Chatting with competitive eating champ Joey Chestnut

Meatballs mean serious business for eating champ Joey Chestnut.
Illustration: Wes Gatbonton
Jim Begley

How did you get your start in competitive eating?

It’s weird … something I never really imagined doing. My little brother was a fan of it and he knew I was the biggest eater in the family. He signed me up for my first contest, and after the first one I knew my body was made for it.

And what was that first contest?

It was lobster [in 2005]. He signed me up for the lobster-eating contest. The hardest part for me is just eating in front of people. But once I got used to it, I definitely started winning.

You don’t get nervous anymore?

I always get nervous. I’m a nervous wreck before every competition.

You seem pretty calm up there.

I’m not necessarily calm but I’m definitely focused. I know what I have to do.

A recent Wall Street Journal article calculated that you’ve earned around $17,000 per hour competed. Were you aware of that?

That kills me when you put the numbers together (laughs). For the actual time I’m eating I’m doing pretty well. It’s pretty ridiculous.

Are you a full-time competitive eater now or are you still working construction?

I [still] work in construction management, but I do really well in eating. I’ve been very lucky to make a lot in competitive eating.

You’ve been in competitive eating for more than five years. What kind of effect has that had on you?

If anything, I think I’m really actually healthier. I’ve figured out my body. I get my body into a cycle where I’ll fast for several days before a contest, then I do a practice contest, then I fast again, do the actual contest, and then recover. I’ve learned to respect my body and learned to make sure my body can recover.

It’s been a lot of trial and error to figure out how to make my body feel good even though I’m abusing it. There are no books written on it, so it has been difficult. I can see how a lot of people would become unhealthy, though I feel pretty good.

What’s the immediate impact after a competition?

Oh my god. It depends what the food is, but, like, the meatballs—they’ll taste good but it’s a lot of meat. I’m expecting to be exhausted right after the contest. I’m going to be thirsty, and I’ll want to be sure to drink lots of warm water to help the food digest. If I eat nine or 10 pounds of meatballs I should be fine. I can easily digest 17 or 18 pounds of food. It’s just figuring out your body and feeling comfortable making my body do what I know it can do.


Do you eat normally or are you always training?

I eat pretty much like a normal person. Sometimes I get carried away if it’s a food I really like. This is my first contest in four weeks, so I’m just starting to get my body back in a cycle where I’m eating big meals and fasting and making sure that my body is used to ingesting a ridiculous amount of food. I love it.

When you’re not training what do you like to eat?

The same stuff as everybody. If I go to a baseball game I’m going to have a bratwurst or maybe a hot dog. I love ribs and chicken wings—whatever my mom is cooking. I love pastas and a good steak.

What’s your proudest accomplishment in competitive eating?

Being able to win the hot dog title four years in a row and my record of 68 hot dogs in 10 minutes. When I started competitive eating all the other Americans [said] nobody can beat Kobayashi. I thought, really? Someone has to be able to beat him. So that was the goal from the start for me. My goal was to beat him, and I was amazed that I was able to do it in two years.

What’s the toughest competition you’ve participated in?

I did a jalapeño eating contest one time and it was awful. It was really awful. I was paying for that one for days. I had never really abused my body with jalapeños before and so my body didn’t know how to handle it. I also went to Singapore and did a chicken satay eating contest. It was chicken in a curry sauce, and it was spicy. That was something my body wasn’t aware of either.

Are there any foods you won’t or can’t eat?

I won’t eat grits. I did a grit-eating contest and I won’t do that ever again. I won’t even touch grits. It’s like eating sand! That’s the only thing that comes to mind when I think of eating grits. They should be illegal.

How are meatballs different from the hot dogs you’re famous for scarfing down?

They’re a little different since they’re in sauce already. There’s no bread so it’s just pure meat. They’re gourmet meatballs, too, so there’s a lot more flavor to these. The sauce itself tastes great and there a lot of different kinds of flavors going on. At first it’ll be really easy but then the flavor becomes an obstacle and it becomes more difficult.

How do you feel about having to use utensils in this competition? It doesn’t bother me. I try to be neat. Over the years I’ve gotten a little bit messier because of the competition—it forces us to push a little bit harder. I like the utensils because it forces everybody to keep it clean.

What’s your strategy for defending your title in this competition?

I just have to get into a rhythm in that first minute. Once I get into a rhythm, I can control my breathing, control my hands, control how much food I’m putting in. I want to get all the muscles in my jaws and esophagus and around my stomach all to work together to get the food in. If I get into that rhythm in the first minute it’ll all be good.

You ate 50 meatballs last year. What’s your guess on this year’s mark? It’s hard to predict since sometimes they change the size of the meatballs. I think they calculated that I ate a little more than eight pounds last year, so if I can get nine pounds I’ll be happy. It should be a fun contest since it’s going to be in front of a huge audience.

When you’re done with the competition, where do you like to eat in Vegas? Ooh, I’m not going to be eating much (laughs). I’m going to be going to the mall and getting one of those three-foot big drinks … a daiquiri with Everclear. The alcohol will loosen up my muscles.


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