On a May evening, in a cramped biergarten behind a German restaurant off the Bowery in Manhattan, Takeru Kobayashi sat down to a plate of Rheinischer Sauerbraten mit Kartoffelklößen und Rutkraut. First, he produced a small camera and began photographing the sauerbraten for his blog, where he catalogues his personal gustatory experiences.
He was dressed in yellow pants, a summer scarf and a blazer with multicoloured markings resembling graffiti. Some nearby diners looked up when the camera flashed, but Kobayashi, the great Kobayashi, went unrecognised, in the city where he became a celebrity.
At one time or another, Kobayashi, a wispily built 33-year-old from Nagano, has eaten 41 lobster rolls in 10 minutes; 57 cow brains (weighing 8kg) in 15 minutes; 9kg of rice balls in 30 minutes, or around 12 per cent of his body weight. Most notably, he was the first person to devour 50 hot dogs at the Nathan's Fourth of July contest on Coney Island, nearly doubling the previous record for the event, the first of six consecutive victories from 2001 through 2006.
Kobayashi is living in New York, but he will not be at Nathan's tomorrow. The man and the event, having made each other internationally famous, are in a long-running contractual dispute, one which landed Kobayashi in jail after he showed up at last year's contest. Questions abound. Is he trying to blaze a trail for independent eaters? Is he clinging to past glory? Or is he just crazy? According to Rich Shea, one of the Nathan's promoters, Kobayashi has to decide "whether he's the Che Guevara of gurgitation or the Kenny Powers of power eating." I spent some time with Kobayashi over the past few weeks in an effort to answer these questions, not to mention a deeper one:
What goes on his kitchen?
We'll get to those in a bit. First: a meal at the biergarten. This was Kobayashi's first encounter with Rhineland beef roast with potato dumplings and braised red cabbage. Maggie James, his half-Japanese, half-American translator/manager/girlfriend, said that he had, in fact, never tried German food. Kobayashi speaks enough English to answer questions, but relies on James to translate his exact meaning for more complicated responses.
This was dinner, with no clock. Under these circumstances, Kobayashi said, he likes to savour his meals. In competition, he will relax his throat and let food "drop" into his stomach, which he says hangs lower in the abdomen than normal, allowing it to expand more. It's a condition called gastroptosis that he shares with his father, who once entered an eating contest himself. Kobayashi focuses so completely during contests that he blocks out flavour.
"If you taste something, you're not at the maximum of your ability," he says. "What I think about in competition is temperature and texture. It has nothing to do with taste or emotion."
Away from competition, Kobayashi told me, he was all about taste. And now he wanted to savour his sauerbraten. We took up knives and forks. Heads inclined toward plates. The savouring began. I looked up, seconds later, while chewing the first bites of my Käsespätzle mit Speck. Half of Kobayashi's sauerbraten was gone, vanished with a quiet and sudden grace. A wry grin creased his face. Then he reached over with his fork and started eating chicken off James's plate.
* * *
Kobayashi lives in Chelsea, in an apartment decorated with a zebra-skin rug, antique lamps, and an array of competitive eating memorabilia. On his mantel, he has arranged a stylised image of himself chowing on hot dogs at Nathans, several magazines with stories about him, a Guinness World Record medallion for spaghetti consumption (100 grams in 45 seconds, the final 20 of which were spent trying to scoop one last slippery noodle into his mouth), and a poster of the Declaration of Independence. When he greeted me on my first visit, he was wearing a t-shirt with an image of George Washington in kabuki face paint.
Freedom is an important theme to Kobayashi. His feud with the Nathan's organisers, the public-relations executives George and Rich Shea, revolves around a contract that forbade him from pursuing eating and food-related opportunities outside the Sheas' own professional circuit, Major League Eating. Kobayashi, who had chafed at the Sheas' monopolistic approach before, refused to sign, then showed up on Coney Island.
The resulting video is dramatic: Kobayashi on stage after the contest - he says he went up as a spontaneous response to cheering fans - wearing a "Free Kobi" t-shirt and clinging to a metal barricade as several burly cops wrestle him into submission. He was charged with trespassing, among other things, and spent the night in a Coney Island jail, where he downed a peanut butter sandwich and a glass of milk.
A few months before that debacle, Kobayashi had moved to New York to focus on his eating. In Japan, he'd been training on gyoniku fish sausages. The sausages didn't have the right consistency, so he switched to Johnsonville brats. But they, too, were made of the wrong stuff, and the shape was incorrect. Only in America could he get the dogs he needed.
In America, he could also lay siege to Nathan's and MLE, while working to establish himself as an independent eater. In August, he intends to put on a taco-eating challenge in Huntington Beach with his friend Dexter Holland, the lead singer of The Offspring. He's planning to launch his own hot dog line in the near future. But before that comes the Fourth of July, when he'll station himself on the rooftop of a Manhattan bar to go head to head, in absentia, with Nathan's, which will be playing live on a big screen behind Kobayashi as he eats.
"Nathan's will realise that they're not the only game in town," he says.
The Sheas appear unflustered by Kobayashi's rogue status, which has only reaped more publicity for the contest proper. There have been other renegades in competitive eating who have tried to break away from MLE. None have had much success. But no one else is Kobayashi. In some sense, he is the sport. Before July 4, 2001, the world record for hot dogs was 25, set by Kazutoyo "The Rabbit" Arai one year earlier, with his new "Tokyo style" of separating meat from bun. The Nathan's contest usually drew a few hundred spectators.
Nobody paid attention to the slightly built rookie who arrived with the defending champion - till the contest started, and the rookie began jackhammering hot dogs into his mouth like a sausage machine stuck in reverse. He broke the dogs in half (later dubbed the "Solomon Method") and dunked the buns in water. By the midpoint of the contest, he'd cruised past Arai's record. Other contestants dropped their franks and watched in awe. One tossed his dog into the crowd in frustration. When it was over, Takeru Kobayashi had consumed 50 hot dogs and become a star.
"It was like Secretariat lapping the field at Belmont," said Gersh Kuntzman, the editor of The Brooklyn Paper and a long-time Nathan's judge.
The Sheas call it "The Belch Heard 'Round the World." As Kobayashi became the perennial winner, the crowds grew into the thousands. ESPN began broadcasting the event in 2004. Last year, 1.7 million people watched Nathan's on TV.
Kobayashi was dethroned as Nathan's champion in 2007 by Joey Chestnut, who outduelled him as both men broke the 60-hot-dog barrier, and who has now won four years straight. But if you ask a layman who comes to mind when he thinks of the hot dog eating contest, the answer you'll get is "that skinny Japanese guy."
"People still think he's the champion," said Tim "Eater X" Janus, the No. 3-ranked MLE eater. "He was in large part responsible for people tuning in on the Fourth of July."
Kobayashi also changed the eaters. Here was definitive proof that a small, athletic man could dominate the behemoths who once ruled Nathan's. The Japanese were already aware of the "belt of fat" theory, which held that abdominal blubber could restrict the stomach's ability to expand. The leaner you were, the more you could eat. Soon, the eating circuit included people who could run a few miles without being carted to the emergency room. And they set their sights on Kobayashi.
"I established a goal [when I got into eating] ," Chestnut said. "My goal was to beat Kobayshi. He was the best. He was the only one who looked at it as a sport."
Today's MLE stars train hard for contests and consider themselves athletes. Kobayashi took up weightlifting after his original triumph, and for a while he carried 50 or 60 extra pounds of muscle on a sculpted, Olympian physique. Chestnut claims to have refined his abilities to the point where he can control individual muscles in his throat to move food up or down according to his will. Once thought untouchable, the 50-dog mark that Kobayashi set a decade ago has been broken by three other eaters, including Tim Janus.
"People dreamed bigger when they saw Kobayashi eat bigger," says Janus.
So did the Sheas and MLE, which now has 90 contests a year. The Sheas don't disclose how much they bring in from MLE, but the eaters don't make much. Janus said he's never earned more than $US35,000 a year, despite being one of the top competitors. Only Chestnut, who is on his way to becoming the best eater of all time, claims to pocket a sizeable sum: around $US200,000, most of it from appearance fees paid by sponsors. The Sheas have also rejected Chestnut when he's wanted to branch out independently.
"They are hard to deal with at times," he said.
Kobayashi has a history of being difficult, too. Our first meeting, over the German meal, was followed by a month of missed Skype appointments, while James went to Tokyo to attend to her own business, designing a line of interchangeable second-skin clothing. She hadn't been willing to discuss Kobayashi's Fourth of July plans, but was nevertheless worried I might reveal something ahead of their publicity schedule. When I got to Kobayashi's apartment, he and James said, with apologies, that they'd been booked for an interview with the Associated Press and had to go soon. After a few quick questions, they were off. Please come back tomorrow.
When Kobayashi began railing about the terms of his contract last year, some people wondered if it was a ruse to avoid losing to Chestnut again. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg called Kobayashi a coward. But it was impossible to know how the losses - or the loss of the spotlight - had truly affected the great one. Kobayashi had always been something of a recluse, a perfectionist who allowed few people into his world. His feud with the Sheas only made him more mysterious. After letting his MLE contract lapse, he appeared in public less frequently and at out-of-the-way events, absent other big eaters. He embraced an androgynous look. He walked a runway at New York Fashion Week.
"I don't really know what's going through his head," Chestnut said. "The whole thing is weird to me."
* * *
Kobayashi emerged from the apartment kitchen holding four hot dogs in buns. He placed them carefully on the coffee table in his living room. For weeks, James had hinted that I might be able to see Kobyashi train. No journalist had ever been given the privilege, she said.
Nor would I. Kobayashi does his real training alone, as he has since a worried onlooker tried to interrupt a gruelling practice session. In the weeks leading up to a competition, he can grow fractious and distant. He refuses to let James stay with him. He trains alone. If he chokes, there is no one to help him. If he suffers water intoxication when he stretches his stomach by drinking 11 litres of water in about five minutes, he could die.
"Stimulation-wise, I might be a little bit addicted when it comes to pushing my body to extremes," he said.
He had agreed to another visit, but he was uncomfortable with me in his kitchen. He'd stacked packs of hot dog buns on the floor next to large tubs of whey protein. When I'd asked to see the contents of his refrigerator the day before, he'd demurred. This was his inner sanctum. It was where he prepared himself for what he viewed as "combat - my stomach against the food."
He worries about the long-term health impacts of his occupation, he said. Years ago, he said, he developed temporomandibular joint derangement, or "jawthritis", from chewing so hard. He has to massage his jaw and put heat on it. He sees a dentist and a dental surgeon regularly. The condition forced him to stop powerlifting - too much gritting of the teeth, too much strain on the bones - and he quickly lost the muscle he'd packed on during the early years of his championship run. He was back to being that skinny little Japanese guy. But he'd learned to be more of a finesse eater.
In person, Kobayashi is sweet, like a curious kid - unfailingly polite, charming and humble, with no brashness or other signs of rampaging ego. But he is hard on himself. He locks himself away performing dangerous feats because it is all he knows to do. He was the milk-drinking champ in school, the stew-eating champ in college, the winner of the biggest eating contest in Japan, then the Nathan's champ. Until he wasn't.
"Are you the Che Guevara of gurgitation or the Kenny Powers of power eating?" I asked him.
He paused, then laughed: "I am both!"
Moments before Kobayashi went to get the frankfurters, I had used the "training" bathroom off his living room. James rushed in beforehand to flush a sheen of hot dog oil floating in the toilet. (She told me later that she'd dumped a pot of water used to boil dogs in the toilet.) Then it struck me: This is intensely personal. It's primal. Most of the world snickers at these people. To Kobayashi, eating is life.
In the living room, he was finally willing to give a demonstration. He readied his dogs. The wry smile flickered across his face. Then he sprang into action. In a flash, he'd scooped two dogs out of the buns with his right hand. Holding the tips, he pushed them quickly into his mouth as his jaw worked the meat into chunks. They were gone in seconds. The other two dogs followed. He seized the buns in both hands, wadded them up and attacked. A piece of bread went flying. Up close, it was savage. A phase shift in personality. He made no noise. He ate with a silent fury.