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Nature of the Beast

The Feast food challenge
Photo: Courtesy Area 15
Illustration: Ryan Vellinga

Competitive eating meets immersive entertainment for a truly Vegas spectacle

Derek “Heavy D” Hendrickson works as a national account manager for a food distributor. In his spare time, the Las Vegas resident enjoys meeting new people and travelling to new places. Recently, he went to The Beast gastropub inside Area 15 and ate a two-pound seasoned beef burger with a pound of crispy bacon, a pound of American cheese, and piles of lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles, and Thousand Island sauce on a King’s Hawaiian loaf, with a one-pound side of fries, and four signature potato tornadoes.

Hendrickson is a competitive eater, a member of a subculture that dominates the food scene with its over-the-top extreme challenges, and where contestants wolf down heaps of burritos or shrimp under a specific time limit. But Hendrickson, who’s currently No. 8 on the Major League Eating (MLE) leaderboard, says the sport isn’t about stuffing yourself until you can’t anymore. He says there’s an exact science behind it.

“The crazy part is, no one studies this science, so you kind of have to learn it for yourself,” he says. “And it really teaches the message of ‘Everybody is different,’ because some eaters have a different skill set and a different specialty that they can do, and others of us don’t and it’s just kind of finding what works best for your body and going from there.”

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Competitive eating dates back to Medieval times. The late sociologist Priscilla Ferguson described it as an expression of identifiably American connections between abundance and country. “Overeating both honors country and transgresses social norms,” Ferguson wrote in the journal Contexts. The sport does have its critics. Some view it as gluttonous and wasteful, some say it’s part of the problem in a nation wracked by a diabetes epidemic, and others voice concern about eaters developing health problems down the line.

Despite the risks, the sport is thriving. What makes competitive eating — something most people would not try at a restaurant or even at home — so captivating? Robert Kellner, Area 15’s vice president of operations, says it’s Americans’ competitive nature; most people wouldn’t back down from a challenge when urged on by a group of friends.

These days, restaurants use competitive eating as a marketing strategy. The Beast launched its latest challenge in March. The meal Hendrickson ate, called the Feast, is free for anyone who finishes it in an hour and $88 for anyone who doesn’t. As of late April, five people had attempted and two succeeded.

Much of the inspiration for the challenge came from Area 15 owner and CEO Winston Fisher, who keeps his team on the cutting-edge, Kellner says. Since Area 15 is experientially driven, creating the challenge was a way to “create those wow moments for our guests” and “gamify the culinary experience,” he adds. The Feast is “the core of what The Beast is. It’s a big, loud, in-your-face, meat-driven concept.”

Unlike a challenge, a competitive eating contest is a spectacle, where the goal is to see who can eat the most in 10 minutes or finish first against other eaters. Since Hendrickson is under MLE contract, he can only do MLE contests. He competes in food challenges like the Feast to train for contests.

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Hendrickson says he got into competitive eating because he’s good at it. He calls it a “boutique hobby for the weekends” that takes him to places he has always wanted to go, like Knoxville, Tennessee, where he’ll compete in a bologna-eating contest in May. But the deeper reason is that Hendrickson had struggled with weight issues growing up. He failed many diets, but competitive eating helped him get excess weight off and gain control of his health. “It’s not something I want to lose again, because I feel so much better,” he says, “which is funny because you’re going to eat so much.”

To stay in shape, Hendrickson says, he does one challenge per week. On his off days, he eats plenty of vegetables, drinks lots of water, practices intermittent fasting, and hits the gym. He also goes to the doctor two or three times a year to make sure his lab work is within range. On the side, he helps restaurants like The Beast film and take pictures, and lends help wherever needed.

“It’s just the love of the game, love of what you want to find, what fills those holes in your heart and what gives you joy,” he says. “Stepping onstage, hearing your name, getting to eat and all that … that’s what I’ve chosen to do.”

Raina Huang, a competitive eater in Southern California and frequent visitor to Las Vegas, is the second contestant to conquer the Feast, finishing in just under 53 minutes. She says the challenge was hard, because she’s lactose intolerant and forgot to take Lactaid pills that day.

Huang bills herself as a food and travel content creator and was invited to do the challenge to help promote it. Her entertaining style, including crazy skits she performs herself, has earned her millions of social media followers. But part of why people enjoy watching her eat, she believes, is that people don’t expect to see a female gorge on enormous amounts of food. Huang says people are drawn to food challenges because of the “wow factor,” and because “food is a universal language.”

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Still, Hendrickson doesn’t recommend kids or just anyone get into competitive eating, because it’s dangerous; people choke and have died from it. But, for him, it’s a gift: “I wish I was better at rocket physics and things that were cool, but (this) makes me happy.”