Kobayashi in Depth
If there was ever any question as to whether Takeru Kobayashi – the most famous man in professional eating – had transcended his oddball sport and become a full-fledged celebrity, the lead up to an interview with the man they call “Kobi” will prove that yes, he is kind of a big deal.
It's not that the ingestion superstar has an attitude. He's actually remarkably pleasant. He's just well insulated. There are handlers on the call – manager and translator Maggie James and Don Povia of HHR Media Group – and there are rules. You can't ask about his training methods, they're secret, and you can't mention Major League Eating. MLE is the self-styled governing body of competitive eating in the United States, best known for organizing the Coney Island's famous July 4 Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest, the Super Bowl of professional eating and an event which Kobayashi won for six straight years from 2001-06. Kobayashi hasn't been with the MLE for two years, due to a contract dispute.
Kobayashi's career in eating started innocently enough. As a university student, Kobayashi developed a reputation for being able to pack huge quantities of food into his slight frame. One evening, Kobi and some friends were at a restaurant that had a “challenge menu,” featuring, amongst other things, curried rice. A curried rice enthusiast, Kobayashi took the challenge and, in the process, realized that he had a gift for ingestion.
“In a joking way, one of his friends said 'Why don't you try that?'” said James, translating for Kobayashi. “That was when he realized how much he could eat and was like 'Wow.'”
The next step was an appearance on a Japanese game show. There, Kobi amazed a nation with his ability to eat.
“His friends wrote to a TV show in Japan that was featured people eating and said 'My friend could beat your program,” she said, speaking on Kobayashi's behalf. “The TV program came and scouted him, and when he went on the TV program, he won nationwide. It was at that point that he realized that it could be a profession and he started viewing it as a sport and working on how much he could eat.”
The dispute with Major League Eating, according to Kobi's camp, came from a combination of constantly changing contracts, what Kobayashi describes as a tendency to favour certain eaters in certain events, and MLE's insistence at being involved with his outside business affairs.
“Johnsonville Sausages, for example, contacted Kobi and wanted to work with him... and he wanted to work with them, but he couldn't,” James says. “They were holding him down, like 'No... unless they go through us, you can't work with them,' which was heinous to him, because he had an agency in Japan that he was with... He didn't belong to [MLE,] but they came up out of the blue and said 'We own you, and we're going to make people sign through us if they want anything to do with you.'”
In essence, according to Kobayashi, the MLE is trying to simultaneously be the equivalent of a league, a team, and an agent.
“The athletes themselves have to have a separate thing that protects them, then something that protects the sport,” he said, via James. “You can't have the same organization holding exclusivity over them, and ranking them, and creating the rules for the sport itself. That's absurd.”
He also says that MLE has a tendency to send packages of eaters to particular events, with an eye towards tilting the balance towards favoured competitors.
“If they want one character to win [a particular contest]... They choose which [other] players are going to go there... and they can prevent other players who actually want be at that contest from going,” Kobayashi said through James.
That said, he's quite emphatic in stating that he's not accusing the competitive eating circuit of being fixed, just that the deck is occasionally stacked in favour of certain eaters.
“No, it's not [fixed], but in their organization, on their terms... it's close to being that way. They control it the way that they want it.”
Kobayashi may have left the world's largest competitive eating organization, but that doesn't mean he's stopped competing. He's just doing it on his own terms. He's currently training to make his debut at the Wing Bowl, an annual Buffalo wing-eating contest event that takes place in Philadelphia on Super Bowl weekend. The event is sponsored by area radio station 610 WIP. He says that wings represent a new challenge. While the Japanese also eat chicken wings, Buffalo-style wings are a uniquely American invention, one he's still learning to negotiate.
“He is aware of wing culture, but Buffalo wings, he has almost no experience with,” James said, on Kobi's behalf. “He knows what they are... He's excited to work with new food. He says there's a point where you don't know what [the food] is, and then when you figure it out, you can really soar.”
Given that Kobayashi has spent more than a decade in the popular consciousness, it's easy to forget how young he is, but at just 33, the Japanese eating machine says that he feels like he's just starting to reach the peak of his career. He's sponsoring his own events – most notably the Gringo Bandito Taco Challenge, which he presents in conjunction with Gringo Bandito hot sauce owner/Offspring vocalist Dexter Holland – and has found new favourite contests, including a pizza contest in Barrie, Ontario.
“Eatmypie.ca, the names are Craig and Randy, and they have an amazing, amazing restaurant,” James said, on his behalf. “He loves those guys.”
Kobi's contract problems may not be settled any time soon, but that may be a good thing for the world's most famous professional eater, as he's increasingly enjoying his life as a free agent.
“He says that this is almost like a new chapter for him,” James said. “Since he quit that organization... he's been able to relax and compete. He thinks about it like a free style, where it's part of his lifestyle. It's not going through a restrictive organization. He's deciding where he wants to go and creating relationships with each place.”