They cheat and they eat: our home-grown eating champions

CHEAT meal.

It's a term that gets thrown around a lot these days, particularly in the online world where buff body builders and gym junkies strike a pose on their Instagram profile sitting down to a meal consisting of a towering multi-patty burger with a side of fries, a shake and a plate of waffles.

The idea is that you stick to a restricted diet plan every other day of the week - or month - and a high-calorie feast serves as the reward.

A chance to "cheat" on your health and fitness regime.

The cheat meal phenomenon has paved the way for the rise of another extreme: competitive eating.

Alex's creation - McDonald's hot cakes filled with KFC popcorn chicken, topped with syrup.

Alex's creation - McDonald's hot cakes filled with KFC popcorn chicken, topped with syrup.

Competitive eating - or speed eating - isn't a new craze.

Nathan's Famous Hot Dog-Eating Challenge at Coney Island began in 1916 and, even in Newcastle, James Bibby became the celebrated porridge-eating champion of NSW in 1880 when he reportedly ate 84 plates of porridge at a contest in Lambton before a packed audience.

But with the rise of social media, competitive eating is gaining traction.

Not only does it draw attention (Australia's No.1 pro-ranked eater, Cal Stubbs, who is known online as @HulkSmashFood, has close to 200,000 followers on Instagram) but it can be lucrative, with prizes such as cash and free meals for a year up for grabs.

For Lambton's Jamie Miller, a weekly cheat meal led him into the world of competitive eating.

He started six years ago and, at one point, was among the top four competitive eaters in Australia.

"Like a lot of other competitive eaters, I started trying to get fit," Miller explains.

"I started using the home gym and dieting really hard, but to keep motivated I discovered these things called cheat meals.

"So, once a week, I'd eat one big meal and that's when I started going to the takeaway shops and ordering four hamburgers.

MATCH FIT: Jamie Miller sizes up the "Fat Phukka" at Eight Bulls in Hamilton. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

MATCH FIT: Jamie Miller sizes up the "Fat Phukka" at Eight Bulls in Hamilton. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

"Eventually some of them started to say 'Well, I'll just make you a giant hamburger if you're going to come in every Friday'.

"I started off doing that and then the guys at work set a Facebook page called Blossom's Friday Food Challenge and a lot of the takeaway shops in the area where I was working started making me a weekly $30 challenge."

Soon enough, the eating machine (whose nickname is "Lemon Blossom") caught the attention of Competitive Eating Australia which, as Miller explains, is the "governing body of eating in Australia".

The group invited Miller as one of 20 competitive eaters to take part in a pie eating competition at Harry's Cafe De Wheels to put together a team to represent Australia on a Japanese television special, Battle of The Big Eaters: World Championships, filmed in the US.

Miller demolished 16 pepper steak pies in 30 minutes to earn his spot in the top four.

"I tried out for the Australian Competitive Eating team in 2014, and then, all of a sudden, I'm on a plane to America and I'm thinking 'What's going on?'," Miller laughs.

"They flew a four-man Australian team to Los Angels to compete against Japan, America and China, which is really weird.

"I don't know how many people from Newcastle have represented Australia at eating. Probably zero, but it's the weirdest thing. When I talk to people I tell them I represented Australia. They say 'What at?' and I say 'Eating".

"They think I'm joking, but it really happened."

Competitive Eating Australia retired Miller from his ranking in the top 20 in March this year, ("They brought in a whole heap of new younger guys that were really more active than I was," he explains) but that hasn't stopped him.

With 62 challenges under his belt, Miller has attempted every food challenge in Newcastle and the Hunter, and continues to rise up whenever a new one is offered (Miller estimates there are 12 challenges currently up-and-running in the region)

He polished off the five-patty Man v Burger challenge at Goodtime Burgers at The Exchange in August for a fourth time and succeeded in the one kilogram burrito challenge at Mad Mex in May.

His reign extends internationally, too.

At the Moo Moo Steakhouse in Bali, Miller holds the record for the one kilogram steak challenge.

"There is a photo of me on the wall above the bar over there which is pretty cool. I like that one," Miller says.

"I had to eat a one kilogram steak and some vegetables.

"I did it in three minutes and 14 seconds."

In 2015, Miller, along with then No.1 ranked eater in Australia Isaac Harding-Davis, became the first to complete the two-man two-metre long pizza challenge at Criniti's at Westfield Kotara.

They finished the one-hour challenge in 40 minutes.

"That was horrendous," Miller recalls.

"It was a lot of food and it was hard to get down, but the prize is quite substantial.

MAKING A MARK: Alex Johnson, 18, is relatively new to the competitive eating scene. Burgers are his bag. Picture: Simone De Peak

MAKING A MARK: Alex Johnson, 18, is relatively new to the competitive eating scene. Burgers are his bag. Picture: Simone De Peak

"You get to eat a year's free food at Criniti's. I added it up, because I went there every week and got my entree, main and dessert, and it was over $5000 worth of food.

"So, sometimes there are good prizes."

A newcomer to the scene in Newcastle is 18-year-old Alex Johnson.

The Year 12 student from Adamstown (@newys_dapper_bloke) is delving into the world of cheat meals via his Instagram page, which is filled with images of over-the-top burgers he devours around town, as well as his creations (a tower of McDonald's hot cakes filled with KFC popcorn chicken, drizzled with syrup).

Whether or not you want to stomach it, it's a curious feast for the eyes.

"Burgers are my thing," Johnson says.

"The most patties I have done is five, but that was a walk in the park, so I'm looking to get a bit bigger. The record at Eight Bulls [in Hamilton] was 17 patties."

Even though he prefers to stick with the cheat meal concept and photography, Johnson has attempted a handful of challenges in Newcastle - and struck up a friendship with Miller in the process.

He went up against Lemon Blossom in a doughnut eating challenge at Doughheads recently and managed to beat him.

"I beat him by one doughnut, which was good. He's my mentor," Johnson says.

"I ate 10-and-a-half doughnuts in five minutes. I was pretty stoked about that because I've done a few challenges on the side and haven't really had any success. That was the first one that I did that I was good at."

Johnson is using his win of a free six-pack of doughnuts for a year to road-test cheat meal ideas around establishments in Newcastle, so far taking them to Milky Lane, Rascal and Luvv Gelato.

"I'm doing a series on my Instagram page where I go into a place and make a burger with my doughnut," he says.

"Sweet and salty - I don't know what it is but it's so good. So I order a burger and swap out the bun."

IN the world of competitive eating, there are risks involved too.

In 2017, a 20-year-old female died as a result of choking during a pancake-eating contest at a US university and, in August, a 41-year-old man also choked to death after taking part in a taco-eating competition in California.

And what about the other health risks, such as obesity, that are associated with over-eating?

In the first six months of upping his fitness regime and devouring a weekly cheat meal in 2013, Miller actually dropped 25 kilograms.

"I was eating protein shakes for the rest of the week," Miller says.

"There is criticism you cop, though. Every time there's an article on social media, you get a lot of public outcry from people saying things like 'This promotes obesity' and it's not necessarily anything like that, but people get very opposed to food challenges and competitive eating.

"They think there's this big hoard of big fat blokes that cruise around gorging themselves at food challenges and eating everyone's food, and that's not the truth at all.

"The competitive eaters are usually all fit. There's an ex-NRL player, some of the top body builders in the country, all sorts of people. They're all really fit guys.

"If I eat three meals a day, it's no different to eating one big meal a day. It's the same amount of food. Even the next day, I might not even eat anything - I might still feel full. I don't eat a two kilogram burger three times a day. That's impossible."

Miller admits there is one food that he could never face eating again.

"It ate 3.2 kilogram of sea urchin pasta in America for that TV show and it nearly killed me," he says.

"They had paramedics there and they were encouraging everyone that had eaten that much food to try to expel it from their body, so to throw it up.

"But I haven't thrown up since 1982, so I wasn't going to do that. I held it in and I was in a bad way. I started to feel really sick.

"And what they didn't tell me, which I found out later, is that the genitals of the sea urchin - which is the part that you eat - has a chemical in it which has the same effect as the THC in cannabis. I ate a lot of it! And I spent about an hour sitting on a brick wall in a car park in Huntington Beach afterwards talking to a big grey seagull who I was just sure had a Mexican accent and kept telling me I was about to die.

"I definitely don't want to eat sea urchin again."

This story Welcome to the wide world of competitive eating first appeared on Newcastle Herald.