'Joey Chestnut's technique disturbs me.' by shiny red type is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Jul 1, 2021
Joey Chestnut is pretty sure he can eat more than 75 hot dogs in 10 minutes
A conversation with the greatest competitive eater of all time, who discusses his training, technique and the terrors of cow brain tacos
Joey “Jaws” Chestnut will spend Independence Day trying to gobble his way to a 14th “Mustard Belt.” That, of course, is the prize, along with $10,000, awarded to the winner of Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog-Eating Contest, held annually in Maimonides Park on Coney Island. The field doesn’t stand much of a chance. Chestnut, 37, claimed the 2020 title by devouring a record-setting 75 hot dogs in 10 minutes.
Read that part again: 75 hot dogs in 10 minutes.
And yet, his dominance surprised no one. Over the last decade, Chestnut has bested almost every competitor while setting over 40 world records by laying waste to mountains of gyoza (384 in 10 minutes), pulled pork (9 pounds, 6 ounces in 10 minutes), Twinkies (121 in 6 minutes), traditional tacos (126 in 8 minutes), shrimp cocktail (15 pounds in 8 minutes) and other horrifying founts of foodstuffs.
Chestnut was 21 when he entered a lobster-eating competition at the urging of his brother. Sixteen years later, he has cemented his legacy as the greatest competitive eater of all time. In advance of Sunday’s showdown, where he will attempt to break his own record, he spoke with Brooklyn Magazine about how he prepares for contests, reviewed career highlights and lowlights, and discussed the distant prospect of his retirement. The following conversation has been edited for flow.
Last year you put down 75 dogs, which is absolutely wild. How are you feeling going into this year’s competition, and do you think you can beat your own record?
I feel like I can. It’s just a matter of whether my body cooperates day-of, and if the hot dogs and weather cooperate. There are some variables, but I feel like 76-plus could definitely happen.
How have you been preparing for the contest?
The same way I usually do. I do hot dog practices about once a week, videotape them and try to see where and when I start slowing down. Then there are certain exercises I do for my throat and jaw. But yeah, this year I feel pretty good. I feel like I have a ridiculous capacity to eat hot dogs right now, so I feel like everything’s lining up to set a new record.
Getting from dog one to dog 75 must feel like an adventure. Where does it get difficult?
In the beginning I’m a madman. I’m excited, the muscles in my throat and jaw are strong, and I can chew a hot dog and swallow it in like three bites. But like any muscles they start getting tired, and I have to chew more, and right around hot dog 30 I can tell I’m starting to slow down a little bit. I’ll start using my hand to grind the hot dog against my teeth so it’s not my jaw doing all the work. My bites become a little bit smaller.
Are there other techniques you use to maximize the number of dogs you can get down?
In the beginning of the contest I dunk the buns and kind of ring out the water, but towards the end of the contest my mouth isn’t producing any saliva anymore, so I use more of the water to help swallow. You’ll also see me trying to stand up as straight as possible at the end to make use of every bit of my capacity. In the beginning of the contest, I’ll lean over more and try to get the food to settle deep in my stomach.
You’ve set dozens of records. Which has been the most challenging, and where do hot dogs rank on the difficulty spectrum?
Hot dogs are definitely the hardest record. This is the most important contest of the year, and it’s the one I put the most energy into, so of all my records I think it’s the hardest for someone to beat. But I mean there’s other ones—141 hard boiled eggs in eight minutes was really tough. I did 54 cow brain tacos, and I don’t think I’ll ever break that record or be doing that again. I remember Matt Stonie and [Takeru] Kobayashi did that contest years later and they weren’t able to beat me either, so it’s always good when a record stands the test of time against other good eaters.
What’s the worst thing you’ve had to eat in a competition?
The cow brain tacos, visually speaking, were the worst. They literally looked like brains. But they didn’t taste that bad, so I can’t really say that was the worst. The worst—and it sucked because I love crab cakes—was when I went to Delaware for a contest at this casino, and as soon as I got there I saw the crab cakes sitting out in the sun, and I was like, “Oh, that doesn’t look good.” My body rejected it from the start, and it’s the only time where I really regretted it.
What are the consequences for your body when you put down massive amounts of food?
It’s always weight gain for me. I love to eat. There’ve been summers where I do a contest almost every weekend, and I travel to a new city on Wednesday, eat the local food for a day, then try to fast before the contest on a Saturday, and I end up gaining 30 pounds in the summer. Last year there weren’t a ton of contests, but I still gained some weight, and it was really hard to lose it. Other times we’re eating hard to swallow food that scratches your throat when you don’t chew it up. Like I did a popcorn eating contest recently, and my whole mouth was just chafed and raw. I don’t want to do that again. I did an ice cream sandwich contest and I actually had frostbite on my fingers. It wasn’t serious-serious, but it was there for a week.
You mentioned fasting. Is that something you do before most competitions?
I say fasting but it’s really a cleanse. I just make sure it’s easy to digest whatever I put in. So when I’m fasting, I’m still taking on some calories, but I just want to make sure that in the beginning of the contest I’m actually hungry. I’ve found that when I’m actually hungry it’s easy to get into it.
Do you do this full-time?
Yeah, there are usually contests all year. It’s my full-time job. Eight years ago I gave up my job in construction management. It’s weird that I’m an adult and pay my own health care and retirement but still get to be a kid and travel and eat like a madman.
It seems like you’re at your peak of your career, but do you ever think about retirement?
Absolutely, but I look back on my old jobs in construction management, where my job was to hassle people about money and I never made anybody happy, and now I get to travel around and people are happy to meet me, and chefs, when I go to their restaurant, they’re happy to give me their best food. I have the best gig in the world. I love it.
Follow along Sunday afternoon at 12 p.m. ET when Chestnut will attempt to break his 75 hot dog record live on ESPN.
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