Ask most casual viewers of the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island to name the top competitive eaters over the years, and the first two most likely names surely are Joey Chestnut and Takeru Kobayashi.
The rivalry between the most notable competitive eaters of the century, and the history of the sport itself, is at the center of the latest ESPN “30 for 30” documentary from director Nicole Lucas Haimes, “The Good, The Bad, The Hungry.” While Kobayashi, of Japan, won the hot dog eating contest each year from 2001-06 by devouring between 44 1/2 and 53 3/4 franks, northern California’s Chestnut has lost just one of the last 12 competitions in Brooklyn while raising the world record to 74 hot dogs and buns a year ago. Kobayashi, however, has not faced off against his rival by the boardwalk since 2009 after a falling out with Major League Eating, the organization which sanctions the Nathan’s competition.
Chestnut, who will defend his hot dog crown once again Thursday, spoke with amNewYork on Sunday before throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at Citi Field in Queens.
What did you think when you were approached about the documentary?
My first thought was, “I’m honored. This is gonna be awesome.” But then I’m like, “I don’t know how she’s gonna portray us.” So I also got worried because it’s really easy to make competitive eaters out to be, I don’t know, wasteful or gross or crazy. They’re low-hanging fruit. Competitive eating is a little wasteful, but every sport is a little bit wasteful when you think about it.
Do you think it is a balanced look at competitive eating?
There is some balance. There’s no getting around it. It’s kind of gross. It’s even gross to me, but I love it. I can see, “That guy’s really pushing [me].” Once you can respect the energy and the thought that people are putting into something, you can get them past the little things.
Do you think about how the hot dogs taste while competing?
I love it when the contest starts, and I’m like, “Oh, these are good. These are good,” because sometimes when I start eating I’m like, “These ones are undercooked. They’re a little bit harder to chew.” When they’re good, they’re snappy, with the oil and grease coming out like, “Oh, I can taste the hell out of these.” So then I find my rhythm, but at the beginning of the contest I definitely taste them more. And toward the end of the contest, any of the negative stuff I’m tasting more too. All those little things that I don’t like, I gotta ignore them and [think], “How bad do I want to win?”
What else do you think about during a competition?
I’m always worried about my water. Without the wet buns or without being able to drink water, there’s always a risk of choking. Every now and then, because there’s so many people moving around on the stage, somebody tips over my water. That’s one of the biggest things on my mind all the time. I’m guarding my water. … The judges sometimes [enter my mind]. Sometimes they run out of hot dogs, and they put a plate of hot dogs on another plate of hot dogs before I eat it. So it’s hard for them to count. It’s like, “You’re not gonna be able to count what number I’m on.” These little things are always on my mind. I always gotta calm down. You’ll see a lot of times during contests, I’m closing my eyes and just going to my happy place, dunking the bun, eating, don’t forget to breathe. I’m always looking for that rhythm. Not that I’m a great dancer or runner or anything, but when you’re in a rhythm you can push yourself so much further.
What do you put on a hot dog when you’re enjoying one out of competition?
You can put anything on a hot dog. Just simple deli mustard with raw onions, I’m happy with [it]. I can do bacon. I had a kimchi hot dog not too long ago, which was delicious. I like a hot dog with cream cheese. If you can put it on something, you can put it on a hot dog.
What kind of eater were you like as a kid?
I was always a pretty big eater. We grew up with four boys in the family. Me and my younger brother [Willy] would get beat up on by my older brothers in everything, whether it was wrestling or basketball. The only thing we could beat them at was eating. We could eat more than the two older brothers.
What did your parents think when you took up the sport?
My parents are sweet. They’re kind of hippies. As long as I’m not hurting myself or hurting anybody else, they’re fine with it. I went to school, got an engineering degree, and I worked in construction for awhile. But as long as I’m happy, healthy and not going into debt, my parents are on my side.
What do you like to eat when you come to New York City?
[On Monday], I am doing a little bit of a cheat because it’s my last real food. I want to go to Katz’s [Delicatessen]. I’m not even gonna have a full pastrami sandwich, but I’ll have that. That’s pretty much it. … Hopefully on Saturday, I’ll be feeling good enough to eat some food and go out to dinner. Maybe I’ll get a steak.
Is New York pizza the best in the country?
There are some amazing New York pizza places. Amazing. But there are amazing places in Chicago, and there’s an amazing place in Oakland. You guys do have a lot of good pizza places. In Brooklyn, oh my God, you guys kill it. I can’t just say the blanket statement that New York pizza is the best because there are a lot of crappy ones too, you’ve gotta admit that. But, it’s pretty good. Pretty damn good.
What type of dieting do you practice?
I’ve done every diet there is because I like to figure out my body. I love the keto diet. I love just going on veggies and meat. But then I love breaking it and having bread for the first time because it’s like heaven. I think everybody should diet and experiment with what they put in their body. It really makes you more in tune with it. I’ve gone on water fasts, and I’ve gone on simple calorie reduction. I know my natural build is a little bit hefty. It’s really hard for me to get much lighter. But, I pay attention to my body.
Is there an unattainable number of hot dogs to eat during a contest?
My thing is: Give me a reason, and I’ll do more. If somebody comes out here and does 82, you can bet I’m gonna do 83.
You’re 35 years old. How much longer can you compete?
I don’t know. I just went to my doctor, and she was pretty happy with everything. I don’t know. We’ll see. Nobody has ever pushed themselves quite like me. I’m never gonna get complacent and think that I’m super in tune with my body, but I try to pay attention to my body. We’ll see what happens. As soon as I need to stop, or as soon as it’s not fun, I will.
Will you participate in the hot dog eating contest when you are past your prime?
No, I won’t. If I lose once, I’ll come back and win. If I don’t win again, if I can’t win it back, then let’s start thinking about [stepping away]. There’s no senior circuit [for me]. I need to be competitive if I’m doing it. I lost once in 2015, I came back and I demolished them. I have no problem losing. If someone deserves to win, then they won it that time. I’ll have to come back and earn it the next time.