By Justine Coyne
Point Park News Service
Visitors swarm tables lined with food for the seventh annual Men’s Culinary Classic at the Washington County fairgrounds, sampling, tasting and voting for their favorite dishes from a vast variety of cuisine prepared by more than 30 local cooks.
Brad Sciullo, 26, circles the expansive line of tables but doesn’t sample the food. With intensity in his eyes and a gallon of water in his hand, Sciullo is here to eat one thing: pierogies.
The Uniontown man is a competitive eater — and the clear frontrunner for the annual pierogi-eating competition the Culinary Classic hosts.
“Wait until you see this guy eat,” Richard Burgess, one of the event organizers, said of Sciullo. “He’s unbelievable.”
Competitive eating has gained popularity in recent years thanks to ESPN’s broadcast of the Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating contest, held annually at Coney Island each Fourth of July. According to ESPN, more than 1.5 million viewers tuned into last year’s competition.
That national trend has led more than a few Western Pennsylvanians to see how their food consumption ranks against the world’s fastest eaters. Sciullo, it turns out, can hold his own.
Industry insiders stress that competitive eating is more than just sitting at a table and stuffing your face full of food. A new documentary “Hungry,” scheduled for release next year, takes a look at the real world of competitive eating.
The film, which has just secured its post-production funding through the website Kickstarter.com, follows Sciullo as well as Pat Bertoletti and Takeru Kobayashi, two of the biggest names in the competitive eating world.
Though the documentary marks Sciullo’s big-screen debut, his eating skills have already garnered him a lot of attention. In 2009, Sciullo was featured on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report as the only person to have ever eaten the 20-pound, 30,000-calorie “Belly Buster” burger at Denny’s Beer Barrel Pub in Clearfield, Pa.
Sciullo also dominated the competition at the pierogi-eating challenge, finishing 47 pierogies in three minutes – beating the second-place finisher by 30 pierogies.
“I could always eat a lot,” Sciullo said. “Even as a toddler I could eat two to three times the amount of food the average person my age could consume.”
When Sciullo was 14, a friend told him it was impossible to drink a gallon of milk in one hour. Sciullo was able to do it. He then trained to get his time down to a half hour. Sciullo would drink two gallons of milk everyday after school to train until he eventually was able to finish a gallon of milk in 22 seconds.
“The training is constant,” Sciullo said. “You have to keep up with it or your body will fight you.”
To train, Sciullo drinks two gallons of water to rapidly expand his stomach everyday and chews 40 pieces of bubble gum for 20 minutes each day to train his jaw.
“It’s like any other sport: you have to train and practice in order to be the best,” he said.
“Big” Brian Subich, of Johnstown, has been a competitive eater for eight years. His eating career started with a $20 bet with a coworker that Subich could not eat three double cheeseburgers in one minute. Subich did, and has since gone on to be ranked 25th in the world for competitive eating.
Subich, a former elected official, who at 22 was the youngest-ever member of the Johnstown City Council, is now in his 30’s and competes in six to eight major competitions each year, his favorite being the Nathan’s Famous hot dog challenge.
Local restaurants like My Big Fat Greek Gyro have year-round eating challenges for the public. The shop’s “Big Fatty Challenge” has three pounds of gyro meat on a 14-ounce pita, topped with lettuce, tomato, onion and sauce. If you can eat it within one hour, the $29 gyro is free and you also receive a T-shirt and your photo is hung on the wall of the restaurant.
Denny’s Beer Barrel Pub offers a range of burger-eating challenges, from 2-pound burgers for amateur eaters, to the 25-pound “Belly Bruiser,” which Sciullo has also completed.
“There isn’t a local eating challenge that I don’t want to have my name on,” said Sciullo. “The food is my opponent. I’m not eating to enjoy the food, I’m eating to win.”
“Everywhere you go people constantly want you to eat,” said Subich. “But I only eat like that in competition. It’s a sport. You don’t go up to Tiger Woods if you see him out and ask him to go grab a club.”
As a sport, Major League Eating (MLE) and the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFCE) sanction competitive eating.
“Safety is the first consideration in any sport,” states the MLE website. The organization insists that all sanctioned competitive eating matches take place in a controlled environment with proper safety measures in place.
MLE will not sanction or promote any events that do not adhere to proper safety regulations. All competitors must be at least 18 years of age and at least one emergency medical technician must be present.
“Competitive Speed Eating: Truth and Consequences,” a study published by four University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine doctors in 2007, examines some of the risks involved with competitive eating.
In the study, the doctors warn of possible “morbid obesity, profound gastroparesis, intractable nausea and vomiting, and even the need for a gastrectomy [surgical removal of all or part of the stomach]. Despite its growing popularity, competitive speed eating is a potentially self-destructive form of behavior.”
Though there are consequences, Sciullo has no plans to stop. He is hopeful the release of “Hungry” will show the public the reality of competitive eating. Sciullo said the film shows the training and the dedication it takes to be successful, as well as the politics, controversy and rivalries that plague any sport.
In the film’s trailer, Sciullo says, “There’s a few people that can say ‘I owe my success to a hamburger.’ One of them is the CEO of McDonald’s, one of them is the CEO of Burger King and one of them is me.”