When it comes to competitive eating, Joey Chestnut will likely go down as the greatest of all time. This past July, he won his 11th Nathan’s hot dog eating title, breaking a record he previously held by downing 74 dogs.
On Sunday, Aug. 5, Chestnut was in Indianapolis competing in the World’s Ice Cream Eating Championship at the Indiana State Fair. The California native finished in second place eating 14.5 pints of vanilla ice cream in just six minutes, one pint shy of winner Geoffrey Esper. Before Sunday’s contest, we caught up with the competitive eating legend for an in-depth interview.
NUVO: Was there a profession you were seeking out before you got into competitive eating?
JOEY CHESTNUT: [Laughs] I was doing everything right. I was in college getting my civil engineering degree. Even after I started competitive eating, I started working in construction management, and the competitive eating got bigger and bigger. I was a weekend warrior for a while, but then, it just got big enough where it didn’t make sense for me to try to do both. I just decided I would see how far I could take it. It was 2011 when I went full-time with competitive eating. I took some time off of work, and I just never really went back to it.
NUVO: Tell me about the first time competitive eating piqued your interest.
CHESTNUT: It wasn’t even my idea. I was 21. I grew up in a big family. My little brother knew I could eat more than all the older brothers. I was just a big eater—I love to eat. So he signed me up for my first contest. It was a lobster-eating contest, and I ended up tying for third. I knew right then that I loved it, but it was hard for me to eat in front of people. I was pretty shy, and it was rough. But I loved the competition aspect, and I loved eating.
The next contest, my little brother and my mom were there. I was a little more comfortable, and I ended up winning the fried asparagus-eating contest. It was probably at that contest where I knew that I could train my body. Because I started figuring out my body a little bit and figuring out how to maximize my capacity with my preparation beforehand. I think that’s what really sets me apart from the other eaters. I don’t just go out and eat. I prep for a couple days, and usually a lot longer, before a contest to make sure that I’m ready to eat that much.
NUVO: Most athletes have a trainer. Are you your own trainer?
CHESTNUT: Yeah, I am my own trainer. I run ideas by people. I have a pretty good support network, whether it’s my brother or a couple really close friends. I sometimes even run things by a doctor and a nutritionist. I’ve been lucky with my support network, but I also look at it kind of like an engineering problem. I try to control the variables and try to just push my capacity.
NUVO: That being said, what does a training regiment look like for you?
CHESTNUT: For big contests like hot dogs, I get into a cycle where I go practice, contest, and then I recover. As soon as I can start eating solid food, I’m trying to eat high-fiber lettuce and cucumber. Then once I’ve recovered, I go into fasting mode again, where it’s just lemon juice and water. I’m pretty much doing a cleanse. Once I get down to a target weight, then I can do another practice. Every practice I try to increase what I’m eating, whether it’s hot dogs or gyoza, depending on the contest.
NUVO: What are some of the more difficult foods you’ve eaten at competitions?
CHESTNUT: Ice cream is probably one of the more difficult ones. It’s not like any other contest. The cold really hurts your mouth, your tongue, and your throat. Your stomach even ends up acting like a radiator. It will be warm, and I’m expecting to be shivering after the contest. I’m going to take in 10 to 14 pounds of ice cream, and my body is going to react. It’s a painful contest, but it’s also one of the best ones just because everyone wants to know how much ice cream you can eat.
NUVO: What’s the day after a competition like?
CHESTNUT: It depends largely on the food. Like with ice cream, I have a really high tolerance for dairy. There is a lot of sugar, but it actually digests pretty slowly because of the dairy. I’ll feel fine the next day. With a contest like hot dogs, it takes two days to really be feeling good, maybe even more. But it depends on the food. I did shrimp cocktail in Minneapolis, and I was doing fine in eight hours.
NUVO: Are there any foods you’d never do a competition with?
CHESTNUT: I wouldn’t say never, but raw oysters. I just haven’t brought myself to do that contest. Every year, there’s a big contest in New Orleans, and I just can’t bring myself to do it. The texture is pretty rough. It’s a little bit too slimy and a little bit salty. That’d be a tough one.
NUVO: Is your love for food impacted at all by your competitive eating?
CHESTNUT: In a couple ways, yeah, when I’m practicing or recovering or fasting. I have to be on a pretty controlled diet. If I start eating too early, I’m going to start gaining weight really quickly. After the Fourth of July, I’ve been on reward mode for a little bit celebrating. I’ve probably gained 15 pounds since the Fourth of July just because I haven’t been monitoring my calorie intake like I should. I’ll get back on it and lose some weight. But that’s one of the biggest things. If I get carried away and eat what I like (and I eat more than most people). I’ll gain weight. There’s no way around it. I am a human being. If my long-term calorie intake isn’t the same as most people, I’m going to gain weight and be slower in my contests.
NUVO: With you visiting the Indiana State Fair, I’m curious if you’ve ever done a corn dog eating competition, or other fair-related foods?
CHESTNUT: I’ve done funnel cake. That was really, really hard. It was hard to swallow fast, but it was fun. There was so much powdered sugar on it—it was great. No corn dogs yet. I’ve done Twinkies but not the deep-fried Twinkies. That’d be nuts.
NUVO: You talked about how you got into competitive eating. In looking back at where you are now, is there any part of it that’s surreal to you now?
CHESTNUT: Pretty much the entire thing is pretty crazy. I love it, but like you said, it wasn’t my plan growing up. I was growing up and doing everything normal, and then this crazy eating just…I did one contest, and it snowballed into the next. I fell in love with it, and now I honestly believe I have one of the best jobs around. I get to travel, eat, and go to fun events all around the world. I get to make people happy by eating. And beat people and make myself happy. It’s the weirdest, most unexpected thing, and I’m having fun with it still.