Assessing what remained of Randy Santel's steak, reduced from a 72-ounce slab to a collection of square-inch bites that might add up to what old line steakhouses would call a "queen's cut," Wedgwood Broiler manager Mike Hamman signaled a server to fetch the cook who'd grilled the Winner's Dinner sirloin that Hamman had spent one hour trimming.
"Get Isiah," he hissed, too quietly to disturb Santel, who was chewing in rhythm to the Dixie Chicks tracks on his Hannah Montana MP3 player.
When the cook arrived in the back dining room, which has been little used since the Wedgwood started allowing non-smokers to sit anywhere they'd like, he knew he'd lost. All the money in the kitchen was riding on Santel becoming the first person to ever complete the 47-year old restaurant's hourlong eating challenge: Only the cook who had handled the massive steak, imagining the stresses it might inflict on a practiced jaw and iron gut, had bet against him.
Santel on Friday night demolished the steak, baked potato, salad, roll, cup of soup, glass of milk, glass of tomato juice and a dish of vanilla ice cream in 41 minutes and 46 seconds. The following day, he traveled to Tacoma to attack a six-pound burrito, the sixth food challenge he attempted during his three-day visit to Seattle.
A former Missouri State University offensive lineman, Santel in 2010 won a Men's Health body transformation contest by dropping 25 pounds in two months. Santel, 25, had long struggled with his weight, joining Weight Watchers as a fifth-grader and nearly being left behind on a Boy Scout sailing trip because he was too heavy for the boat. But the contest -- which culminated in a trip to New Zealand to film an episode of Spartacus, Starz' gladiator series -- left him with a newfound reverence for his metabolic system. He and a friend took on a 28-inch pizza at a St. Louis restaurant, and won $500. Santel had eaten most of the pie.
"My metabolism is not always going to be like this," he concedes. In the meantime, he's stalking restaurant challenges across the country, his range limited only by construction gigs and a girl back in Missouri. "It sucks I'm not single," says Santel, who wants to complete challenges in all 50 states. "Not I want to break up with my girlfriend or whatever, but I'd like to move out west."
The highest concentration of eating challenges is in California. But there are enterprising restaurant owners from Florida to Alaska who believe the surest way of drawing customers is a five-pound burger.
Wedgwood's challenge dates back to the restaurant's opening during the red meat era, a few years after The Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo littered Route 66 with billboards promising a free 72-ounce steak dinner to anyone who could finish the meal in an hour. The challenge details haven't changed much since they were devised under opening owner Albert Balch.
"We haven't had steak fries in 25 years," owner Alycien Cockbain says of the potato choice dealt challenge takers.
When eaters request fries, the kitchen has to cut them for the occasion, trying to approximate the volume of a baked potato. Santel opted for the latter, reasoning he eats enough fries on burger challenges. His Seattle trip brought his successful challenge count to 100 -- he blames his ego and sneaky owners who can't resist piling six pounds of chips alongside a publicized three-pound sandwich for the four failed attempts -- and there have been many, many burgers among them.
Although Santel's set records across the country, he hasn't had to deal with carpet-bagging charges. "Restaurants like it, because if a challenge goes (undefeated) for so long, people start thinking you can't beat it," he says. "This gives all the testosterone-filled guys idea that they can do it too."
Since Santel's eating trips are currently funded by the cash prizes he wins on the challenge circuit, he's hoping to transform restaurants' appreciation of his services into sponsorships. Other than Travel Channel personality Adam Richman, Santel is the only competitive eater focusing exclusively on restaurant challenges (and, as Santel points out, Richman's notched a mere 37 wins in three years.)
He's never entered a Major League Eating contest, since the officiating organization forbids its participants from entering mom-and-pop contests. Santel isn't interested in a never-ending schedule of hot dogs and chicken wings. He also doesn't bother with buffets: "There's always going to be more food there," he says. "You can't win."
Very few eaters attempt Wedgwood's challenge, which is only advertised through a small plaque in the restaurant's lobby: Cockbain, who always serves the challenge meals, estimates one eater a year might take the dare. Most eaters make it through about 56 ounces of meat, usually pleading jaw pain when the time expires.
There are critical steak strategies, Santel says. "I told them to give me a really sharp knife," he says. "And make sure you're on a sturdy table, or the water's going to go everywhere." Water isn't a required element of the Wedgwood challenge, but Santel finished four glasses of lemonade during his attempt, and used a Diet Coke as his tomato juice chaser. He also uses liquid as a training tool, stretching his stomach with 12-pounds of watermelon and a half-gallon of water.
Santel dispenses eating wisdom during challenges, which he videotapes and condenses for his web site. He likes when he can attempt a challenge in a crowded room, but in an unknown city like Seattle he makes do with a few servers sticking around after their shifts, half a dozen restaurant regulars from the neighborhood, and a reporter. Even his traveling buddies didn't make the trip to Wedgwood from their downtown hotel. "It's just me and my tripod," he says.
When Santel sat down to his steak -- repositioned so it would look best on camera -- he'd already knocked off a one-pound doughnut challenge and a ramen challenge earlier in the day. "I wouldn't say I'm hungry, but I've got room to eat," he said. Before lifting the fork he'd brought with him, Santel stripped off a shirt promoting his web site to reveal a red muscle shirt reading: "These aren't guns: They're cannons."
Talking directly into the camera, Santel said, "Only good things are going to happen."
Before the challenge began, Santel predicted he'd finish in 20 minutes, which is about how long it took him to polish off an 87-ounce steak in New York. At the 25-minute mark, he acknowledged his forecast was off.
"I think it's been 25 minutes because I am a man, and it's very hard to cut steak and eat it," he said before asking permission to toss aside the kale garnish on the plate. "I ain't eating that."
Spectators weren't clear on exactly when to cheer. Were there certain chews or knife maneuvers that would thrill a challenge eating follower? But when the steak was gone, everyone applauded.
"There we go," Santel said. "Let's go on to all the rest."
He started in on the salad -- "if you're wondering, that salad did have light Italian dressing. Trying to reduce calories" -- then devoured the roll. He downed the soup and milk, saving the tomato juice for nearly last. "I'm not a big fan," he said. "But hopefully, Wedgwood Broiler's is good." He drank the juice in one gulp.
"That was delicious," he said.
A cup of ice cream later, Santel became the first eater to ever complete the challenge. Hamman returned his cash deposit, but there aren't any plans to post Santel's picture on a wall or reward him with a lifetime of on-the-house martinis.
"He goes, 'You don't have a t-shirt for when I finish?,' Cockbain said before the challenge, as Santel was arranging the plates and cups on his table. "I said we've never had anyone finish. I'll have to make it up and send it to you."