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Beginnings: The Breakthrough Moment

Joey Chestnut, Professional Eater

“I was so shy eating in front of people. It was so awkward.”

It wasn’t like I grew up wanting to be a competitive eater at all. Not like a lot of people, like football players, famous ­people — they knew that that’s what they wanted to do when they were young. I was 21, and I was in college, and I’d eat real healthy during the week, and then on the weekends I would reward myself and I’d just go to town on whatever my parents had in the fridge. And my little brother would be like, “Hey.” And so it was actually him that begged me to do my first contest. The first one was lobster. Yeah, he signed me up for like three contests, and then finally I went to one. The only reason I went to the contest in Reno was there was gambling. Then I fell in love with it.

I didn’t win. I was awful my first time. I was so shy eating in front of people. It was so awkward. But my next contest I bought a bunch of my family out, and I won that one. I remember I almost barfed because my mom, at the end of the contest, she yelled out, “Do it for Mama!” Everybody laughed. It was one of the closest I’ve ever been to barfing.

That was when I started to think about my body—the contest was more than just eating. It’s the actual preparation. I usually won the contest by preparing for it. I can tell how ready I am. For instance, that second contest was deep-fried asparagus. I learned how to, I managed to make deep-fried asparagus at home, and that started it building into other things. Because part of my whole training was knowing my body, what it would tolerate. And that was the first time I practiced. And then once you practice — it’s kind of like learning. Every time you learn you can do something, you can go a little bit faster next time. And I was able to push myself.