It’s 2pm at The Breslin in downtown New York, and I am power-lunching with Takeru Kobayashi, a man who once famously ate 13 grilled cheese sandwiches in a minute. The waiter arrives, and we both order a Caesar salad and Diet Coke. His manager orders french fries. Kobayashi tells me that Diet Coke is one of his only vices, and that when he’s not downing 62 slices of pizza in 12 minutes, he typically keeps to a strict diet. As a one-of-a-kind talent in the world of competitive eating — arguably the greatest ever in his field — the 41-year-old seems keenly aware of the inherent novelty and campiness of what he does. Case in point: the event the Japanese phenom is preparing for on the day we meet is an art performance in the neighboring Ace Hotel featuring Kobayashi, the drag performer West Dakota, the cult manicurist Mei Kawajiri, and an ample supply of Cup of Noodles. Yet, when not eating ferociously and flexing his distended abs, Kobayashi is a very mild-mannered and genuine-seeming person. His iPhone case is a giant hot dog, the food item that elevated him to international fame through his world records at The Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Competition. And while Kobayashi and Nathan’s had a very public falling out — one that lead to the eater’s arrest and is now the subject of an upcoming ESPN documentary, screening this Saturday as part of the Tribeca Film Festival — frankfurters remain one of his favorite foods. We chatted some more as we finished our salads.
TAKERU KOBAYASHI: I was just in a taco-eating competition.
THOM BETTRIDGE: How did it go?
KOBAYASHI: I ate 157 chicken tacos in ten minutes.
BETTRIDGE: Wow. How do you prepare for something like that?
KOBAYASHI: I start three months in advance by drinking lots of water to expand my stomach. Right before the competition, I can drink 3 gallons of water in 90 seconds. I also do special exercises for my jaw, my stomach, and my face muscles.
BETTRIDGE: Are you going to do the Coney Island Hot Dog competition?
KOBAYASHI: No. I have bad memories there.
MAGGIE JAMES (Kobayashi’s manager): He had a huge falling out with them in 2010. They gave him a nasty contract — you can’t eat against a clock anywhere else, you can’t make appearances — and one year he went there to protest it, and they had him arrested onstage. That’s what the ESPN film is about.
BETTRIDGE: Was it scary being in jail?
KOBAYASHI: Kind of. People were so nice to me. Someone gave me a roll of toilet paper and told me to use it as a pillow.
BETTRIDGE: I’m sorry if this is a traumatic subject.
KOBAYASHI: It’s okay.
BETTRIDGE: Tell me something the world might not know about you.
KOBAYASHI: I actually do like hot dogs. And I like dogs.
BETTRIDGE: What kind?
KOBAYASHI: I used to have a beagle and a miniature dachshund.
BETTRIDGE: So you also like dogs that look like hot dogs?
BETTRIDGE: What’s your favorite hot dog condiment?
[The salads and Diet Cokes arrive to the table.]
KOBAYASHI: This is a beautiful salad.
BETTRIDGE: How did you first realize you had a talent for eating?
KOBAYASHI: When I was a student in college, I went to a Japanese curry shop, and I did a food challenge to eat a big amount of rice. I broke the record. Then, my ex-girlfriend sent a letter to a TV network saying, “My boyfriend is a big eater.” So the TV network asked me to be on their show. I won the competition and then they asked me to come to the US. My first competition was the hot dog competition, and the eaters there were like, “Hey boy, a teenager shouldn’t be here.” The world record was 25 hot dogs. That first competition I ate 50 hot dogs.
BETTRIDGE: Do you feel like you ever had a great rival in your career?
KOBAYASHI: In Japan, it was Giant Shiro. He had this medical condition where his bones were giant. And he eats a lot. But he doesn’t eat fast.
BETTRIDGE: Do you have a favorite food?
BETTRIDGE: What do you like to eat on a normal day?
KOBAYASHI: I’m addicted to yogurt. Japanese yogurt, but sometimes Greek yogurt.
BETTRIDGE: Why do you think people like watching other people eating? Of course, what you do became immensely popular, but you also see things like YouTube channels of people just eating in front of cameras. What’s that about?
KOBAYASHI: I think food makes people feel connected. It’s something that everyone can do, and something that everyone has to do, so it’s universal.
BETTRIDGE: Tell me about your dreams for the future.
KOBAYASHI: I want to open a rockabilly hot dog bar. One in the US and one in Japan.