If you don't live in Ontario, you probably don't know that Mandarin is a chain of all-you-can-eat Chinese-Canadian buffets that lands somewhere between Degrassi and Canada's Wonderland on the cultural spectrum. The place is an institution. Since opening their Brampton location in 1979, Mandarin has expanded to 20-plus (giant-ass) restaurants, offering customers an assortment of Asian, North American, and fusion cuisine. The buffet was also home to many fundraisers for Toronto's former mayor, the late Rob Ford, who just loved the spot.
In grade school, my peers talked about the buffet the way that college students talk about their trip to India: It was a cultural experience that deeply changed how they viewed and interacted with the world. There was even one kid who claimed his family made a weekly pilgrimage to the restaurant, though this was also the same kid who claimed to be next-door neighbours with The Ultimate Warrior. After hearing about it from my classmates, I would beg my parents to go to Mandarin, and I did manage to make it to the buffet twice: once after we put down our family dog, and another time after attending the funeral for a distant relative. In retrospect the fact that my parents used massive amounts of food to quell the inevitability of death seems somewhat problematic, but at the time I wasn't thinking about that. At the time I was thinking that chicken balls in gallons of red sauce are fucking awesome.
Earlier this year I celebrated my 27th birthday and was overwhelmed with the fact that by this age most of my heroes had already gotten famous and died. I've tried to cope with this idea in a couple of different ways: I went to acupuncture, listened to Tony Robbins tapes, and both increased and lowered my antidepressants. None of these things worked and, seeking other options, I decided to return to the childhood comforts of Mandarin. You know, like my parents taught me. I made a pitch to my editor asking if I could spend the duration of service at the buffet (approximately four hours, depending on location) taking in the scene while eating as many plates as possible. I would experience Mandarin as an adult, and I would eat food until I didn't feel feelings anymore. I would sacrifice a bit of my body for piece of mind.
To prep for the Mandarin experiment, I contacted fitness professional and owner of Bang Fitness Geoff Gervitz to talk strategy. "First of all, I can't recommend that you do this," explained Gervitz. "But your number one priority is to eat as rapidly as possible. Stretch receptors in the gut take 15-20 minutes to register satiety. Hormonal regulation during this time is further cued by awareness of flavours and textures, as well as slow, methodical chewing. So don't do any of that shit. Just shovel the food down. Be rushed and—ideally—be distracted. I wish you the best of luck with your impending diarrhea."
With this information in mind I made a reservation for Thursday lunch at Mandarin's Yonge and Eglinton location in Toronto. By booking a reservation at the lunch buffet I hoped that less people would witness my solo descent into a sodium-induced coma. My goal was to eat ten plates of food. I would only stop if I got physically ill.
I arrived at Mandarin just after opening. I waited in line behind half a dozen senior citizens, who were being asked to show ID in order to confirm they are indeed eligible to participate in the seniors discount. After, three staff in matching green Hawaiian shirts ushered me past the broken cotton candy machine and showed me to my corner table in section E. I was given a hot towel to start my experience. I wiped down my face, ordered a diet coke (natch), and from there embarked on a life of desserts, fried food, and freedom. The following are my notes over eleven plates and four hours at Mandarin buffet, and if you're into blurry pictures of food and existential rambling, hold onto your butt. You're in for a wild ride.
Plate One: Mussels, Curry Chicken, White Fish, Spicy Chicken, Corn, Tempura Yam and Broccoli, Pickles
I treated the first plate like a pool. I jumped in headfirst and hoped that my body would acclimatize quickly. My plate was a little bit of everything from around the buffets perimeter. If it looked appealing I took it. The buffet itself was huge. I had assumed that my childhood memory had distorted the size, but Mandarin literally has bigger selection of food there than I had ever seen outside of a grocery store. The only questionable thing was the placement of the sushi station directly beside three giant aquariums. Seemed kind of tactless. As I finished the first plate and was feeling pretty good and incredibly excited. How difficult could nine more plates be?
Plate Two: Corn on the Cob, Sausage, Quinoa Salad, Caesar Salad, Seaweed Salad, Mussels, Shrimp
For my second plate I dialed things back. It was like a band moving to a deep-cut ballad after starting with their radio-hit. It was like waiting to text the required amount (whatever that is, no one knows) after a great first date. It was like a dude eating a bunch of salad in an attempt to avoid bloating. My grandpa always described salad as the anti-meat. He told me that if you eat enough salad it curbs out whatever you ate before. I've known this was a lie for a very long time, but whatever, that's Grandpa. Got to eat something for your second plate.
Plate Three: Cream of Mushroom Soup, BLT Sushi Roll, Spring Roll Sushi Roll, Ginger, Wasabi
Let me say this: In general, Mandarin's food is pretty good. It was certainly beyond the expectations I had for a place where you are encouraged to consume as much as you can. Some things on the buffet were downright delicious, worthy of a Toronto Life write-up. That being said, the Mandarin's sushi rolls were an abomination. There was the BLT roll and spring-roll roll. These things are exactly what they sound like, and they're disgusting.
At this point my server came to check on me. She was petite and so impossibly nice that I felt guilty eating in her general vicinity. She wanted to remind me that the restaurant was hosting its "Celebrate Canada" event, and suggested I try some of the foods curated to reflect our wonderful country. "Try the chocolate covered maple bacon," she said. "It's delicious." I marked her suggestion and thought about my fear of getting older. Maybe I could just fill the emptiness in my life with more food? Maybe I could stay at Mandarin forever and every time I felt bad I could just get another plate? Was that an option? I also marked that, under normal circumstances, this is where I would have unequivocally stopped consuming food.
Plate Four: Bannock, Calamari, Onion Rings, Steak, Lemon Chicken, Grilled Chicken, Chicken Wing, Fried Shrimp, Loaded Potato Skin, Tempura Yam
Plate four is where I stopped fucking around. This plate included three different types of chicken. It included calamari and onion rings paired together because of their fried and ring shaped qualities. The wildcard of the plate was the Bannock, a type of bread that is often served by Indigenous Canadians as said the helpful comment card placed beside the Canadian Flag made entirely of sushi rice. Plate four was an incredible array of culinary delights, and it was also when I started to feel physically ill.
Plate Five: Bread (with Butter), Pepperoni Pizza, Nanaimo Bar, Tourtiere Meat Pie, Spring Roll, Chicken Ball, Corned Beef
Before plate five I took a 15-minute break to people watch and double check that my arteries still moved blood. Save for a handful of children I was the youngest person at the lunch buffet by at least a decade. There were groups of seniors, two business meetings, and a few older couples. There were also three other people in my section eating alone, and while my gut reaction was to feel sorry for these people, there was no need. They were fucking stoked, and they were making my food eating skills look amateur.
When I finally worked up the courage to go for plate five, shit got a little crazy. I put pepperoni pizza and a Nanaimo bar on the same plate like I was trying to work through the fever dream of my grade-school chubby years, and from there all bets were off. Bread and Butter? Sure. Chicken Balls? You better believe it. Tourtiere? I love Quebec. Corned Beef? Whop-dee-do it. Upon finishing I looked about seven months pregnant, I was releasing air out of every hole, and I was sweating. This was the fullest I had ever been.
Plate Six: Frozen Yogurt (with Sprinkles), Chocolate Bacon (with Sprinkles), Watermelon, Chocolate Banana, Waffle (with Whipped Cream, Syrup, and Blueberry Sauce)
At plate six I started questioning the morality of my actions. Like, with millions of people hungry in the world, is it morally OK for me to continue eating, even if most of this food is going to be thrown out at the end of the day anyways? Am I actually doing the right thing by trying to eat soon-to-be-tossed-out food? Anyway, my head hurt too much to really get into it.
Accepting that I may not physically be able to continue I loaded up on desserts. As I was crunching down on the maple chocolate covered bacon, which was not as delicious I had I had hoped, when my impossibly nice waitress returns. "Would you like some tea or coffee to go along with the end of your meal?" she asked.
"Oh, no. I'm planning on having more," I replied.
"Oh," she says. Then she walked away.
Plate Seven: Sausage (again), Chocolate-Covered Banana, Deep-Fried Wonton, Lemon Chicken, Lemon, Melon, Celery
At this point of the meal the concept of ten plates stopped being about food and started being about commitment. I was two and a half hours in and seriously considering quitting, but then I thought back to all the things in my life I given up on. A dozen or so relationships. Countless writing projects (shockingly, not this one). Four false starts of P90x. If only for myself, I needed to finish ten plates of food. I needed to prove that I was a finisher. A closer. I had an hour and fifteen minutes to finish three more plates of food. At the table beside me a lone man finished a plate filled to capacity with only chicken balls. Buddy motivated me to press on.
Plate Eight: Deep-Fried Wonton (Again), Oranges, Mini Cheesecake, Jello Shooter, Jello Squares, Tempura Broccoli, Tempura Zucchini
Growing up as a goth, I frequently dropped Nietzsche into casual conversation, but not until stomaching cheesecake chased by tempura did I truly understand that when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks back at you. I moved onto the Jello squares and then the Jello shooter. In my notes I scribbled: are these the actions of a man who is happy with his life? Probably best I avoid answering that.
Plate Nine: Spicy Chicken, Onion Rings, Grapes, Watermelon, Lemon, Cheesecake
By plate nine the entirety of the dining room had turned over three times and my waitress was no longer speaking to me and rightfully so. Occasionally she would stop by to clear any excess plates and refill my diet coke. I had arranged the plate mostly for coverage, and was taking my sweet time with bites and chews. I have had rumors online about Mandarin having a cutoff point after two hours, and while theoretically I was grateful to continue my mission of the full four hours and the full ten plates, it is also important to note at this time I had tasted bile in my mouth at least three times
Plate Ten: Doughnut (with Custard Topping), Chocolate-Covered Bananas, Pecan Pie, Oranges, Fruit Medley
This was it. Plate ten. While stacking up my plate I started with a giant donut and poured custard over top, threw on a chocolate banana, and topped it off with pecan pie for good luck. It was like a marathon runner making that final sprint for the finish line. I had pushed my body to the limit and wanted to make one more burst to see how far it would go. Chewing down and recognizing that this would be final plate I reflected on what I had just done and felt an honest to god sense of accomplishment, and while I realize that journalistically what I had just done was closer to Guy Fieri than Hunter S. Thompson, I felt proud, if very sick. With fifteen minutes to spare I asked for the bill.
Bonus Round: Fortune Cookie
My fortune cookie read "Keep your eyes open and take advantage of the unexpected." A better fortune may have been "You've made and will continue to make bad choices in your life."
Graham Isador threw up while getting to the subway. Follow him on Twitter.