In the annals of professional breakfasting, perhaps no name has sounded out quite like that of Richard Alpen. His appeal was unique, his influence on breakfast undeniable. Having earned the respect of luminaries of the field of professional eggs and baconing when his peers were still fighting their way up the rankings, Alpen expanded the International Breakfast Association into an industry force. His charitable work in the development of free facilities for children to eat breakfast under I.B.A. coaching is as notable among humanitarians as among advocates for the regulation of pancake size. Innovator, champion, loving husband and father of two, Richard Alpen was more than just a great eater of eggs and bacon. He was an eater of life.
Alpen started his breakfasting career auspiciously, winning five out of six I.B.A. Grand Slams in his rookie season, and making 1997 Egg and Toast Magazine “Man of the Year.” Alpen’s Eating Breakfast for a Better You motivational video series topped bestseller lists in 1998, and the film biopic, depicting his rise to breakfasting glory in the greasy spoon diners of Hoboken, New Jersey, won four statuettes in the 2002 Academy Awards ceremonies, including Best Song for Celene Dion’s ballad, “The Most Important Meal of the Day.” Experiencing a minor setback after releasing an album under the hip-hop moniker, M.C. Egg Whites, Alpen bounced back with a successful petition to the International Olympic Committee to include professional breakfasting in the 2004 Olympic Games. After his subsequent appointment as coach, Team U.S.A. won the silver medal for Eggs and Baconing and a gold for Toast Sopping.
Alpen wasted no time in silencing those critics who had speculated that Olympic coaching had softened his form. Upon resuming his professional career, analysts and fans alike agreed that Alpen’s egging technique had maintained the consistency and ruthless elegance of his brilliant early years. Due to stress injuries, Alpen originated a new fork-knife position in the second act of his career, a stance since coined as the “Curly-cue Crossbent,” a tines-down fork orientation with the opposing forefinger bridged over the dull edge of the knife.
A study done over several months in 2006 at the Motor Skills Initiative at The University of Toronto showed that Alpen’s form had actually improved compared with footage from his rookie season, his perfectly triangular bites as accurate and streamlined as ever with an almost robot-like efficiency to his chew technique. A 20/20 “Special Report” with Barbara Walters conducted in conjunction with the study showed the now famous slow-motion footage of Alpen cutting a piece of sausage, dipping it in the yoke of his egg, lifting the morsel to his mouth, sipping his coffee, and then tearing off an additional bit of toast, all in a fraction of a second and with a fluidity of motion not previously thought possible at such speed. In the televised special, the slow-motion footage was shown in split-screen alongside video of cheetahs bounding over the grasslands of the Serengeti. Additional trials in the study conducted with random degrees of difficulty—jelly added to his toast, syrup to his pancakes, even some loose grounds in his coffee, requiring picking of the teeth—showed little to no difference in IBA style points or Bites Per Second.
Alpen’s golden boy image declined somewhat in the post-Olympic years. Always intensely private, Alpen did his best to keep his wife, Jeri, and his children, Ethan and Jennifer, out of the limelight. But the 2006 publication of the unauthorized biography Egg on My Face sent shockwaves through the professional breakfasting community, giving light to revelations about his swinging bachelor past, a doping scandal centered during his college days from which he was eventually exonerated, and a salmonella accident on the compound of his New Jersey estate. These events shook the faith of even his most hardcore fans. Alpen’s closely guarded childhood history was also finally revealed, passages on Alpen’s formative years painting his mother as an obsessive who controlled every aspect of her son’s eating habits. During this time of public hardship, opposing fans at his away matches took to chanting “Over easy! Over easy! Do it again!” as a send-up of one particular passage from the biography where Alpen’s mother allegedly forced him to eat breakfast ten times during a 24-hour period. The man himself never responded to such taunts, though his trademark smile and perhaps something of his swagger were lost forever.
But Alpen outlasted his critics, bringing his professional career to a close on a wave of popular resurgence following the 2008 public television retrospective directed by Ken Burns, in which the director was granted unprecedented access to Alpen through a series of in-depth interviews. After retirement, Alpen took a teaching position at the Academe Gastronomique, where he had learned breakfasting methods with the French Masters and first competed as an undergraduate. His biggest collaborator at the Academe was his former teacher, Gaston Gourmagond, an Austrian master known for his radical views that breakfast should be motivated from existential hunger, an approach he called the Alienation breakfast theory. Alpen and Gourmagond would write a book together, entitled Unbreaking the Yoke: How to Bridge the Void With Breakfast, in which teacher and student shared equal billing defining what would become the “New School” of professional eggs and baconing.
In his twilight years, Richard Alpen enjoyed standing invitations at the finest restaurants in the world, though most days he could be found bellying up to his old table at the IHOP a block from his parents’ house. A steadfast man of the people, he believed the greatest effect of his celebrity was to inspire the egg-deprived children of his community. Every Sunday, his fans crowded around his table at his neighborhood IHOP to watch him eat eggs, the diner keeping permanent accommodations for a press line. His every bite was an event, and the last bit of egg-sopped toast from his plate was invariably met with rounds of applause and cheers. He always stayed after his performances to sign autographs or take pictures with his adoring fans, posed with his empty plate, brandished a smile and a thumbs up. And when the odd nay-saying bystander broke through the clamor of hero-worship with remarks like, “Aren’t you just eating breakfast?” he only shrugged and nodded his head amiably. Perhaps Richard Alpen was just eating breakfast. But his eating was like no other.
Richard Alpen was laid to rest on Tuesday at Lily of the Valley Cemetary, dead from heart failure at the age of 29.