Alex Casey chews on the serious issues with Nela Zisser, competitive eater and YouTube sensation.
Nela Zisser is planning her next big meal: an entire block of butter. Or perhaps three kilos of fish and chips. Or perhaps another attempt at eating 100 McDonald’s cheeseburgers. Despite the YouTube star being six years into her competitive eating career, she still has many food Everests to conquer. “I might try and eat the most expensive Subway sandwich I can make,” she mused, brainstorming her next videos aloud.
The ex-model’s competitive eating career began with a Sal’s pizza contest in 2013, winning out against 19 “huge guys” at the age of 22. “People were quite surprised because I’ve also always looked a lot younger than I am. Even though I was in my 20s, everyone was like ‘what the fuck is going on here’ because I looked about 16.” She ate one-and-a-half 18-inch pizzas and won $1500. “I won a lot of money so I thought I might as well keep doing it,” says Zisser.
Her next big break came during Mad Mex’s infamous one kilogram burrito challenge. “My friend filmed it for me – it was so shit,” she remembers. “It was in portrait mode on his bad phone and it just looked absolute trash.” Low quality as it may be, Zisser can be seen demolishing the enormous sack of beans and meat in less than two minutes. She doesn’t appear to chew, or swallow, her jaw seemingly dislodged like a snake. It’s hypnotic to watch.
“I ended up putting that video on my YouTube channel just to share it with my friends,” she remembers. It quickly went viral, and is now sitting at just over a million views. Most people who win the challenge get a spandex wrestling mask – she got herself a YouTube career.
Four years and hundreds of thousands of calories later, Zisser now has over 200,000 subscribers and uploads new videos every fortnight. Her channel is equal parts delicious and nauseating – for every yum-looking five kilo Chinese food challenge, there’s also Max Key eating a measly amount of chicken nuggets. “Easily my most hated video,” she says. “Because it’s Max Key and people hate Max Key.”
How does the human body react to 36 Creme Eggs, 100 chicken fries, 50 Krispy Kreme donuts? “It’s obviously not a healthy thing for me to do all the time, but if I’m doing one big challenge a month then my body can deal with it.” Filming is often followed with a glass of cold water and a lie down, no running around or leaving the house allowed. “I basically make sure I have nothing else to do that day,” she says.
Although Zisser is naturally gifted in the sacred art of eating, she admits there are simple tips and tricks for the layperson to up their consumption in the event of a buffet situation. “The main thing you have to do is not eat that day,” she says. “I noticed at contests that some people eat a big breakfast – that’s just not something you should be doing if you want to eat a lot of food that day.” Buffet preparation should begin the day before, she says, with several hearty meals to stretch out the stomach.
I told Zisser about my attempt the the Happy Meal challenge, one which culminated in me choking on an ambitious bit of hamburger and having to Heimlich manoeuvre myself over a balcony to survive. She scolded my technique. “If you start choking, you just have to push more food down and then you stop choking. People don’t realise that, they get very scared. Just stay relaxed and don’t freak out, push some more food down and it will dislodge. If you freak out, you’ll choke and die.”
The Spinoff does not endorse this very freaky-sounding method.
Another key to smashing a large meal is to keep your water consumption to small sips. “You should just be using the drink to moisten the food and get it down. I’ll take tiny sips but I will never chug it down – I probably drink only about a cup of water per challenge.” It also helps to use moist foods to your advantage. “If you’re eating a burger, you’ve got to logically think about what you are eating first. You’ve got to use the wet tomato and the lettuce get down the patty and the bread. It’s a lot to think about.”
Despite being an expert in her field, Zisser still isn’t immune to people commenting on YouTube about everything but her incredible skill. “I’d say it’s about 80% good and 20% complete trash. But it’s YouTube, what do you expect?” Having competed in international pageants such as Miss Earth in 2013, she’s very used to being judged on how she looks. “The bad comments are all related to my body, or the way I look – comments that you’d say to a girl but you would never say to a guy.”
It’s a surprise that Zisser has time to look at any of the comments at all – she’s also studying at medical school, and casually drops into conversation that she also owns restaurant Tucks & Bao in Newmarket. “I’d like to do more videos but I’ve got to think about my priorities – med school was very hard to get into so I don’t want to squander it.” She’s looking to eventually specialise in reconstructive trauma surgery, and is about to open a second Tucks & Bao restaurant in Takapuna this month. And that’s all before she’s even managed to eat a block of butter.
The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.