Ben’s In the News
The children at the Central Synagogue of Nassau County in Rockville Centre spent the last week readying for Passover, complete with a model seder, in anticipation of the real thing at sunset today.
"We do it at their level with stories and singing and learning about the foods and sampling them," said Rabbi Marc Gruber. "It's a pre-festival festival."
The wait, however, is over as Jews across Long Island will sit down to seder Saturday night. The holiday lasts for eight days and begins with the ritual meal of special foods, arranged on a special plate, that recall the Jews' exodus from Egypt.
Passover is one of the most important of the Jewish holy days and also one of the most home-centered, local Jewish leaders have said. At the Ben's Kosher Deli Restaurants in Long Island, Queens and Manhattan, caterers have filled hundreds of orders for the holiday meal. The restaurants will close for Passover.
Ronnie Dragoon, Founder of Ben's NY Kosher Deli, sets a Passover seder table.
"We are feeding well in excess of 30,000 people," said Ronnie Dragoon, owner and founder of Ben's NY Kosher Delis. "It is a time for family to be together... Even for Jews who are not religious and don't celebrate any of the holidays find that Passover is the time to be with family." Brisket and potato kugel are among the most popular items ordered at Ben's. And the restaurant has also sold hundreds of prepared seder plates.
Along with the family meal, there is also a moral responsibility associated with Passover, Gruber said. He planned to urge Jews at temple services to invite another "guest" to the seder table by estimating the cost of feeding one more person to dinner and then donating that money to charity.
"God tells us to protect the most vulnerable people in society..." Gruber said, adding that, "Passover probably resonates message-wise with people as deep a way as any of the holidays. The narrative of the exodus and of gaining freedom from oppression and the moral responsibility that goes on with that, has been formative in shaping who we are as Jews."
Ben’s Deli: This Boca Raton location of the New York-based chain is as good a kosher delicatessen as you'll find in South Florida, if not all of the United States. Come here for all the favorites, from corned beef sandwiches to chicken in the pot. 9942 Clint Moore Road; (561) 470-9963.
Ben’s Kosher Deli in Greenvale — “The best of the Ben’s,” according to one guest — opened its doors on Oct. 1 for an all-you-can-eat, prix fixe dinner to help those who can not dine so freely.
The entire proceeds of the $54-per-person tab will benefit the Long Island-based Interfaith Nutrition Network (INN), which runs 19 soup kitchens, three emergency shelters and 25 units of long-term housing. According to an INN spokesperson, the evening raised $7,500 to help those in need.
The crowd enjoyed an evening that was a mixture of plentiful food and talk about a serious problem that “you don’t see as visible on Long Island as in the city,” said Cynthia Sucich, the INN director of communications.
Len and Audrey Goodfriend, of North Hills, said of the INN, “It’s a wonderful organization. This is a real donation. All the money, not just a percentage, is going to help people. We’ve come every time it’s been here.”
Referring to Ben’s founder, Ronnie Dragoon, Goodfriend added, “He should be awarded.” Dragoon, a board member of the INN for the past 10 years, was not merely fielding compliments on the food, but working through the night, along with his staff, slicing meats and filling the plates of very pleased diners.
Feeding the Hungry. (Top Left): Ronnie Dragoon, owner of Ben's Kosher Deli in Greenvale, helps to serve dinner at an all-you-can-eat buffet to benefit the Interfaith Nutrition Network (INN). (Middle): Inn board member Robert Kammerer (left) and INN Director of Communications Cynthia Sucich are dedicated to helping alleviate a problem that "you don't see as visible on Long Island as in the city," but is most definitely there. (Top Right): Rumi Ratnam, whose family has been involved with INN for 15 years. Her husband is on the board and she and her daughter are active volunteers.
The first Ben’s opened in Baldwin in 1972. In the 35 years since, the business of “fresh food, freshly prepared and courteously served faithfully observing the kosher dietary laws” (according to Ben’s Web site), has grown to nine stores — six on Long Island, one in Manhattan, one in Queens and another in Boca Raton.
Dragoon said he first heard about the INN when he started to donate soup to soup kitchens. “I grew up in Brooklyn. By the time I was 14 I had lived in eight different places. We did not have much money, so I commiserate with those who don’t have a place to live,” he said.
On Nov. 11, Dragoon will host a Ben’s Thanksgiving dinner at the INN’s Hempstead soup kitchen. “I’ll be going down there to serve it, with my wife and a volunteer.”
When asked how many all-you-can-eat evenings to benefit the INN Ben’s has sponsored, Dragoon turned to Robert Kammerer, another INN board member, who replied, “I think this makes nine.” Dragoon said, “Every year it seems to get bigger.”
Before he returned to filling his guests’ plates, Dragoon responded to the question: Why the name “Ben’s”? Dragoon’s father once had a deli in New York City called Ben’s. “But who ever heard of a kosher deli called ‘Ronnie’s.’” Dragoon asked.
Kammerer, a physics teacher at Vaughn College, said that the INN has served seven million meals to those in need, beginning with its first soup kitchen in Hempstead.
“The INN was started by two people — Mike Moran and Pat O’Connor — in 1983. They were affiliated with Hofstra. They were going into the city to volunteer to help homeless people. Then back on Long Island they saw two people eating out of a garbage can and they decided the type of work they were doing was needed right on Long Island,” Kammerer explained. He also observed that since the founding of the INN there has been “a slow, but steady increase” in the numbers of people requiring the organization’s help. “Most of these people have had one tough break. They have no one to lean on. Our motto is simple: ‘Neighbors helping neighbors.’”
Kammerer added that anyone who comes to the INN saying “I’m homeless” would be given shelter. “You don’t have to go through a ton of paperwork to get emergency shelter.”The INN’s Sucich brought her experience in the corporate world to a job where now, she says, “I have a purpose. For the first time in my life I wake up and feel good about what I do. It feeds my soul to be involved in feeding 250,000 meals a year to people who really need it.” With apparent sincere enthusiasm she said, “When I think about the INN, I think about purity. I tell everybody, come see what we are going.
“We do what we say we’re doing. You can come to any of our soup kitchens, and I promise you, your life will change.
“People being hungry, people without a home — it’s in every community, whether you see it or not. We’re the only business that hopes it goes out of business, but I don’t think it’s going to,” Sucich said.
One of the guests at Ben’s Rumi Ratnam, said that her family had been “part of the INN for 15 years now.” Her husband is on the board. “I remember when it was small.”
Ratnam talked about her daughter, who while in grade school volunteered in soup kitchens. “One Christmas she decided to make Christmas cards for the homeless. I thought it would be better if she collected cans of food, something like that. But when she went to a soup kitchen before Christmas and gave out the cards, it was amazing how good it made these people feel to get one of her cards. As if someone cared about the.”
Jean Kelly, director of the INN, said she “helped open the first soup kitchen in Hempstead.” She noted that the organization now has 1,500 volunteers “from all faiths. We call it ‘interfaith’ because the issue of hunger belongs to the whole community.” Kelly added that anyone in need of food would not be subject to any religious proselytizing. Alongside that is her belief that all human beings have a desire to give and to get love. “If we don’t share that we are diminished.”
A sign on the wall in Ben’s of Boca Raton reads: “If you don’t eat, it will kill me.”
So I ate, and ate, and … well, you get the picture.
After all. I would have felt like a real schlemiel if I hadn’t noshed on a little bit of everything.
Like many South Floridians, Ben’s roots are in New York. Since its six other locations are all in the Big Apple, I thought it only fitting that the mural in its Boca Raton restaurant is of Broadway.
My family and I started with the nicoise salad, a generous helping of tuna topped [on] a bed of bit-sized bits of crisp romaine surrounded by tomatoes, eggs, black olives, green beans, potatoes and mushrooms.
The tuna was a little dry, but the sweet poppy seed dressing more than made up for the lack of mayo. There was enough for two with plenty to spare.
You can’t go to a deli without ordering a knish.
A spinach lover, I opted for the spinach version. This Eastern European treat was scrumptious and quite filling.
I am a big fan of chicken in the pot, so I had to try Ben’s. It lived up to all my expectations. This truly was chicken soup for my soul. The kosher half-chicken was so tender it fell away from the bones. Too often, matzo balls are leaden, stick-to-your-gut balls of dough. The softball-sized matzo ball was light and airy. A kreplach, noodles, peas and carrots filled out the pot. My kids are big soup eater and this was a real hit with them.
After all of this food, it was hard to think of dessert, but I forced myself to order one of Ben’s jumbo cookies. It was a crunchy sugar cookie with a quarter-size chunk of chocolate in the center and definitely big enough to share. It was a big ending to a big meal that was a big hit for my family!
Is there such a thing as Jewish “soul food”?
It’s a question I found myself asking again and again during the course of a satisfying meal at Ben’s Deli in Boca Raton the other night. After all, what is soul food but a cuisine rooted in a working-class ethos, making use of whatever bits and scraps are available and turning them into something filling — not just in a gastronomic sense, but in a cultural one as well?
But in the end, it’s still about soul. And Ben’s has it in abundance.
In many ways, the New York-based kosher chain — the Boca eatery is its sole Florida out post — represents the last vestiges of an era when delis thrived in almost every neighborhood where Jewish culture thrived. During this pre-gourmet epoch, it wasn’t about knowing if your corned beef was lean and tender.
Now, deli has become a euphemism for any place, kosher or not, that sells sliced meats and sandwiches, and lighter, healthier and more sophisticated fare has found its way into current-day palaces of pastrami. Consider that at the TooJay’s chain, you can sup on vegetable lasagna or a Mandarin chicken salad. Then again, at least TooJay’s is around. In New York, one of the last of the old-school delis, the non-kosher Katz’s, may soon be shutting down.
Fortunately, Ben’s is also thriving — during the season, be prepared for lines that typically extend out the door at the 3-year-old location — but it’s doing so with a menu firmly rooted in tradition. At the same time, what makes Ben’s so appealing is that, in stark contrast to the old-school delis, the restaurant is stylishly designed, with clean lines, comfortable seating and such classy details as renderings of the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge in etched glass and vintage posters from the Yiddish theater.
And don’t forget the amusing aphorisms — they’re called “Ron-ifications” since they come courtesy of Ben’s founder Ronnie Dragoon — that are posted everywhere. One example. “For five thousand years, we were a wandering people. Then we found Boca Raton.”
Still, food is the big draw. You know you’ve entered a Jewish comfort-food zone as soon as your server brings by the complimentary bowls of crunchy (and yes, galick-y) pickles and lightly dressed, house-made cole slaw. (The service, by the way, is first-rate in terms of courtesy and efficiency, another noteworthy contrast to the delis of old.)
The offerings set the stage for some terrific appetizers. Try the chopped liver, thick and rich in all its artery-clogging glory, or that Jewish snack food known as the potato knish, as good an excuse for carbohydrate overloading as any I've found. ( By the way, Ben's bakes it own densely delicious round knishes, though it also sells the popular commercially made square ones.) If you insist on something light, the Israeli salad — a Mediterranean-style chopped salad — will suffice.
With entrees, Ben’s has all the classics: chicken fricassee, stuffed cabbage, Romanian tenderloin, and sliced deli meats (including a pickled-on-the-premises tongue). But there are classics, and there’s “War and Peace.” That’s how I look at a dish like Ben’s chicken in the pot), an epic mélange of half a chicken, a matzo ball (more a sinker than a floater to my delight), a kreplach (think Jewish dumpling), noodles and peas and carrots. So, how does it taste? Bland, of course. But that’s what chicken in the pot is supposed to taste like — the broth bears the slightest hint of chicken fat and nothing more, leaving it up to the diner to add the necessary salt and pepper to bring the one-pot meal up to seasoning code. But I love Ben’s version precisely because of its lack of pretense; the real joy of the dish comes in picking away at the chicken that has but fallen apart from hours of stewing.
A close second in the classic category proved to be the braised fresh brisket, as tender as a slow-cooked meat should be, complemented with outstanding mashed potatoes (though you won’t go wrong with the equally outstanding fresh-cut fries — no frozen stuff at Ben’s).
If you just want to stick with a sandwich, the pastrami or house-pickled corned beef may not rise to the flavorful level of what I had at Katz’s on a recent trip to New York, but they’re better than the commercial norm; I like how the freshly steamed corned beef has the right mouth feel — not so much tender, but tender and textured, so that the fibrous meat holds together, though barely so.
Ben’s does have it limitations. Because kosher dietary laws prohibit the mixing of meat and dairy products, the desserts are of the non-dairy variety, which means they tend to be unmemorable at best and dry and chalky at worst.
And given Ben’s proud emphasis on classic Jewish cooking, I find the restaurant’s few efforts at pleasing contemporary palates all the more absurd. (Who really comes to a kosher deli for a plate of rotelle primavera with chicken?) As all purists know, there’ only one beverage to have in a kosher deli: a can of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda, a refreshing tonic, made with celery seed, that can best be described as a Jewish ginger ale.
That can, after all, stands for tradition. It’s something that the many older Jews of Eastern European derivation who call South Florida home understand intuitively. But it’s also a soulful lesson in heritage that anyone can devour — in every sense of the term.
If there’s any state that knows how to do deli, it’s New York. So imagine if an established New York delicatessen decided to open up shop down here in Boca.
Well folks, hang on to your knishes, because it’s happened. Ben’s New York Kosher, of Queens, Long Island, and Manhattan fame, has finally made its way south.
Having visited a New York deli or two in my day, I’m a fairly tough customer. Surely with all the other northern transplants residing in these parts, I am not alone. Ironically, my thoughts upon entering Ben’s Delicatessen centered on the apparent differences between this pace versus the quintessential N.Y. deli, the Carnegie, Stage and 2nd Avenue Delis to name a few. Spaciousness, for starters, is something you’ll rarely find, but here at Ben’s, the space is bright and vast. Secondly, N.Y. delis can always be counted on for a touch of grit and grime. It’s not that they’re dirty, just “lived in,” which oddly enough adds character and a certain appeal. Ben’s is eat-off-the-floors clean, albeit the place is still relatively new having opened just after last Thanksgiving. Don’t get me wrong. Ben’s has plenty of charm, it’s just achieved in other ways, like being decorated with impressive glass etched panels depicting such New York City icons as the Brooklyn Bridge, Empire State Building, and Statue of Liberty. Additionally, the walls resonate with printed proverbs both wise (“Better to have a good enemy than a bad friend.”) and humorous (“If you can’t say something nice, say it in Yiddish.”) Lastly, one can usually expect the service in a N.Y. deli to be gruff and impatient. Here, it is attentive and friendly. This is all good and well, but now let’s get to what really matters most — the grub.
Moments after being seated, stainless steel bowls appear, overflowing with delicious cole slaw and assorted pickles. Next comes a basket of raisin pumpernickel that’s virtually impossible to resist. Matzo Ball soup is always available, and theirs falls somewhere between commercially store-bought and made with love in Bubbe’s kitchen, leaning more toward the latter. Tonight’s daily homemade soup, Chicken a La Reine, is a wonderful creamy chicken vegetable, much like a Jewish version of egg drop. The Braised Fresh Brisket of Beef is flavorful and fork tender, and I recommend an oversize potato pancake and stewed fruit compote on the side. The Stuffed Cabbage is prepared the old-fashioned way. Two large leaves are filled to capacity with ground meat and rice, in a savory, lightly seasoned sweet red sauce. The Hot Pastrami Sandwich comes bare or on the plate, but the fact that not a single iota of fat can be found entitles it to stand alone. It’s not as obscenely overstuffed as you’d find in one of the N.Y.C. counterparts, but then again, it’s also not accompanied by the obscene price tag. Though the noodle pudding is a wee bit dry, the kasha varnishkas is impeccable.
A fellow diner is overheard complaining “the coffee tastes days old.” I’ll only partially agree with his hyperbole. Hours old, I’ll give him, but certainly not days. Dessert-wise, the chocolate layer cake is lousy, the carrot cake is sublime, and I’m just now getting over the absence of black and white cookies that night.
New Yorkers know best, so if Ben’s can make it there, it can make it anywhere. Seeing the way customers are lining up at the door to dine in or take out, I suspect Ben’s will make it here, too.
Ronnie Dragoon, Owner of Ben's Kosher Delicatessen Restaurants and Caterers
1. As a VISTA volunteer (the domestic Peace Corps), Dragoon served in an economically depressed area of Indiana. READ MORE..
One of the top deli operations in the New York area is making its way to West Boca.
Ronnie Dragoon, the owner of Ben’s N.Y. Kosher Deli, is bringing almost 31 years experience to The Reserve, a new “shopping center for country club residents” scheduled to be finished by the end of 2003.
“After finishing college, my father and I took over a bankrupt store in Long Island, [and the rest is history],” Dragoon said.
Dragoon said there were some basic requirements and a few considerations — plenty of sunshine, a dash of upscale clientele and one high-class atmosphere.
“That’s my new land of milk and honey,” Dragoon said about the West Boca area. It’s also “the land” where many of his friends and customers have migrated. He’ll be at the restaurant’s new location for the first two months after its opening.
At The Reserve in Boca Raton, Florida
“I am excited about building a 7,000 square foot store, the largest Ben’s N.Y. Kosher Deli to date,” Dragoon said. “I am excited about seeing my old customers, many of whom have moved to Delray, Palm Beach, Boca Raton, Boynton Beach, Deerfield Beach and other adjoining towns.”
Sutton Boca One Developers, Inc. and Brooks Realty, the developers of The Reserve, had a few standards of their own.
“[The Reserve] is going to be a country club atmosphere. You could compare these demographics to Beverly Hills,” said David Yudell, president of Sutton Boca One Developers, Inc. and Brooks Realty.
The shopping center itself will be about 144,000 square feet.
“We’re considering Ben’s as an anchor — [Dragoon] has a big following,” Yudell said.
Besides the food, Ben’s is known for its “matzo ball eating contest.”
“The contest is sponsored by the deli. This year, the winner ate 21 matzo balls,” said Carol Horn, The Reserve spokesperson and a former New York resident.
Last year’s winner ate only 16 matzo balls.
“In New York, we used to eat there all the time,” Horn said.
Ben’s N.Y. Kosher Deli also will offer catering and delivery. The menu will offer soups, including the traditional chicken soup with matzo balls and rice. An order of three-egg omelets, served with potato pancakes and applesauce or fresh cut fries will make a hearty breakfast.
For greens lovers, there are plenty of salads. Carnivores can assuage those cravings with steak burgers. The turkey salad will fulfill those who want the best of both worlds. Israeli Heros will satisfy any sandwich fan (one foot long, overstuffed “with everything but the kitchen sink”). Other items include extra lean corn beef and pastrami and tongue and fresh brisket. Traditional specialties include stuffed cabbage and “chicken in-the-pot.” There is also a kids’ menu which includes sodas, and gelatin or cookies with each meal (ages 12 and under).
Horn said she would not be the only one who is “very happy to have Ben’s on board.”
Among the newer delis that have surfaced in recent years are Wolf’s (41 W. 57th St. between Fifth and Sixth avenues, 888-4100), close to a raft of art galleries; and Artie’s Deli (2290 Broadway between 82nd and 83rd streets, 579-5959) on the Upper West Side. I mention them should you happen to be in their neighborhoods and in need of a pastrami fix. But the best of the new fellows on the block is surely Ben’s Kosher Deli (209 W. 38th St. at Seventh Avenue, 398-2367).
209 W. 38th St. at 7th Avenue
Ben’s is a large room, more a formal restaurant than a traditional deli, yet its food nestles perfectly into the comfort zone set by those older places. Pastrami and corned beef are quite good, but so are Romanian-style kosher steaks smothered in fried onions and such dishes as a very good egg barley with mushrooms and the ubiquitous kasha varnishkes. Unlike the majority of delis, Ben’s bakes all its rolls, cakes and pastries as well as its round, light-skinned potato knishes.
Ben’s Deli sits among the designer showrooms and manufacturers of New York’s bustling Garment District and is on the site of another of the city’s gone-but-not-forgotten delis, Lou G. Siegel. That restaurant was taken over by Ronnie Dragoon, remodeled and opened as Ben’s in 1996. Its spacious booths set into its vaguely Art Deco décor are perfect places to eat half-sour pickles, a bowl of which is placed on every table as you await your pastrami. Above you are ceiling murals depicting traditional Jewish dancing, beneath your feet is a huge marble image of a mustard jar. How apt.
Tucked into a booth at Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen in Baldwin, Don Lerman of Levittown gripped a knife in his right hand, quickly slicing baseball-size matzo balls into quarters like apples and shoveling one after the other into his mouth with his left. His fingers quivered. Crumbs dribbled down his chin and stuck in his beard. He didn’t pause until he had devoured 12 of the half-pound dumplings in two minutes and 50 seconds, just beating out Eric Booker of Copiague, who gulped only 11-3/4.
“I’m inspired now, man,” said Mr. Booker, giving the winner a high five. A week later, at a qualifier in Bayside, Queens, Mr. Booker broke Mr. Lerman’s record by eating 16 matzo balls.
Mr. Lerman was relieved to have secure himself a spot in the final on Tuesday in Manhattan. “I would give up every title to hold this title,” he said, mopping his brow and promising to reclaim the matzo-ball eating title he won two years ago. “ The matzo ball is the cream of the cream of every contest. It puts your body through a lot of trauma, I would say more than going three rounds of Mike Tyson.”
Ben's Matzo Ball Eating Contest Hall of Fame
(Top Row, l to r): 2003 Winner Eric "Badlands" Booker; 2002 Winner Oleg "The Russian " Zohornotsky; 2001 Winner "Hungry" Charles Hardy
(Bottom Row, l to r): 2000 Winner Don "Moses" Lerman; 1999 Winner Russel "Mad Dog" Machover; 1998 Winner Bruce "Bubba" Stock
Driven by a love of eating and the fleeting notoriety a title brings, Mr. Lerman, 52, a 5-foot-8, 176-pounder with a seemingly bottomless appetite, does not enter eating contests lightly. He retired from his day-old-bread business to concentrate on championship eating and trains by drinking a gallon of water in under three minutes, stretching his stomach. Though he keeps in shape by jogging on a treadmill, he recently gained 30 pounds practicing for ice cream, French fry and hamburger contests.
Along with Mr. Booker and Ed Jarvis of Nesconset, Mr. Lerman is among the top 10 competitive eaters in the world, professionals on the glutton circuit where speed and quantity count when wolfing down ice cream, hot dogs, zeppole, jalapeños and steak.
In November, Mr. Lerman earned the title of “Cloud Burger” champ at Grandma Willy’s Garage in Minnesota for eating 11-1/4 quarter-pound hamburgers on buns, but without lettuce, tomato or special sauce, in 10 minutes. Mr. Jarvis won a Belmont racetrack contest last year by downing a 17-inch pizza in three minutes, and Mr. Booker, a five-year veteran of stuff-your-face battles, chomped 24-1/2 hot dogs with buns in 12 minutes, an American record, at a Central Islip qualifier for the annual Nathan’s contest in Coney Island. (Takeru Kobayashi of Nagano, Japan, took the world record with a staggering 50 hot dogs.)
Not only do these guys not have a problem cleaning their plates, they are on the leading edge of a centuries-old, but increasingly popular and totally consuming sport.
George Shea is president of the International Federation of Competitive Eaters, a Manhattan-based organization that sanctions events and track nearly 100 active “gurgitators” on the circuit. “Long Island is a hotbed of eating,” he said when asked why so many Long Islanders are world-ranked gluttons.
“ This past year it’s really exploded,” said Mr. Shea, a competitive eater since 1988. “People respond to the fundamental aspect of competitive eating. It’s a pure athletic pursuit. It’s the sport of the everyman but then every man finds out he may not have it and only few do.”
Then there’s the spectacle. Speed-eating contests are like feeding time at the shark tank. The only rule is that vomiting brings disqualification. And with the media attention they attract, the gobbling gladiators are really full of themselves.
Mr. Lerman said eating should be an Olympic sport and named himself “the king.” In the 6-foot-6, 400-pound range, Mr. Jarvis and Mr. Booker dwarf Mr. Lerman, but they both call him their mentor. “It’s the pat on the back,” Mr. Lerman said, though the $25 entry fees from the Ben’s contest go to the Interfaith Nutrition Network and many of the competitions are fund-raisers for other hunger organizations.
“The trophy, the bragging rights from you friends and relatives,” Mr. Lerman said. “This is my chance at fame, at the brass ring.”
There is some prize money, but not enough to make a living out of eating. The three Long Island speed eaters competed in “The Glutton Bowl: The World’s Greatest Eating Competition,” a Super Bowl of eating challenges with a $25,000 top prize. It is scheduled to air nationwide on the Fox television network on Feb. 21, but the contestants signed agreements not to talk about how they fared. They appear in the show “Big Eats” on the Food Network and on March 3, star in “Gut Busters,” a documentary about the competitive eating circuit, on The Discovery Channel.
Mr. Jarvis, a real estate agent, is up for rookie of the year. After watching Mr. Lerman devour the matzo ball championship two years ago, Mr. Jarvis figured that with his size he would be a natural.
“Everybody has the need to win in some shape or form,” Mr. Jarvis said, having been kept from playing football in high school because his mother was afraid that, despite a 385-pound frame, he would get hurt. “This is what I do best. I eat.”
After making it to the finals of the matzo ball contest last year, Mr. Jarvis, 35, won his first pizza eating competition in record time, then celebrated with a dozen zeppole. That turned out to be a mere warm-up for the contest at the Feast of Mother Cabrini in Brentwood, where he finished 15-1/2 cold zeppole in four minutes. Last summer, he traveled to hot dog competitions across the country with Mr. Lerman and Kevin Lipsitz of Staten Island, the reigning International United-Carnegie Pickle Eating champion. Mr. Jarvis won trophies in the Meadowlands, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
“We will go wherever food is found,” Mr. Jarvis said, patting his belly. “If there is competition, we will be involved. Wherever there is food, we will conquer.”
For Max and Mina’s Ice Cream Open In Manhattan, Mr. Lerman practiced by eating half a gallon a day and in the finals wolfed down 6 pounds, 9 ounces of butter-cream-vanilla in 12 minutes. But Mr. Jarvis beat him by 5 ounces, complaining afterward that it felt as if his jaw was frozen.
In November, Mr. Jarvis ate 2 pounds, 9 ounces of French fries at an invitational competition at the Village Restaurant in Manhattan.
“They are tough to eat for quantity,” Mr. Jarvis said. “You can feel them going down your throat. You can’t just pack them in like ice cream.”
The Challenge not long ago at J&R Steakhouse in Stony Brook was to consume a 76-ounce steak, accompanied by creamed spinach or a baked potato, in an hour. Mr. Jarvis finished his in 20 minutes, along with two orders of creamed spinach plus a pitcher of beer. It took Mr. Booker 36 minutes, Mr. Lerman 50 minutes and Mr. Lipsitz 60. Meanwhile, Mr. Jarvis had coffee and dessert. And at the Carnegie Deli in Manhattan, these big-time eaters had no problem polishing off a 9-inch tall, 7-1/2 inch long, 5-1/2 inch wide sandwich called the No. 13, piled with corned beef, Swiss cheese, turkey, coleslaw, pumpernickel bread and Russian dressing, along with pickles. Their plates were clean in 25 minutes. Dessert was chocolate layer cake.
“They put our picture on the wall in the Carnegie Deli, which really was to me a big honor because really the only people on the wall are all famous people,” Mr. Jarvis said. “I felt like a star.”
Though they are competitors, the men have found kinship in eating big. They trade tips. They often speak on the phone and, of course, pig out together at all-you-can-eat buffets. When they met for an informal rib-eating contest in New Jersey, Mr. Booker, 32, who works as a conductor in the New York City subway and produces and records hip-hop music, had 21 reorders.
Despite the pressure of the clock, Mr. Booker said he savored every bite. And he never gets heartburn. “If the food is good, I enjoy it,” said Mr. Booker. “I’ve been known to put mustard and relish on hot dogs,” he said. “Everyone is eating for speed. I just take my time and win.”
Mr. Booker claims 10 pounds of eating capacity, but said training and technique play a greater role. Everyone's stomach is about the same size, he said, and extra flab can keep it from extending to its fullest. So he eats salad in the off-season and stays in shape with judo. The Japanese hot dog champ weighs in at 131 pounds.
Mr. Lerman said he has always been a fast and voracious eater. When the first Krispy Kreme outlet on Long Island opened in East Meadow in June, he showed up at 4 a.m. When the doors opened two hours later, he downed a dozen of the sugar-coated doughnuts with gusto. That was only two days after chomping 17 hot dogs in 12 minutes at Belmont Racetrack, one of 10 qualifying events around the country for the Nathan’s contest, where he consumed 20 in the final, garnering fourth place. At a Russian pelmeni open at a festival in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, in early September, he devoured 150 of the little ravioli-like pirogi in 2 minutes, 49 seconds.
To qualify for the Wing Bowl in Philadelphia, Mr. Lerman ate 30 White Castle hamburgers in 15 minutes. And he’s been practicing for the jalapeño contest scheduled for February in Texas.
“This is our sport, competitive eating,” Mr. Lerman said, happily handing out autographed photographs of himself to diners at Ben’s after the contest. “Some people they box, they play golf. Michael Jordan is the best, but how good would he do in this arena?”