How did you get into competitive eating?
I was a fan of the sport in the ’90s when it was a sub-culture, but now it’s sort of entered the mainstream. It all started for me when I was in New Orleans for the 2002 Super Bowl. While I ended up not being able to afford to go to the game I did get to eat oysters on the half-shell and broke the restaurant record at the Acme Oyster House. I ate 34 dozen of them in the course of the Super Bowl [that’s 408 oysters!].
Is seafood your forté?
I certainly consider my stomach kind of like a beacon welcoming the ocean’s creatures back to it, but I’ve also done well in the vegetable discipline: I’m the four-time corn on the cob eating champion. I think when most people start they have a speciality or a food they love, but once you get into it you have to be a cross-disciplined athlete. You have to be good at every kind of food.
You’ve mentioned ‘sport’ and ‘athlete’: do you see what you do in such serious terms, or is tongue firmly in cheek?
This is an aerobic activity where 10 minutes of eating can be a marathon. We use mind-over-stomach-matter, but we do it in a way that sports psychologists would understand, so I definitely think of us as pro athletes.
What’s the secret to eating quickly?
It all depends on the food. Debris food that leaves a bone, like chicken wings, has several techniques, but there’s really no secret. What tends to happen is that eaters get better each year as they compete and figure out new ways of eating hot dogs and buns quicker, for example, which may be by dunking the bun or opening up the fleshy underside. A lot of it is a personal journey to figure out the quickest way to eat the food.
So there’s nothing that enables you guys to eat more than the rest of us, from a physiological point of view?
I think there are two eaters in history – Tekaru Kobayashi and Sonya ‘The Black Widow’ Thomas – who have something about their body’s make up that makes them excellent eaters, but for the rest of us it’s pretty much learned technique.
Are you all naturally hungry people?
Yes, I think if you look at some of the top eaters like Joey Chestnut, they come from large families of six or seven siblings so clearly there was the notion of trying to eat as quickly as you could to get the most at the dinner table.
Why does Joey Chestnut seem to be winning everything at the moment?
Joey is one of those rare athletes that really thrives on competitions – he needs someone pushing him to do his best, but he’s pretty much unbeatable, especially in hot dogs and buns. He’s won that 10 years in a row: this year he ate 72, which is more than I ate in three qualifiers. He’s unstoppable at certain disciplines.
What was your greatest achievement?
I’ve sort of combined competitive eating with some food ‘stunt man’ type activities so I was buried alive in 80 cubic feet of popcorn and had to eat my way out. I also rode on top of the Wonder Wheel at Coney Island, which goes 200 feet in the air and ate hot dogs as it revolved.
Is there a living to be made out of this?
They rank the top 50 pros and there’s money to be made, but really the only guy without another job is whoever is ranked Number 1 – currently Joey Chestnut. But there’s prize money and money in appearances, and corporations will pay you to eat their food in competitions. It’s an interesting side-line.
Do you train before a competition?
You do technique training because you want to figure out what you’re going to do, but just like marathon runners don’t run 26.2 miles the day before their race, we don’t eat for 10 straight minutes the food we’re going to eat later on, because that would do you in. A lot of it is about pre-visualisation.
Do you ever get protesters at competitions?
Occasionally. Competitive eating used to bring up a lot of hot-button issues but those complexities, whether it’s obesity or world hunger, are pretty involved. We don’t have any leftovers, we involve ourselves with charities that give back to food banks, so the protesters are few and far between.
Is illness and death an occupational hazard?
You rarely feel ill. You definitely feel satiated and you don’t eat for another 24 hours or so, so it’s like an anaconda diet. You feel the fullest right at the buzzer, but then the food starts to settle. And if you throw up during a contest you’re disqualified, so you’ve got to keep it down. We have very few injuries. If there’s a pizza-eating contest you might burn the roof of your mouth, but for the most part food becomes soft and malleable. We have emergency doctors at every event and no one’s ever really gotten injured.
What was your worst day at work?
I’ve lost hot dog qualifiers by a single bite. That’s happened a couple of times and it’s a tough thing to stomach, so to speak.
Are you a big eater at home?
I am, but I watch what I eat so that I’m able to do my best. So I jog, I go to the gym, but I do like good food in big quantities so I’m kind of a gourmet and a gourmand.