'Please God, don’t let him choke to death': How Joey Chestnut's record-setting diet came to be

After eating 74 hot dogs and buns last year, Joey Chestnut has his sights set on breaking his own world record this Independence Day at the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island in New York.
After eating 74 hot dogs and buns last year, Joey Chestnut has his sights set on breaking his own world record this Independence Day at the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island in New York. (Steven Ferdman/WireImage)

It all started with asparagus — or, rather, deep-fried asparagus.

In 2005, 21-year-old Joey Chestnut hit the road with his little brother, Will, and drove 90 minutes north from their house in San Jose, California, to Stockton. He was going to try his hand at the prestigious World Deep-Fried Asparagus Eating Championship — just his second attempt ever in an eating competition.

6.3 pounds of asparagus later, Chestnut won. So, the brothers drove back home to their mother’s kitchen and started cooking up hot dogs. Will and their mom, Alicia, would time it off and Chestnut would try to eat as many as he could.

It marked his first true practice for the world famous competition that launched Chestnut to the top of the competitive eating world.

“I stuck around not because I wanted to cheer him on and go, ‘Ah Joey, you can do it son!’ ” Alicia said in an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary featuring Chestnut and Takeru Kobayashi’s journey through competitive eating. “It was more, ‘Please God, don’t let him choke to death.’ ”

The documentary premieres Tuesday.

Now, 14 years later, Chestnut is preparing to spend his Independence Day up on a stage in front of thousands of fans at Coney Island in New York, attempting to not only win the coveted Mustard Belt for the 12th time at the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, but also break his own world record of 74 hot dogs and buns in just 10 minutes.

“I definitely want a new record,” Chestnut told Yahoo Sports. “I’ve been able to hit record quite a bit in practice. I feel healthy. It’d be nice for the people out there.”

The contest, held each July 4 since 1916 outside of the original Nathan’s Famous hot dog stand in Brooklyn, features the best eaters in the world. Contestants attempt to eat as many hot dogs and buns as they can in just 10 minutes, with only water available to help them.

The competition is one of dozens hosted each year by Major League Eating, the governing body of the sport, but is by far the most important one.

And if you want to be at the top of the competitive eating world, you have to show out on Independence Day.

“It’s everything,” Chestnut told Yahoo Sports. “If you’re a competitive eater, this is the one everybody judges you by. How you do in hot dogs is the most important. If you want to be called the best, you have to win this one.”

When Takeru Kobayashi shocked the world

Chestnut has dominated the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest for more than a decade, a feat that has launched him to unprecedented fame in the eating world. The 35-year-old currently holds more than 40 food-related world records — winning eating competitions featuring hard boiled eggs, pork ribs, tacos, funnel cake and more throughout his career — and has won 11 of the past 12 contests at Coney Island.

But Chestnut’s run in competitive eating wouldn’t have been possible without the work of Takeru Kobayashi, the Japanese eating phenom who went on a historic six-year run at the competition and truly turned competitive eating into a sport in the United States.

Before Kobayashi entered the competition in 2001, the winner each year was lucky to eat more than 20 hot dogs in the then-12 minute contest. The record at that time, set the year prior by Kazutoyo Ari, was just 25.125 hot dogs.

When Kobayashi first stepped onto the Nathan’s stage at 23 years old, he had never eaten hot dogs in a competition before. He’d had tremendous success eating in competitions in Japan, but didn’t have any idea of how many hot dogs he was going to be able to eat.

“I had heard rumors that Kobayashi could eat 30 or 35, but I didn’t believe it,” MLE chairman George Shea said in the 30 for 30.

At the halfway mark of his first competition, Kobayashi had already surpassed the world record. Organizers didn’t even have enough signs to keep count of how many dogs he had eaten, and were scrambling to write up new signs on wrinkled sheets of yellow paper. Even other contestants at the table were looking on with awe.

By the time the clock finally hit zero, Kobayashi had eaten 50 hot dogs and buns — smashing the previous record.

Contestants applaud as 23-year-old Takeru Kobayash raises his hands in victory July 4, 2001 at the 86th annual Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York.
23-year-old Takeru Kobayashi raises his hands in victory July 4, 2001 at the 86th annual Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Chestnut’s rise, impending battle with Kobayashi

It was that competition that sparked the beginning of MLE — and, in turn, caught Chestnut’s attention.

Chestnut, who was working as a table-ender at the time, remembers watching Kobayashi competing in various eating contests on television — including a wild hot dog eating competition against an Alaskan Grizzly Bear — with Will at home.

Instantly, the two were hooked. It’s what inspired them to enter the initial asparagus contest in the first place.

Chestnut’s first appearance at the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest later that year was impressive. Chestnut downed 32 hot dogs and buns, good enough for third place. Sonya Thomas ate 37, and Kobayashi led the field with 49 to pick up his fifth-straight win.

“I was legitimately surprised that I got top three,” Chestnut said in the documentary. “It started right then and there, I think.”

And it did. Chestnut hopped onto the MLE circuit and started winning. His rivalry with Kobayashi was born, and he was hailed as the “hero” who could finally bring the Mustard Belt back to American soil.

That’s why Chestnut’s loss at the contest in 2006 — where Kobayashi beat him by just 1.75 hot dogs — hit him so hard.

“I wept. I was heartbroken,” Chestnut said after that loss in the 30 for 30.

Finally, though, Chestnut overtook Kobayashi in 2007, eating 66 hot dogs to Kobayashi’s 63.

Still to this day, Chestnut gets emotional thinking about it.

“It’s one of the weird things where you can’t even … yeah. It’s hard to even put into words,” Chestnut told Yahoo Sports. “Everything you work for, it’s right there. It happens, and this is perfect. It’s very rare that things just come together exactly like you planned — especially when you’re in competition against other people. You can’t control what they do. All I can do is set goals in my head and make sure they were high enough to win. And then they were.

“All I did, it was up to me. It was great.”

Training, preparation isn’t an exact science

In the weeks prior to his biggest competition of the year, Chestnut is still actively competing.

On June 7, National Donut Day, Chestnut competed in the second annual World Hostess Donettes Eating Championship in Austin, Texas.

While the current World No. 1 set the world record in the inaugural competition in 2018, eating 257 of the mini powdered donuts, he fell short this year. Chestnut only ate 200 donuts, falling in a “stunning upset” to Geoffrey Esper, who downed 235 donuts in just six minutes.

Chestnut took the loss well on social media, but was still bothered by the defeat.

Nearly two weeks later, Chestnut took the stage again at the Hooters World Wing Eating Championship in South Lake Tahoe, California. Esper, though, got him again. Chestnut ate just 256 wings in the 10-minute competition to Esper’s 281 — which broke his own world record.

“After any contest what I do is, as soon as I can start eating, even if I’m not hungry, I go into a high fiber diet to help everything get through and digest,” Chestnut said. “Then once I get back down to my target weight, I start fasting. Once I know I’m empty, I can do another practice.”

Those practices are simulated as close to the real thing as possible.

“I’ll have 80 hot dogs cooked up. I’ll be eating outside, hopefully in the heat, just trying to go through everything,” Chestnut said.

There was no textbook on how to train for competitive eating that Chestnut could go off of when he was first getting started. He had to create his own, and relied heavily on what he calls the “Guess and Check” method.

He tracked everything he did to train and prepare — including weighted jaw lifts, chewing on a jaw ball, breathing exercises that look extremely painful and more — in a book. If it worked, or he thought it was working, it would stay.

“For a long time, I kept a diary, a journal of everything I was doing and what was working and why I thought it was working,” Chestnut said. “That part of it was really fun figuring it out and then figuring out things that I didn’t think of and other people didn’t think of.”

Despite all of the food he eats each year — last year’s hot dog contest resulted in Chestnut eating more than 22,000 calories in just 10 minutes — his health is actually extremely important to him.

If that slips, he can instantly feel it.

“It’s so clear to me that when I gain weight, I start losing contests,” Chestnut said. “People always think I should be heavier, but oh my God if I was heavier, then I would lose.”

The last 48 hours before the competition is really when Chestnut settles in.

For nearly two days, he won’t eat any solid food — other than a little bit of salmon the night before. It’s all liquids, paired with a lot of stretching, yoga and breathing exercises to make sure he’s loose and ready to go.

“The morning of I’m having coffee with sugar and honey,” Chestnut said. “I’m trying to get easy sugar to raise the energy. It’s really liquids. ... I do take some amino acids, but I want to make sure that it doesn’t get stuck in my stomach.”

Joey Chestnut eats two hot dogs at a time during the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest on July 4, 2017, in New York.
Joey Chestnut eats two hot dogs at a time during the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest on July 4, 2017, in New York. (AP/Bebeto Matthews)

How much further can Chestnut go?

Chestnut has now been eating competitively for nearly 15 years. At 35 years old, it’d be understandable if he started to slow down, but he has no plans to do that.

“As long as I can push myself to some sort of competitive level while being healthy, you can count me in. I still love it,” Chestnut said. “There’s no better feeling than beating the guy next to you. Competitive eaters, they have egos. Kobayashi, he hated losing so bad.

“There’s no better feeling than beating somebody who hates to lose. That’s the best feeling.”

Chestnut is clearly at the top of the competition, but he’s not unbeatable by any means. In 2015, after eight-straight wins, Chestnut slipped. Matt Stonie ate 62 hot dogs that Independence Day, beating the reigning champion by two to claim his first Mustard Belt.

“I’m not ever happy that I lost that year, but it ended up being good because I went back to the drawing board,” Chestnut said. “I started figuring out my training, I lost weight, I think I committed to doing a few less contests. I really became a good amount healthier so that I could push myself harder in the contest. I think it actually made it so I’ll be able to do the contest for a lot longer.”

That next year, Chestnut came out swinging. He set a new world record by eating 70 hot dogs, and beat Stonie by 17. He upped it the next year by two, and then ate two more in last year’s competition.

While the number of hot dogs eaten at this competition has gone up steadily since the turn of the century — from 50 in 2001 to 74 last year — there is a ceiling to the number of hot dogs a human can realistically eat in just 10 minutes. It’s just not physically possible for that number to keep rising at the rate it has been.

The peak may be on the horizon, but Chestnut knows they aren’t there yet. As long as he’s still in the competition, and someone else is pushing him, he’ll keep eating more.

“It’s hard to keep going up,” Chestnut said. “The last couple years I’ve gone up. Right now it’s at 74. I can see it going up definitely a couple more this year.

“I think competition brings it out ... If somebody comes out and eats 81, then I’ll find a way to eat 82.”

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