Our eating champs take on Dubai's toughest food challenge
First of all, I feel as though I should justify why I decided to embark on Terra Firma’s Tomahawk Challenge. The task, laid down by the InterContinental’s steakhouse, involves eating 2kg of steak and 300g of chips in less than 60 minutes. Well, I suppose it was because I’m a bit daft, and because the challenge was to me what Everest was to Hillary – the only difference being that I didn’t have Tenzig Norgay to help me eat my way through an obscene amount of meat and potato in less than an hour.
No, the Tomahawk Challenge was me against the steak – my weapon of choice was my appetite, my motivation was evading the whopping Dhs690 that would be charged if I didn’t finish the paltry portion in the allocated amount of time. The battle was on.
I soon realised that it would take more than just a good appetite to complete the challenge; it would take tactics. So I delved into the murky world of online competitive eating. As well as countless chat forums dedicated to the ‘sport’, there’s even an official body that oversees competitive eating – the Major League Eating & International Federation of Competitive Eating (www.ifoce.com) – which boasts a website complete with competition news, stats, facts and even its own merchandising page. I was soon reading tips from some of the ‘pros’, such as waif-like American Sonya Thomas, who likes to fill up at the buffet before stuffing her face in front of a baying crowd, while champion eater Eric ‘Badlands’ Booker eats a whole head of cabbage to increase his stomach size, as well as drinking at least a gallon of water beforehand. His other tips? ‘Fast hand-eye-mouth co-ordination.’ Right. One tactic that all the competitive eaters agree on is not starving yourself beforehand. This, apparently, is something only a ‘rookie would do’. And with this, I went upstairs for lunch.
My concerned colleagues rallied around me, forwarding YouTube footage of grimacing men wrestling with frighteningly sized steaks and news stories of Russian men dying after dumpling competitions. To calm my nerves, I decided to enlist the help of Time Out’s assistant online editor, a man of childlike competitive nature and an insatiable appetite, as my running mate, my spotter, someone to share my pain. Soon enough, we were winging our way to Festival City to face our destiny.
As we waited for our collective order of 4.6kg of meat and potatoes to find its way out of the kitchen, I couldn’t help but wonder how many people had attempted the challenge thus far. Eight, according to the manager, only two of which managed to complete it: one a full-time competitive eater, who polished off his steak and chips in 19 minutes; the other a man on a date. I spared a thought for his lucky lady. I also had to enquire as to how we’d be policed over the course of the next 60 minutes: would we be allowed to visit the restroom if we needed to? And if we did, would someone have to accompany us? Apparently not, though the manager assured us we’d be closely watched and we would be required to eat every last gram of meat, fat and chips to escape the bill and win a commemorative apron. ‘To begin with, we made competitors finish the 300ml of béarnaise sauce as well,’ he said with a chuckle. ‘Then we realised this probably was a bit too much.’ No kidding.
At that point I heard the kitchen door swing closed and the approach of heavy footsteps from behind. Two tomahawks were heaved in front of us, landing on the table with a thump. It was a nightmare scene from the opening credits of The Flintstones. On the plus side, the 300g of chips looked mercifully modest in comparison. Without further ado, the official Tomahawk Challenge hourglass was turned on its head, and we were off.
I’d read that it takes 20 minutes for the brain to register that the stomach is full, meaning we had a 20-minute window to make some headway with the steak. After that, our progress would be solely down to willpower. Luckily, the steak proved delicious – a little bloody, maybe, but tender and easy to eat – and we flew through the first third at a startling rate. The manager would occasionally drop by to offer encouragement, praise and the occasional tip – the professional eater who polished off his steak in 19 minutes had used sugar as a way to speed up digestion. With this in mind, we started lathering sweet grape mustard on each chunk of meat. A kilo down and we were still feeling confident, perhaps a tad complacent, until, out of nowhere, came The Wall. It hit us (or we hit it) dead on 20 minutes. My clothes started to feel tight and uncomfortable, my stomach gurgled abnormally loudly, I became hot and began to feel beads of perspiration prickle onto my forehead. The ‘meat sweats’, as this malady is commonly referred to, is a by-product of ‘mass animal-protein consumption’ – a marriage of adrenaline and protein that causes a rise in body temperature. But the meat sweats were the least of my worries – I was uncomfortably full and still had what would usually be a meal and a half to go before I finished.
It’s said that meat, in particular beef, is much more difficult for the body to digest than vegetables. However, a study by the King’s Institute (2008) suggests that 97 per cent of beef is digestible by the body (compared to 65 per cent of most vegetables), but stays in the stomach for longer, because it’s more difficult to break down. This, it seemed, was the problem I was facing. It was now mind over matter.
Approximately 40 minutes had passed and, after a few worrying jabbing pains in my lower abdomen and five minutes of partially blurred vision, I found myself with only the fat to finish. I looked up to the manager, pleadingly, but he shook his head to my unasked question – I had to finish everything. As unappetising as the fat looked, it proved easy to eat, sliding down my gullet with minimum difficulty and, as with all good steak, was rather flavourful. I looked down at the cutting board where the tomahawk once lay and realised I’d finished. I cast my eyes up to the bowl of chips, which now looked enormous. I had 15 minutes left and 11 chunky chips to devour. As full as I was, I had to soldier on, otherwise I’d be paying Dhs63 per chip. I pleaded for tomato ketchup, which was soon brought by a concerned-looking waiter, took my shoes off and loosened my belt, and set about the task of consuming a chip a minute.
The top half of the hourglass was looking perilously empty; I was told there was a minute left. I felt drunk and couldn’t string together a coherent sentence. One chip remained. Thirty seconds. I willed half of the last chunky chip into my mouth. Two waiters began an impromptu countdown; 15, 14, 13… a solitary tear rolled down my cheek… seven, six, five… I stuffed the last half into my mouth and chewed and chewed… three, two… and the chip was gone.
Nervous, uncertain applause drifted over from a nearby table and I realised I was on my knees. A nearby waitress was losing her battle to hold back tears of laughter while the manager humoured me with a pat on the back and the promise of a free apron. And then I heard a low, muffled sob. I looked up to find my partner in crime doubled over three uneaten chips. The most expensive chips he would never eat. The Tomahawk Challenge costs Dhs690 (or free if you complete the challenge). Daily 7pm-midnight. Terra Firma Steakhouse, InterContinental Dubai Festival City (04 701 1111)
Time Out’s top digestive aids
Want to tackle the Tomahawk? Then try these afterwards… Green tea Green tea increases glucose tolerance, improves insulin sensitivity and fat oxidation – the latter is a similar process to what happens when you exercise. What’s more, it’s thought that green tea also helps to block cholesterol absorption, while it’s anti-inflammatory properties benefit the digestive tract.
Lemon water By simply adding lemon to lukewarm water, you can reap the benefits of vitamin C, vitamin B, potassium and calcium. It also helps digestive issues (from heartburn to bloating) and aids digestion by stimulating the liver to create more bile, which in turn helps to dissolves fat in food.
Papaya and pineapple Papaya contains an enzyme called papain, while the protein bromelain is found in pineapple. Both help the body to dismantle meat into component amino acid parts. What’s more, the pineapple/papaya combination is really rather tasty.