By Francisco Alvarado
By Trevor Bach
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
Clean, sober, and a nonsmoker, Joe LaRue became restless. He left Stacey, and two years ago, needing a change, he did what 700 people do each day: move to Florida. Originally, he followed a woman to Coral Springs, but that imploded about the time he got here. So he was kicking around, working for an appliance repair shop, when friends told him a meal he cooked one night was so intricate and flavorful that he should be a chef. In September 2002, he enrolled in culinary school, at Johnson & Wales University; he is two years shy of a bachelor's degree.
"He's still struggling," his sister Cathy says. "But I think he's come a long way, and I'm proud of him for moving on."
In fact, LaRue has sublimated his self-destructive cravings into a calling. Whereas some recovering addicts find God, he found food.
According to LaRue, the best Broward sushi restaurant is an all-you-can-eat joint in a Lauderhill strip mall between a ten-cent bingo parlor and an adult video store with posters advertising Paris Hilton's One Night in Paris. He drives there one 80-degree summer evening with the heat running full-blast in his irascible 1995 Chevy S-10 so the engine doesn't turn to cinder.
When the enormous man lumbers into Sushi Takara, heads turn. He plops down and fills out the little order cards that look like Monopoly money. In the next 45 minutes, he eats two pieces of white tuna, 32 sections of various rolls, seven hand rolls, a summer roll, an autumn roll, a spicy conch salad, something called a son-in-law egg, and three chunks of tempura bananas. "I could eat more," he says, "but I don't want to bore you." Then a waiter brings a huge plate of stuff that LaRue didn't order and walks off. By now, you can pretty much guess what happens.
"Excess has been with me my entire life in one form or another," he says. "I have found a balance with it. I can't let excess rule my life."
In another dimension, Joe LaRue would be merely local legend, a wisecracking gentle giant with a storm drain where his esophagus ought to be. His friend Marshall Levy, the former banquet sous chef at Turnberry, praises LaRue for working hard and pushing himself to invent new dishes. But Levy marvels at the cafeteria lunches in which his friend mows down three heaping plates of food. "How can one man eat so much food?" Levy says. "I don't know where it goes, I don't know how he doesn't get sick or something. To be honest, it was kind of nauseating."
It was 1999 when LaRue had the mini-epiphany that launched his athletic career. He had just come from the all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast at the Marathon Maple Festival in Marathon, New York, when he mentioned to someone that the festival ought to have a pancake-eating contest. He was told that they did -- and that he had missed it by an hour. He waited a year, then made like MacArthur and won the first of his three titles there.
"We've had some characters, some 300-pounders -- you can't fit a ribbon around their neck," says Connie White, who coordinates events at the festival. "They can't eat like Joe LaRue. Those guys go down in flames."
Florida opened a new world of eating for LaRue. In June 2002, he read about the Nathan's qualifier at Pembroke Lakes Mall after the fact. He went online and joined the IFOCE. "That's when they contacted me and told me, 'Hey there's a contest down your way,' " LaRue says. "I said, 'Oh, really? Kickass.' " It was conch fritters, in Key West. He drove down as an unknown and placed second, with 41 fritters down the ol' stovepipe. Among those in his conch contrails: Ed "The Animal" Krachie, a two-time Nathan's winner at Coney Island.
"Dude, I was elated with second place," LaRue says. "I thought I could have won it. I hesitated for maybe 15 seconds -- which when you're competing is an eternity -- to catch my breath, look around for a second. I lost like two, three conch fritters."
Suddenly, a surreal thing was happening. LaRue was finding that an ability he had always taken for granted was being measured. And he happened to be one of the best in the world. The next year, he romped in the local qualifying event for the Nathan's competition, with 14 dogs, and at the 2003 Nathan's contest at Coney Island, he scarfed 19, good enough for eighth place. He followed that with a sixth-place finish at a chicken wings competition in Buffalo and seventh at a chicken taco contest in Grand Central Station.
The only time LaRue has been formally kicked out of a restaurant was the day he pulled a chair up to a Shoney's breakfast buffet in Davie for a radio stunt in 2003. The manager shooed him. "Well, it's an all-you-can-eat buffet, right?" he replied. "I'm going to eat it all." The manager threatened to call the cops. LaRue filled a couple of plates and was noshing away when an officer arrived and politely escorted him out.
"I wasn't trying to be a hard nose, but I wasn't going to put up with that," general manager Barbara Higgins says. "Our biggest seller is our buffet. I get complaints when a child goes up and touches the food, much less an adult. I'm reasonable with people, but that's not reasonable."