Joey Chestnut never dreamed he would eat his way to making a living – and a profitable one at that. But dozens of eating competitions later, his life has mushroomed into one of a worldwide eating champion, complete with youngsters and adults alike seeking his autograph.
Just as the NFL, NBA and NHL administer professional football, basketball and hockey, respectively, Major League Eating, or MLE, is the world body that oversees all professional eating contests. The sport’s governing body, the International Federation of Competitive Eating, assists sponsors in developing, promoting and executing various eating events.
In March, the 6-foot-1-inch, 230-pound Chestnut traveled from his home state of California to Palm Beach Gardens to defend his corned beef-eating title at the third annual TooJay’s World Class Corned Beef Eating Championship. He joined a host of other competitors who were all hoping to take home a piece of the more than $10,000 in cash prizes.
At the time of this interview, Chestnut was training for his trifecta bid. Whether considered sport or performance, Chestnut actually does practice runs leading up to each competition.
“As long as I do three practices for a contest, I’m pretty safe to win,” said Chestnut.
His winning record speaks for itself, but just how did this unassuming 28-year-old champion get into competitive eating in the first place?
One of four boys and two girls in his family, Chestnut said it was his brother, William, three years his junior, who encouraged him to participate.
“Me and him could always eat more than the older boys and he knew I was doing most of the work … he noticed I could eat more than anyone else.”
For six months, William kept signing him up for eating competitions. Chestnut didn’t go until he received a phone call from an event organizer, who offered him a hotel room. That was in April of 2005.
“I was 21 at that time … it was a three-hour drive, so it was pretty easy. It worked out perfect,” Chestnut said. “It’s probably the only way I would get in front of a group of people and eat. This is because I was getting something for free.”
He tied for third place eating lobsters in his first contest. Two weeks later, he participated in another eating contest and won – consuming deep-fried asparagus.
“It sounds weird as heck but it was pretty tasty,” he recalled. “They put some parmesan cheese on it.”