Takeru Kobayashi is the world’s greatest competitive eater. A man whose legend has been built on his inhuman ability to eat and eat fast. As the leading figure of this controversial 21st century sport, his career is one built on numbers and speed. The diminutive Japanese native has broken fifteen world records that involve consuming unprecedented amounts of food. This includes 110 hot dogs, 62 slices of pizza, 159 tacos, 337 chicken wings, 57 cow brains, 93 hamburgers and counting. Since bursting onto the American competitive eating scene in 2001, and destroying a 90-year old record, Kobayashi is a name synonymous with momentum and limitless drive.
As he nears his 40th birthday, we visit the reigning champion in New York, to talk about his career and the unwavering discipline that has catapulted him to a global cult-like status. Labelled as an ‘inspiration’ and an ‘oddity’, part of his attraction is the way he faces a crowd – defiant and unafraid. No stranger to controversy, Kobayashi is a man who revels in challenging the limits of his only true competition -himself. Recounting a lesson his father taught him at an early age, Kobayashi strives to be the world’s greatest. Accompanied by his manager Maggie, the bad boy of competitive eating ‘Prince Kobayashi’, shares the secrets of the sport and his insatiable appetite for the game.
TBE: How did you get started with competitive eating?
Kobayashi: It was a complete coincidence. I was a 23 year old college student and I went to a restaurant that was hosting a food challenge with a couple of friends. Nobody managed to finish except me.
Maggie: He didn’t just beat that food challenge by a little. He blasted through, eating a crazy amount! It was the first time that he realised he could eat that much.
K: After, one of my friends sent a letter to a Japanese TV network, and they asked me to be on their show. It was the most popular show at that time in Japan, and it was my first time competing continuously at a venue. It was then I realised I was able to eat more than other people, and I realised there was more training involved in competitive eating.
It was called ‘Food Battle Club’. It was a show full of geeks, nerds and weirdos – not typical heartthrobs.
M: Everyone was obsessed with that show when I was younger. Everyone in Japan watched it because it was so crazy. But, when Kobi stepped into the spotlight, he was a completely new breed. He was like this young, fit kid who was wearing Comme des Garçons.
He didn’t fit the mould at all. I remember he walked onto the show and all of us were like, “who’s this new kid?”. Not only was he new, quiet and kind of shy, but he was also super serious. They would call him Prince Kobayashi because he was the only cute guy on the show. That’s not Kobi talking, but I think that’s the way all Japanese people saw him.
TBE: What was it that made you realise that the mindset of competitive eating in America and Japan were so different?
K: When I arrived, I realised Americans thought that being large and obese was a strong point. But, Japanese people in general believed that if you were fat, you could not eat a lot. If you were obese, you would have a lot of fat lining your stomach and, it’s not going to help you eat much. So the mentality was a complete 180 degree difference.
There were American competitors that would say, ‘hey boy, your two thighs are the size of my arm’, or ‘hey teenager, you think you’re allowed on this big man’s stage?’
M: In Asia we’ve always had competitive eating. Although we’d always looked at it like a freak show, like in America, our view was a bit different. We would always look at it as more of a scientific sport. Whereas in Western cultures, it was seen as something that a fat man could do as an extension of being able to eat a lot on a normal day. So, when Kobi came onto the scene in America, he revolutionised the image of it. He really changed the impression of the whole sport. People were like, ‘what?! He’s fit! He’s tiny!’
TBE: So from a more technical level, what makes a successful competitive eater?
K: There are two huge factors, the flexibility and the strength of your stomach muscles. Strength is something you can only achieve through training. When you have such a volume of food going in at such a speed, you have to have the strength to be able to overcome that kind of pain. For a normal person that hasn’t trained, the pain would be too much. Also, your jaw has to be able to keep up the speed, your throat muscles have to be able to work continually and of course your tongue. When you eat, your tongue flaps towards the back of your mouth but, when you’re eating at speed you’re using your tongue more as a scooper, to throw things back into your throat. That movement only comes with practice.
What I do in my life is separate from normal eating.
K: If you put a large person on stage without any training, I would just think that they’re an amateur. What I do in my life is separate from normal eating. It is a completely different kind of eating and needs a different kind of preparation than just being able to eat a lot as a large person. It has nothing to do with being able to eat a lot on a normal basis. It’s not only about the size of your stomach, it’s also about the flexibility among other things.
TBE: Are there any techniques that you use before a competition to mentally prepare yourself?
K: I don’t tell myself that I’m good at something or that I’m going to win before I start preparing. If I try to tell myself that I’m ready, or that I’m going to be successful my body doesn’t feel that way and it’s not in sync at all with how I feel. So, when I’m not ready to train, I just push myself to start. Instead of waiting for myself to mentally catch-up to that feeling where I need to start, I just start doing it. I just start doing whatever I think that I don’t want to do and then, little by little my mentality catches up.
Off season, I think of eating as something I do with my friends in an atmosphere I enjoy with music and different flavours. So, when I eat normally that’s how I feel about food. But when I start training, I remove that thought completely and change my surroundings. I don’t look at it as enjoying a meal, I don’t even look at it as eating a meal that I need. It is more technical.
TBE: So how do you prepare your body for a competition?
K: I start with water and slowly over a long period of 3 to 4 months, I slowly increase the volume of water I drink. Maybe at the beginning I’ll drink a certain amount once every 3 days. Then every 3 days when I drink that water again, I tell myself that I want to, at the very least, keep that same volume. If I can, I try to increase that volume a little bit each time so I know that I’m not forcing myself but also, to keep that stability of slowly but surely stretching my stomach.
TBE: How much water do you drink?
K: I start with about 5 litres and then I go up to 12 litres in 90 seconds.
TBE: What was the most difficult challenge that you’ve had to date?
K: Cow brains. It smelt so bad. That was awful.
TBE: How did you manage to get through it?
K: I wasn’t breathing through my nose because I didn’t want to taste or smell it. So, I was trying to visualise anything beside the fact that it used to be a cow. I was trying to just look at it as an object with no smell and no taste. I was not looking at it as a food. I looked at is as a job
TBE: How did you fight against the reflex to gag or throw up?
K: I was actually weak as a child. I had really bad motion sickness. No one would ever imagine me having a weak stomach, but I do. On car trips, I would hate asking my family to pull over every time I felt sick (which was a lot!). So I have this theory when I was a small child I had already worked so hard at killing that feeling that I can fight the gag reflex in competitions.
TBE: During a competition, how do you manage to keep eating through the pain?
People think that athletes are healthy, but the weird thing is that there is no athlete who is at the top of their game who has not also felt the adverse effect on their bodies.
M: Kobi doesn’t feel that pain when his stomach is empty so, he doesn’t realise he’s hungry. He doesn’t have that pang we feel in our stomach when we are hungry or full. He says it’s like being a martial artist. Martial artists usually lose their sense of feeling pain, because they’re so used to being beat up. It’s part of their strength as an athlete, and it’s the same thing for Kobi. People think that athletes are healthy, but the weird thing is that there is no athlete who is at the top of their game who has not also felt the adverse effect on their bodies.
TBE: So after all of this training and competitive eating, how has it changed your body?
K: I have jaw arthritis. I have TMJ, it’s a very serious problem with my jaw, where I have this floating piece of cartilage that gives me lockjaw. I have also lost the signal to feel hungry or full. During training this is a good thing, I’m always telling myself try to ignore those feelings because it makes me a stronger eater, but I realise now I don’t have the capacity to feel either.
TBE: What is it about competitive eating that draws you to the sport?
The thing that keeps me going is the fact that I’m still at the top of my game. As long as you’re at the top, you keep asking yourself, ‘how can I stay here?’
K: Winning is something, but because there are so many different kinds of food in this sport, you have to be creative. It keeps me thinking creatively about how to attack a different type of food. It’s not just about eating quickly, or creating capacity. Adjustments have to be made for each type of food. You’re actually thinking a lot. There is a long process behind the nipping, tucking and tailoring of every idea. The thing that keeps me going is the fact that I’m still at the top of my game. As long as you’re at the top, you keep asking yourself, ‘how can I stay here?’
TBE: Does it ever get boring?
K: I’m already at the stage where I’m feeling my age. I’m finally hitting that 40 year old spot.
M: He will tell me, ‘physically I’m not feeling as strong as I was in my youth’. But he still beats any person half his age, even when he’s head to head with really strong eaters. No matter what, he will still win. What we don’t understand is how long he’s going to continue competing. All of us ask, ‘would you like to retire this year?’ and he replies, ‘no, another 5 years.’
K: I also think that timing-wise, if I’m the defending champion, stages are waiting for me to come back. It falls on me to hold value for that stage. So it’s very difficult for me to be selfish and say, ‘bye guys I don’t want to be here anymore.’ It’s difficult too because my time and my numbers are still going up. It makes me think that maybe I’m not so close to quitting. I’m close to quitting when I hit that ceiling and I stop getting better. So it’s a very, very fine line.
TBE: Looking back at your career, which victory meant the most to you?
K: It was definitely the year I ate double the record at the hot dog competition in Coney Island in 2001. It was my first time in the United States and it was on a competitive stage that had years and years of history. It revolutionised competitive eating. I told the world that it was a sport.
Born in Nagano, Japan, Takeru Kobayashi is a world-renowned competitive eater. He holds many long-standing world records, including eight Guinness Records, for eating hot dogs, meatballs, Twinkies, tacos
Photography by Andrew Boyle
Photograpy Assistant Sincere
Kobayashi wears – Gucci, Joseph, Neil Barrett, Dolce & Gabbana, Hugo Boss, Tom Ford.