Former Nathan's champ Takeru Kobayashi discusses life as a competitive-eating outlaw, plus his Fourth of July plan. (Spoiler alert: It involves hot dogs.)
Mon Jun 27 2011
Photograph: Tetsuhiro Koyanagi
First things first: You're a New Yorker now. TONY readers want to know: Where does Kobayashi eat?
I'm close to Chelsea Market, so that's where I often find myself. There's a store that sells olive oil and vinegar exclusively, and so I'm there a lot. And I always go to [the Lobster Place]. I get their clam chowder, which I think is delicious.
You held the world record for hot-dog eating at the Coney Island contest from 2001 to 2006. But last year you were barred from competing because you declined to sign a contract with Major League Eating (MLE). Why did you refuse?
I didn't agree with the way the organization was treating the athletes.... Right now, if you don't sign a contract [with MLE], then you can't enter the competition. But it's not a contract you sign for just that day; it's a yearlong, exclusive contract. It's one thing for there to be an association and a separate agency representing the athletes, but when they're one and the same, you lose the fairness of the sport.
How does that affect the competitors?
Athletes are constantly in fear...and it's not just about me. I know that there are a lot of athletes who don't have a favorable opinion of what's happening, but choose to stay with the agency because they feel like they don't have another choice. We're independent athletes, and we have the right to participate in the things we believe in.
What are some opportunities you've taken advantage of that you wouldn't have been able to tackle under MLE?
It wasn't just about participating in competitions that aren't sanctioned by the organization—it was about being able to go to different countries and do demonstrations, or appearing on TV or in commercials. I was able to participate in New York Fashion Week and walk down the runway. I participated in a pizza contest in Canada. One of the things that the association bans is just appearing in public with a hot dog, and so I decided to appear in public with a hot dog. [For that], I collaborated with photographer Terry Richardson for a magazine called VMAN.
Sounds like a busy year. But it had a rocky start: You were arrested on July 4, 2010, after you rushed the stage at the hot dog competition. What prompted you to do that?
I did get on the stage, but I really didn't do it to obstruct the competition. If anything, I did it because I really love my fans. People were standing behind me and I wanted to show them how much I appreciated it. In the excitement, I climbed up onstage.
The crowd was chanting, "Let him eat!" Did you think MLE might allow it?
When I heard the chants, I thought, You know, this might actually happen, and I got really, really excited. But then as soon as I got up onstage, the security guards came, and I knew I didn't have a chance.
You spent the night in jail. What was that experience like?
It was one of the longest nights I've ever known. I lay down but I couldn't sleep, and the thought that kept crossing my mind was, When will I be able to get out? I got to know some of the other people who were in [there]. There was one guy who was being really nice to me and looking after me to make sure I was getting around okay.... I had no clue what he had done, but I kept thinking, Wow, this is a really nice guy.
Did you ever find out what became of him?
We ended up going to court together, and when everyone was read their offenses in front of the judge, I realized the crime he had committed was stabbing his mother several times. At that point, I became aware of the complexity of people. I realized crime isn't the only way you can judge people. People can do good things and people can do bad things. It's probably better to understand people for the good things they do.
This year is shaping up to be quite different. You'll be eating hot dogs at the rooftop bar at 230 Fifth next to a live broadcast of the Coney Island contest. Competing via satellite? Clever.
In truth, I don't see it only as an eating competition; I think of it as an exhibition and a way for people to enjoy themselves. I hope people come and enjoy the scenery. It would be great if people drink a lot, if people eat a lot—all while I'm stuffing myself with hot dogs on the side. Really, it's about delivering happiness and making sure people enjoy themselves on this special day.
Do you have a target in mind?
Obviously I'm keen to break the world record. I know the more the audience gets riled up, the more I'll get riled up, and I'll become something beyond myself. It really depends on the feeling and the mood of the day.
What statement do you think this event is making?
I want to say, "Look, I'm still in the game, I'm still here." When I was approaching this last year, it was very much [about] objecting to the fact that athletes in this sport couldn't be free. [This year] I really wanted to get to the essence of what it means to celebrate Independence Day: I want to provide a really enjoyable event for the people who come, and I want to show that I am free.
230 Fifth, 230 Fifth Ave between 26th and 27th Sts (212-725-4300). Doors open at 10:30am and admittance (free) is limited to 400 guests.