The lights came up. The producer counted them down.
“We’re on in five, four, three…” He counted the last two silently with his fingers and then threw to Bud Carryman.
“Hi there food fans, welcome to round five of World Series Buffet, coming to you from the Cancun Grande Hotel in sunny Mexico. This is Montezuma’s Revenge round and players will be looking to spice things up when they hit the breakfast buffet this morning.”
Bud Carryman was a sports journalism major and former offensive tackle from Texas A&M University. He was a large man from a world of large men, and was now tightly packed into a suit and tie. He was holding a Cable Sports Network microphone and standing next to an attractive though waif-thin middle-aged woman. Both of them were wearing sports-caster headphones.
“With me as always is three hat executive chef Nadia Provolone. Good morning Nadia.”
“Thanks Bud. That’s right, for the first time the World Series Buffet heads south of the border.”
“Tell me Nadia, as someone who’s worked in hotels all over the world, what should we be looking for here this morning in Cancun?”
“Well Bud, the Cancun Grande Hotel breakfast buffet is pretty much your classic layout, but with a couple of twists. From the left you have your juice bar, cereals, a triple egg station – which is unusual – then around to a double waffle and pancake bench, bakery items and then the toasters. I think the temptation is going to be to load up on pancakes, but you need to keep in mind there will be some extra elbow room at that egg station. So I think there are some real rewards for those players who get aggressive with the breakfast burritos.”
The players took up their places on the weigh-in scale as Nadia and Bud ran through the starting line-up. Off to the side watching it all was Don Bundaberg, former hot dog eating world record holder and the fifty-five year old founder of World Series Buffet.
After the show wrapped, Don joined his star Nadia in the club lounge.
“You look a bit tired Don,” she said.
“I don’t sleep so well when we tour,” he replied, sipping his virgin bloody mary.
“You ever been down to Haiti?” asked Nadia.
“Nah, this is my first trip other than Canada.”
“You know I was having trouble sleeping after my divorce and a friend of mine recommended a private day spa in Port-au-Prince. They’ve got this voodoo fusion massage that knocked me out for two days.”
“Didn’t you wake up with dirt under your fingernails and all your jewelry gone?”
“Sure, but wow, what a breakthrough. Now I sleep like the dead.”
Don nodded. He liked Nadia. She was the face of his show. Maybe a bit thin for a chef you could really trust, but he liked her a lot.
News of the acquisition of Cable Sports Network by Shanghai-based Pan Asia Cable and Satellite came as a surprise to Don, but he thought nothing of it. Unfortunately, PACS had a high-rating show called Iron Gullet. It toured hotels in Japan, South Korea and China. The format was broadly similar to World Series Buffet and it was only a matter of time before Jeremy Niven, the PACS Head of Programming was stroking his goatee and envisioning a global competition by amalgamating both shows; sponsored of course by a global hotel chain, and maybe even with spinoff travel and cooking segments.
“Oh yeah. TV and food, always the right combination,” said Jeremy as he stood in his corner office looking out over the Shanghai Bund.
The brains behind Iron Gullet was Benny Yamashita. Benny got his start in food as a sumo apprentice. His daily routine involved skipping breakfast, wrestling practice in the morning, a long lunch with beer and then napping for most of the afternoon. Benny was moderately talented in the ring, but it was at the lunch table where he excelled. At his peak he weighed 253 pounds. To this day he still clapped his hands together, sumo style, whenever he made a decision. And although he no longer ate professionally, he currently held both world records for egg eating: raw and boiled.
“Why can’t we just extend my show to North America?” asked Benny.
“What’s your problem with Don anyway?” asked Jeremy.
Benny was silent for a moment. “He’s a slob. I mean look at him, more chins than a Chinese phonebook. He’s fatter now than when he was in competition.”
Benny was proud of the fact that he was now half his sumo fighting weight.
“And I mean what has America contributed to world food culture apart from supersizing?”
Jeremy rang Don to discuss.
“I’m not working with that Jap bastard,” said Don.
“That’s funny, Yamashita said the same thing,” replied Jeremy.
“He called me a Jap bastard?”
“Slob, if you must know. Well the long and short of it is he doesn’t want to lose his show. He thinks it’s better than World Series Buffet.
“Why does everything have to be global?” asked Don, “I mean really, why is global better?”
“It’s the world we live in Don,” replied Jeremy. “The Hilton is a global sponsor, they want a global show. And Benny has another point.”
“Well, how can you have a World Series that only involves only the USA and Canada?”
“The World Series Buffet is a better show. Pound for pound we’d out eat his guys any day.”
“Which brings me to Benny’s idea,” said Jeremy. “An old fashioned showdown. East versus West. Your champions against his guys. Your commentary team. Winner gets to run the global show.”
“Ha! DeShawn and Gareth will wipe the floor with them. When do we start?”
“Not so fast Don. It’s not going to be all bacon and waffles.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s an international breakfast menu. There’ll be rice porridge, pho, salted fish, green papaya with chilli. Kimchi even.”
“I don’t even know what half of that is,” said Don. “And who the hell is Kim Chi? Are we inviting the Korean’s now?”
“It’s fermented. Cabbage and chilli and stuff. And yes the Koreans are already part of Benny’s show. I want you to fly out to Shanghai and check out the venue for the showdown. The sponsors will be there. I assume you have a passport.”
“Yeah, brand new,” said Don.
For a man who’d never left North America, an afternoon in Shanghai left Don Bundaberg deeply shaken. He met Nadia for breakfast the next morning.
“I’ve seen the future,” he said solemnly, “and it doesn’t involve us.”
They cruised through the breakfast buffet and Don was struggling to find something he recognised.
“I can’t believe what some people eat for breakfast,” he said. “I mean what the hell is that?”
“Pickled mustard cabbage I’d say,” replied Nadia as she tried a bite, “yup.” She served herself a bowl of rice porridge and tasted each of the condiments like any good chef.
“And this?” said Don holding up a deep-fried pastry, “it looks like my Johnson.”
“Give me that. It’s a Chinese doughnut – goes with the porridge.”
Don eventually joined Nadia at her table. His plate had a stack of cold Peking duck pancakes and some honey.
“It’s the best I could do.”
“Pancakes with maple syrup?” said Nadia.
Don nodded disconsolately. “I guess I’m a classic food pyramid guy.”
In the lobby after breakfast the Hilton hotel liaison caught Don’s eye.
“Oh, Mr Don, I want you to meet Director Wei Shui of the Shanghai Special Committee for Development,” said the translator.
“Hi Wei,” said Don.
“Call me Shui,” said the Director.
“Interesting town you have here Director.”
“Thank you. We are working hard to make it better. China is still, ahh how you say?”
“A cesspool?” offered Don.
“Developing,” said the Director.
The Director ducked his head to hear the translator.
“What’d he say?” asked Don.
“He says you can blow it out your donkey.”
The showdown was a six team format with China, Japan and South Korea versus USA, Canada and Britain. Don had argued successfully for another Western nation to be represented and Jeremy Niven had found a British guy who happened to be filming another TV show locally.
Nadia Provolone and Bud Carryman were on hand to run through the rules and introduce the line-up. Iron Gullet’s commentator Izzy Kaga was down in the buffet area for the sideline colour.
“Obviously the major points are for total weight gain,” said Nadia to camera, “but each round a player can nominate a wild carte menu item that plays to their strengths.
“Any refusal to eat a wild carte item means zero points for that round,” added Bud.
“First up we have Kazu Kubota representing Japan,” said Nadia.
The big screen rolled a slick NFL-style montage of Kubota’s greatest hits and his vital statistics.
“You know Nadia he’s one to watch. He’s a five times wanko soba noodle champion. Two hundred and ninety five bowls in five minutes.”
“That’s a lot of wanko,” replied Nadia, without missing a beat.
“And here is the British competitor, a World’s Strongest Man participant, Alvin Binney,” said Bud.
“I like his style,” began Nadia, “as an Anglo-Indian I think he’s a triple threat.”
“How so?” asked Bud.
“Well with his Indian background he can handle the heat and his British upbringing means he can go to the deep fryer as well. And don’t be surprised to see him pull a blood sausage for his wild card.”
“Ugh, I can’t watch that,” replied Bud.
“Next up is the Chinese competitor Zhu Ping,” said Nadia. “As the only woman in the competition she’s got something to prove.”
“I saw her warming up at yum cha yesterday,” said Bud, “she’s a lot of woman. Watch her go to the chicken feet for a knockout blow.”
“And here’s a familiar face to us, the American DeShawn Marshall,” enthused Nadia.
An enormous African American man took to the weigh-in scale and gave a military style salute.
“We’ve seen him clean his plate in the World Series Buffet back home,” said Bud. “For those who aren’t familiar, DeShawn is the only person to be discharged from the US Army because they couldn’t keep the rations up to him in the field.”
“Is it true he was awarded a Purple Heart for indigestion in Iraq?” asked Nadia.
“That’s what I heard,” said Bud, “but apparently the exact circumstances are still classified.”
“And another World Series Buffet champ, Canadian Gareth Hardy. He represented Canada in in the 2011 Rugby World Cup. He’s also famous for eating a roast suckling pig in one sitting.”
“Really, the whole thing?” asked Nadia.
“Snout to tail. I’ve seen the video,” confirmed Bud.
“Finally another veteran representing South Korea, Lee Min-koo, a former Korean Army special forces soldier. Min-koo not only knows his way around the fermented foods, but he’s also an expert in hand to hand combat. I’d give him some personal space around the hot plate.”
“You have to watch the wiry ones,” said Bud.
The first round of the showdown started sensibly enough. DeShawn Marshall took it on pancakes. Round two went to Alvin Binney when he pulled his wild card blood sausage and stopped Kubota in his tracks. In round three the Korean Min-koo took exception to a Kubota move in the egg zone and the whole thing degenerated in to a food fight.
That afternoon Jeremy summoned Don and Benny to his hotel suite. Both men immediately started imploring Jeremy to listen to their side of the story.
“No, no, no!” shouted Jeremy holding up both his index fingers. “Sit down! Both you guys are going to watch this – this – tripe.”
Jeremy hit the remote and some footage from the showdown appeared on the plasma screen.
Min-koo, the South Korean had Kubota from Japan in a headlock. He then manoeuvred a food processor onto Kubota’s head and was frantically trying to reach the wall power socket with his foot to turn it on.
The American Marshall was sitting on top of Alvin Potter from Britain and squirting hot English mustard up each of his nostrils.
“Yo, this is for the blood sausage,” said Marshall sternly.
“So much for the special relationship,” added Nadia dryly on the commentary.
Meanwhile, the Chinese competitor Zhu Ping and the Canadian Hardy were the only ones still seated at the competition table. Zhu Ping was racking up bonus-points on her wild carte chicken feet, a glistening, scaly foot hanging from the corner of her mouth. Hardy was watching her with a slack jaw, his face a shade of green. He looked down to the chicken feet in his bamboo steamer and threw in his napkin in surrender.
“Right there. That’s why this is the Chinese century,” conceded Bud grimly.
The final moments showed Don Bundaberg running onto the set screeching, “remember Pearl Harbour!” as he tackled Benny Yamashita onto the pancake grill. Sideline commentator Kaga tried to pull Don off Benny as Benny’s polyester suit began to melt.
Jeremy snapped the television off.
“What kind of garbage was that?” said Jeremy through gritted teeth. “There isn’t a single minute of footage I can use in a PG timeslot. The Hilton is threatening to pull their sponsorship.” Jeremy looked at Don, “and what the hell did you say to the Director of Development?”
In the sushi bar that night, Don was drinking a beer with Nadia. She glowed as the chef served her a giant sashimi platter.
“How come you don’t put on weight?” asked Don.
“Just lucky I suppose. Fast metabolism. Or maybe the tapeworm I got in Haiti?”
Don looked at her, startled.
“I’m kidding!” she said, “it was probably Ecuador. Hey, what’s your problem with Benny Yamashita?” asked Nadia.
“He took my hotdog world record a week after I retired,” replied Don.
“Ouch,” said Nadia, working on her sashimi.
“With the stomach ulcer and my cholesterol levels, I could never manage a comeback. It sticks in my craw, wherever that is.” Don heaved a deep sigh. “Jeremy’s given us an ultimatum: work together or he’ll replace both of us. Maybe it’s time I stepped aside.”
“You’re not talking about leaving?”
Don sipped his Budweiser thoughtfully. “If it means the show stays alive.”
“But you’re the founder. I left commercial kitchens to come and work for you. Do you remember?”
Don looked at his star. “Nobody cooks a rare steak like you Nadia.”
“C’mon Don, you have to stay. You just need to open up your mind to new things.”
Nadia took up a fresh pair of chopsticks, selected a piece of raw tuna and held it up to Don’s mouth.
“Come on Don, it’s almost rare,” she said.