You couldn’t tell from looking at Kai Chan, but boy, can he eat.
Petite yet muscular, the 24-year-old store display designer for Target can easily put away five pounds of food in a sitting. He’s a budding competitive eater, gaining T-shirts (rather than cash prizes) for completing food challenges around the world.
While in college in Atlanta, he downed a five-pound, 30-inch pizza and was hooked on competitive eating ever since. For the past year, he’s been building up his stamina on challenges around the Twin Cities, and posting photos and videos of his food conquests on Instagram (@kaieatsworld), where he has 10,000 followers.
On a recent afternoon, he sat before a bowl, or rather a family-sized vat, of piping hot pho, the noodle soup fundamental to Vietnamese cuisine.
The challenge: consume 10 pounds of pho in 45 minutes.
This food challenge from iPho by Saigon, in St. Paul, is the latest over-the-top food to be featured in our new video series, Outta Control. Watch past videos about a 3-pound steak here and another on the cookie dough craze here.
Thinh Pham, one of the owners of iPho, thought the publicity around the challenge would help spread the word about the classic Vietnamese comfort food.
“Pho in itself has always been a staple of Vietnamese cuisine,” Pham said. “We wanted to run with that and introduce it in a fun way.”
Only about one eater in every 20 completes the challenge, Pham said. Winners get the $20 soup for free, plus a T-shirt that says, cheekily, “I am the pho-king champ.” The fastest winner downed the whole thing in 7.5 minutes.
The soup typically consists of a rich beef broth, a choice of meat and rice noodles. Diners can add their own accompaniments: bean sprouts, basil, lime and jalapeños.
For the 10-pound challenge, Chan ordered the “special,” which included 6 pounds of noodles, 1.5 pounds of mixed meats (brisket, flank, eye round steak, beef meatball and tripe), and 64 ounces of a long-simmering oxtail broth that’s been given a sweet-and-spicy soak of star anise and rock candy.
Chan began by pouring ice cubes into the steaming broth to cool it down. He added sprouts and basil, and a few healthy squirts of sugary hoisin sauce. Then, using chopsticks and a wide spoon like a shovel, he began to eat.
And eat. And eat.
When he’s not eating, Chan, who lives in Minneapolis, is “super healthy.” He knows if he doesn’t work out, he’ll pay the price for these indulgences. The excitement is worth it.
“There are not a lot of people that do this, so it’s a huge feeling of accomplishment,” he said.
Besides, “I’m a foodie,” he said. “What’s better than a giant bowl of food?”
Chan knows about excess. His job with Target requires him to figure out how to get people to buy more than they planned to, thanks to his attractive displays. “When you go in to buy one item but leave with 10, I make that happen,” he said. Before that, he worked in TV sponsorships and promotions.
It’s a theme in his life, he said: “Buy more, eat more, spend more.”
Twenty-eight minutes left: Chan slurped up the noodles, barely making a dent in the pile of wriggly strands that seemed to only get bigger with soaked-up soup as time ticked down on Pham’s iPhone.
Twenty minutes left: “Still so many noodles,” he said between bites.
With 15 minutes left, Chan seemed to be close to hitting a wall. He was chewing more slowly, and pausing to give his neck a stretch.
And at 7.5 minutes left, with a hearty mound of noodles remaining, he was close to admitting defeat.
Still, he soldiered on until the time ran out.
“I’m more tired than full,” he said, looking down at a grayish puddle of now-cold soup filled with a few too many more bites of broken rice noodles. “I definitely feel disappointed.”
But he had an excuse for the day’s loss. Chan had eaten the mega Fat Pants Friday meal at 6 Smith a few days prior, and then had come to iPho to do a test run of the pho (and won). His body hadn’t recovered enough to take it on again. “Your muscles, all that chewing — it’s just so much,” he said.
He still got his T-shirt, since he’d completed the challenge a few days before. One more trophy to add to a collection of ill-fitting apparel.
“They’re always extra-large,” Chan said. “They don’t expect me to be so small.”
To see more photos and videos from our new food series, follow us on Instagram at @outtacontrolmn.