like the Super Bowl experience. They give you this cool uniform with your name on it. You board the athlete buses. ESPN is on the bus with us, with cameras everywhere. We arrive at Coney Island at 8:30am and the place is already packed,” says Webb. “There was a crowd of over 40,000 people cheering us on.”

Over the years, Webb has had many such exhilarating experiences, drawing large crowds in, as he devours one dish after another. Taking inspiration from the Korean practice of ‘Mukbang’, which refers to a popular trend where individuals consume large quantities of food while interacting with an online audience, Webb does regular live streams on his social media to take on food challenges with his virtual following, amassing thousands of views. “It’s also good promotion for the restaurant I’m eating at,” says Webb, who enjoys creating promotional content for restaurants, showcasing their menu items through his unique challenges.

How he trains for it

Preparing for competitive eating requires a combination of physical, mental, and strategic preparation, says Webb. “Stretching your stomach is crucial. Even when full, consuming water or fluids helps in expanding your stomach. I also do breathing exercises, a minimum of 20 minutes a day, every day,” he adds. “Over time, my stomach has stretched significantly, it’s now about five times its original size.”

The other aspect involves mastering the technique. “Efficiently removing chicken from the bone, for example, requires a practised approach. Grab the wing, pull down the chicken, toss it in the bucket, and move on to the next one. Speed is key,” says Webb. “There's no time to chew, so you use your teeth to crush the food, making it easier to swallow. Every few mouthfuls, I drink a small amount of fluid, such as water or diet coke, which helps me continue.”

Photo: Rahul Gajjar/Khaleej Times
Photo: Rahul Gajjar/Khaleej Times

For Webb, competitive eating is not always fun in the conventional sense, but it is the thrill of competition that keeps the champion going. “Consider a boxer, who’s an athlete with fitness prowess, a love for the sport and a competitive spirit. Getting punched in the face is an inherent part of a boxer’s life. It isn't going to be fun for him but he still loves to compete. In the same way, stuffing my face with obnoxious amounts of food isn’t always fun, it’s like being punched in the face, but the desire to win pushes me to endure the challenge,” says Webb, adding that top 10 competitive eaters worldwide come from a sporting background. “It’s all about having an athlete’s mindset.”

Is competitive eating sustainable? The potential health risks

It’s worth noting that there are health implications and potential risks associated with consuming large quantities of food in a short period. When asked how he maintains his physical fitness and health alongside consuming copious amounts of food, Webb responds, “I love body-building, I love looking good and I love staying fit but my current occupation involves creating food-related content. So, it’s like trying to lead two opposite lifestyles.”

However, being active, doing weight training, and staying consistent with his work-outs enables his body to work like an ‘efficient machine’, says Webb. “It’s still a work in progress but I’m trying to achieve a balance,” he adds. “During the contest season, I’ll be out and about, consuming all kinds of foods but once the season concludes, I shift my focus to adopting a more healthy-eating routine. A significant practice during this period is fasting, which helps to readjust my stomach back to a normal size,” says Webb, as he prepares himself to devour 20 sliders with a few pounds of brisket all under 10 minutes, with his live-stream on.

DUBAI: An ideal spot for competitive eating?

To see Webb in action, undertaking his food challenges, is to see a trained athlete going for the finish line with horse-blinders on. There’s no stopping him.

With this being one of his many food challenges in the city, he adds, “Dubai is the ideal place for competitive eating.” “There are so many food extremes here, such as a 10-kilo burger and a five-kilo burger, adding an extra layer of excitement to the competitive eating scene,” says Webb, who recently visited a viral cafe in Downtown Dubai, serving the world's largest croissant and coffee. “It was a 1.3-kilo croissant accompanied by a five-litre coffee. As a competitive eater, I immediately set my timer, started eating and completed the challenge in 12 minutes.”

Though there isn’t a lot of mainstream awareness around competitive eating in the UAE, Webb believes it’s an activity that can easily pick up here, witch has potential to go viral. “Last week, I was in Marina, doing a food challenge and nobody had any idea about what I was doing. I set up my cameras outside the food truck and in around 10 minutes, we had over 50 people gathering around to see what was happening,” he adds.

According to Webb, food ultimately serves as a great uniting force, bringing people and cultures together from all accross — and even more so in places such as the UAE. “I've gone on to try so many cuisines here. I've had Moroccan food, Egyptian food, Pakistani food, Indian food. There’s a myriad of cuisines here and food competitions need to explore that.”

somya@khaleejtimes.com

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