Special to the Sun
Saturday, July 23, 2016 | 2 a.m.
A living legend in the competitive eating scene, Takeru Kobayashi has made a name for himself by perfecting the art of stuffing as much food as possible into his stomach at once.
The holder of six Guinness World Records and many other worldwide awards for his eating prowess, the 38-year-old Kobayashi has won contests for eating hot dogs, turkey, hamburgers, Twinkies and pizza, among other foods. More than 15 years after exploding onto the eating scene in 2001, he continues to break his own records, despite saying that physically, he’s “past his prime.”
His secret? Training with water to expand his stomach, to a point where he can down up to three gallons in 90 seconds when in mid-season form, he said, and exercising regularly.
Kobayashi will be in Las Vegas next week to defend his title at the 6th annual Gringo Bandito Chronic Tacos Eating Contest, which makes its local debut at the Palms on July 29 after five years in California.
He spoke with the Sun to discuss how he trains for the events, how he continues to break records and the aftermath of stuffing himself full.
Is this your first Las Vegas competition?
I’ve only competed in Las Vegas once about 10 years ago for a Thanksgiving Day eating contest, with turkey, for Spike TV. But I’ve been to Las Vegas many times, mostly for vacation.
What do you like most about visiting here?
I love getting to watch the shows. I love them all, but my favorite is Cirque’s “O” at the Bellagio. I also like the Beatles LOVE at the Mirage.
How are you able to stay so thin?
I don’t eat that much normally. I work out and I run a lot. I don’t train by eating a lot, I train with just water to expand my stomach.
Is competitive eating your full-time job?
Yes, this a full time thing, this is my only thing.
When did you realize this was what you wanted to do?
When I was a student in college, at the time there was a food challenge menu for eating curry rice at a restaurant. I beat the challenge, and a friend got me a spot on a national TV show in Japan, where I won the national championship. Then I went to the United States for the Nathan’s Coney Island hot dog eating contest, in 2001.
How many eating contests do you compete in each year?
Only about four or five, but I have appearances year-round. I’m always making appearances and flying around the U.S. and the world for private and public speaking events and social events.
How do you train for your events?
In the few days leading up to the competition, I’ll eat regular meals a little less than usual. Smaller portions. I’ll keep water training so I can go into the competition. The morning of the competition I’ll probably eat a little bit, it all depends on what I’m eating during the competition, and what needs to be done to eat that type of food.
Water training is just drinking as much water as your stomach can handle?
It’s not like you’re just pouring a lot of water in your body. I start three months in advance and slowly maximize the amount of water that I intake. Little-by-little increasing the volume, and then, eventually as I get closer to competition, I should be able to drink three gallons in 90 seconds.
At the very beginning when I start in the training season after being off for a while, I can still drink more than one gallon already. So then, from there it takes that long to be able to drink three gallons. That’s the part that takes so long. After the first competition, I’ve gotten myself to that level to prepare for the first competition. But the season of competition is during the same month. I have to prepare myself for the first competition, but after that I have to keep my momentum at that level and not fall back. From there, it’s just about keeping it.
You’ve been eating competitively for 15 years, but you continue to break your own records. Do you feel like your ability to eat as much has continued to improve as you’ve gotten older? And if so, what are the keys to continue breaking all of these records?
I don’t think I’m physically getting stronger, I don’t think that’s the case. I do think with certain foods, especially after eating the same foods each year, I understand how to improve my technique. So as I get older, I’m able to technically improve and finish and do what I need to make changes to be able to indulge more and put more into my system. So I don’t think I’m becoming a stronger eater physically, but rather technique-wise.
How long do you think you can continue beating your own records?
Hopefully I can continue doing this for 10 more years. Five years ago I was asked the same question and I answered the same way. But my spirit hasn’t changed.
After you’re done eating during a contest, what is the rest of the day like for you? How do you recover and how long does it take to start feeling normal again?
I feel much better after about three days. I’m not completely back to normal, but physically I feel much better. It also depends on what I’m eating at the competition. When it’s carbs I’m eating I feel like I can recover much faster, but when it’s protein, if it’s meat, of course it takes longer for the digestions to go through.
Like, for example, there’s meat, and when you have protein, that’s a different kind of meat. For the Vegas contest I’ll be eating chicken tacos. The interesting thing is that chicken tacos take longer for me to get over than hot dogs do. I think it’s because hot dogs are already minced into a tube. So they seem grueling, they’ve already been grounded into a certain form. But with chicken, there are clumps of it. That’s just my theory, but it could be the way it’s cooked. Foods that are rare are harder to digest than things that are more cooked.
But the crazy thing is, I still have enough room after it’s all over to drink with the event sponsors. I have tequila shots with (event host and Offspring lead singer) Dexter Holland, and I don’t know how but I’m just sitting there taking shots with them. Right after the competition until about midnight, I’m taking shots with them, so I don’t understand how that’s possible, but it’s an annual ritual that we all do.
It could be that all of them want to get me wasted, but I don’t get drunk at all because I have so many chicken tacos in my stomach. I drink a lot, but it doesn’t do anything. And I think it’s just because there’s so much sponge in there already.
If they had a tequila shot competition right after the taco competition, I would have another record because I drink a lot more than all of them (laughs). I just can’t get drunk.
There’s no vomiting at all after these contests?
No, on a normal basis, never. But there has been in my history during days where I wasn’t feeling good going into the contest. As soon as it was over and I was able to get my score, I’ve been known to be on the sidelines with food coming out.
You made your name in the U.S. during the Nathan’s Fourth of July hot dog eating contest in 2001, but you haven’t competed there since 2010. What will it take for you to get back in the competition?
If sponsors want to sponsor that and we want to compete on that date, I’d do that. Sometimes it’s a lot of work to get everyone together.
Your competition with Joey Chestnut was big during the first decade of the 2000s. What’s the extent of your guys’ relationship?
I don’t like him at all, I dislike him very much. We were never really friends to begin with. Also, before, when we first started competing in the U.S., I’d just fly in from Japan for the competition for three or four days at a time. I didn’t live here at the time. So we didn’t really know each other well enough to become friends. So, no, we’ve never hung out.
Do you miss competing in the Nathan’s contest?
I don’t miss it at all because my life is full of other things. When I hear about it, my ears go silent. When I happen to see it on the TV, I don’t spend any energy at all looking at it. It doesn’t irritate me at all because I don’t spend the time to really watch it. I don’t miss it because it’s a distant part of my memory. What has happened since then has meant so much more.
When I was in that competition, I wasn’t living in America and I wasn’t here to really get the full experience. I just remember all the people there screaming my name, I was only here for three days. I would come, then leave. Although people remember me that way, I don’t have an emotional connection to that contest. Now, living in New York, I feel the rise going in to competition. I know that preparation, I have a deeper sense of emotional connection to everything I do now. All of that was post-Nathan’s.
Is there anything in particular you enjoy specifically about this event?
I like the West Coast feeling to it, you go and there’s a famous rockstar throwing the event, so you get an interesting crowd, from the Offspring fans, to the rockers, bikers and skaters, all people who make it so great.
It’s competition and it’s work, but it feels like a vacation, too. Las Vegas makes you think of fun. I feel like I can really just relax.