Joey "Jaws" Chestnut: Just a Normal Guy... Aside from the Competitive Eating

You may have seen Joey "Jaws" Chestnut shoving his face full of hot dogs and soggy buns in the annual Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island. Since 2006, Chestnut has held the title, and even broke his own world record this summer by scarfing down 69 hot dogs in 12 minutes. Chestnut travels the globe to defend his No. 1 ranking, and his insatiable chompers will descend upon Brunswick for the inaugural Apple Pie Eating Championship at Mapleside Farms this Friday (9/13). Chestnut caught up with Scene by phone from his home in California to talk strategy as he prepares for the competition. He tells us how he got into competitive eating—accidentally—and even dishes on legendary competitive eater Takeru Kobayashi.

Sam Allard: So how are you preparing for next week's contest? Are pies and hot dogs all that different?

Joey Chestnut: I'm gonna do a couple practices with apple pies. I'm gonna get the recipe that's going to be used next week, so I'll make some pies that are similar to ones in the contest. I try to build a tolerance before every contest with every food. It makes it easier to digest. It's easier on the body when the body knows what's gonna happen.

And what about when you're not preparing? When you go out to eat, do yourorder like 10 entrees?

Right now, I'm actually eating really normal. Super healthy. Lots of chicken soup. And that's when I'm not in contest mode. I'll start to be in contest mode pretty soon.

Dare I ask, what's 'contest mode'?

Usually I take at least a week or so to get ready. I try to do at least two practices and I'll fast for at least a day and a half or two days before, no solid food.

Before the actual contest?

Before a practice even. I make sure to do those when I'm empty. And then I'm in recovery. And then I fast again and do another practice. And for every practice I try to eat a little bit more, so I can get more comfortable and build up my tolerance for eating more.

So your stomach must be just...enormous.

It's more than just the stomach. It's like, there are layers of muscle around the stomach, and after they get used to the stretching they actually grow.

What's your favorite thing to eat in a contest setting?

Man, there are so many contests. Ribs? I like ribs. I ate 13 three-quarter pounds of ribs in 12 minutes. I'm pretty good at chicken wings. I like good food—grilled cheese sandwiches? I did 47 in 10 minutes. I'm looking forward to the pie, though. That'll definitely be fun.

Ever done a pie contest before?

This'll be the first apple pie contest I've done.

Maybe this is a stupid question, but if you're a really gifted competitive eater, the food itself probably doesn't matter that much, right? I mean couldn't you eat anything really fast?

Well, I try to stay away from the spicy stuff. It's harder on my body. Like really spicy wings or duck. After a lot of contests, it hurts your esophagus. You know, it scratches your throat. It hurts really bad.

What's the hardest contest you've ever done?

I was in South Korea eating kimchi. That was really rough.

Remind me what that is again.

Kimchi? It's like vegetables, mostly. Spicy vegetables. It was really, really rough.

That was in South Korea? So you really travel all over the place for these competitions?

Yeah, I've been really lucky. I travel the world, from Korea to Australia to Thailand. It's just been great.

Do you consider it, like, your job? Or do you do something else for a day job?

Right now, it's my job. It's my primary source of income and I have a blast. I have my engineering degree and I worked construction for three years, but for the last two years, I've been supporting myself on competitive eating. It's so weird. It's like, I'm a normal guy, other than the competitive eating. Growing up, I'd never imagined doing it. And even when I started, I didn't think I'd be this involved.

When did you start? Or when did you realize eating was something you were really good at?

It wasn't even me. I was 21. I was in college. I would try to eat healthy during the week and reward myself on the weekend. I'd go to my parents' house and just eat everything in the fridge. My little brother noticed it and made me do my first contest. There was a lobster eating contest at a casino. My brother signed me up and the casino offered me a free room, and I was in.

But you didn't really arrive on the national scene until a little later, right?

Yeah, in '06 I first made a challenge for the [Nathan's Coney Island Hot Dog] title, and in '07 is when I won.

You beat that Kobayashi guy.

Yeah, Kobayashi.

Do you guys have a pretty intense rivalry?

He doesn't really compete anymore. He does little personal events, more like exhibitions. He's an awesome eater, but he does not handle losing very well.


Yeah, he was...after losing once he came up with an issue—some injury—and then he came up with a contract dispute... He's a great eater. He just, he won't...he's doing his own thing now. He won't take a chance losing. That's the way I see it.

In Brunswick, you'll be squaring off against the world's No. 2 and No. 3 eaters. Should be pretty competitive.

Yeah, and this is a different one. This contest will come down to capacity. The apple pie is gonna be easy to swallow. There are some eaters who have a really good capacity but usually they can't keep up with me because it's more of a chewing and swallowing contest, like with hot dogs. With apple pies, it's gonna be a much closer contest.

And how's the contest set up?

Ten minutes. Whoever eats the most, wins.

What's a reasonable expectation for how much you plan to eat?

I'm pretty sure it'll be by pounds, and I think 15 pounds would be a respectable number.

Did you say 15?

Yeah. It's apples, sugar, a little bit of pastry. All those things digest really easily. I'm actually really looking forward to it. Sometimes meat is a little bit harder.

And what's your recovery time?

Like a rib contest, or hot dogs, it's usually about a day and a half. This one, I expect to feel fine within probably 12 hours.

Your weight must fluctuate like crazy.

Like crazy. It's weird, but in the long run, my calorie intake is not that much more than the normal person's. After every contest I'm not eating that much, and before every contest I'm fasting. But during the summer, when I'm doing a contest every weekend, I'll put on a little bit of weight.

And for the record, outside of contests, what's your favorite food?

My mom's cooking. Her fried chicken's pretty decent. Chicken parmesan. What else? I love a good prime rib. And if I'm going out for steak, I'll get a ribeye.

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Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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