Joey “Jaws” Chestnut’s biggest appetite may be for winning. Since 2005, the 27-year-old construction engineer from San Jose, Calif., has won one eating contest after another, downing “meals” that included 241 wings in 30 minutes, 103 Krystal burgers in eight minutes, 42 bratwursts in 12 minutes and 37 slices of pizza in 10 minutes. He has won the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest four years in a row (last year he downed a mere 54 dogs, a disappointing total by his reckoning). But to paraphrase Lance Armstrong, it’s not about the hot dog, a comestible of which Chestnut is not even that fond. It’s about coming out on top. Preparing to defend his Coney Island title, he talked to the Daily Beast about how he puts it away.
“The most important contest for me is Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. For months, that’s the only thing I’m willing to think about. The first thing I see when I get up in the morning is what I have written on my mirror: Winning is the only option. I have some superstitions. I don’t sleep more than four hours a night before a contest because I feel like my stomach shrinks. I’ve never been able to confirm it with a doctor, but I believe it. Before a lot of contests, I’m not the nicest person; I’ll tell the other competitors that I already called my mom and told her I won. When I bring my little brother to a contest, I never lose. I lose contests every year when I get lazy. But on my best day, I can’t be beaten. It’s up to me. It’s an awesome feeling knowing no matter how hard they try, the other competitors are going to barf.”
“Competitive eating is weird. There is no way around it. If I’m going to get on stage and do it, I have to look at it like a sport. I’m doing it to win. I’m having fun doing it, but that’s the only way I can validate it to myself. The hardest part is having to control my hunger. Before a competition, I’ll go two or three days without solid food. I’ll have just protein shakes to get the bare minimum amount of nutrition. I’m going through the day with under 500 calories. The day of a contest, my stomach is absolutely empty. My mind is all over the place during the contest. I’ll think about anything but eating. I’ll always think about weird things like the temperature of my water. I jump up and down to compact the food. I just keep moving, and my body is working like a machine. Every time I have burp or my body has an urge to slow down, I tell myself, there is no reason to slow down. I know what my capacity is. I can drink three gallons of water. I can eat 72 hot dogs.”
—As told to R.M. Schneiderman