Interview with Competitive Eater Takeru Kobayashi

Justin with Kobayashi and Friend of JET Sarah Goebel

By JQ magazine’s Justin Tedaldi (CIR Kobe-shi, 2001-02) for Examiner.com. Visit his NY Japanese Culture page here to subscribe for free alerts on newly published stories.

Takeru “The Tsunami” Kobayashi is a three-time Guinness World Record holder for competitive eating. He burst on the American scene in 2001 at Coney Island’s annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest by downing 50 dogs in 12 minutes, doubling the previous record. Kobayashi went on to win the contest six consecutive times while shattering other gastronomic records around the world.

After a shocking arrest and subsequent dismissal of charges in July at this year’s Nathan’s event, Kobayashi returned to the stage last night at the Japan Arts Matsuri in Brooklyn for another challenge: to become the world’s fastest 12-inch pizza eater. While he fell less than 20 seconds short of the 1:45 record (saying afterward that the pie was softer than he anticipated), there was no doubt among the crowd that the champ will give it another try in the near future. Hours before taking the stage, I spoke with Kobayashi through his interpreter Emiko Watanabe for this rare English language interview.

What kind of training does one have to do to be the world’s fastest pizza eater?

I had to practice how to use a knife and fork, because I have to use it for this challenge. That was the main thing.

That’s interesting. Most people don’t use a knife and fork to eat a pizza.

It would be much easier if I was allowed to use my hands instead. So it’s going to be a little harder.

What’s your favorite kind of pizza?

Pizza Margherita.

How are things after July 4th? Do you find that you’re more popular and recognized in New York from people on the street?

[laughs] I think so; I feel that I’m more recognized than before. I was famous before as a six-time champion [at the Nathan’s contest], but after Independence Day this year, people think I’m more interesting and have humor, so people notice me a lot more than before.

Where do you live in New York?

Manhattan.

Many celebrities in America are known for their talent, but personality is also important. Are you making more efforts to do things like learn English to become a bigger celebrity here?

I started going to an English school last month.

What kinds of things do your fans ask when they recognize you?

They don’t really ask anything, but they do ask to take a picture with me.

Any memorable encounters?

I met this fan who didn’t recognize me at first. She was an African American lady, and when she first spoke to me, she just thought I was a cool or cute Japanese guy. We talked, but then she recognized who I was, saying, “Oh my God! Oh my God!” It turns out that she was scrapbooking all of my articles from Independence Day, and the reason she did that is because she thought I was cute. When she realized that I was the same person, she went out of control screaming.

You always look so different every year; you’re like a chameleon.

I do that on purpose to entertain everyone.

It’s useful, because sometimes you don’t want people to recognize you.

When I had blonde hair before, everyone recognized me right away. Now I have black hair, so I blend in.

What kind of restaurants do you want to check out in New York?

I can’t come up with any specific ones, but I love good food, so I’m sure I’ll find some.

What’s a typical day like for you when you’re not training?

I attend school every day now, and I also attend meetings for my work. Besides my training, I also travel for work. I’ve been to Canada, Florida and Philadelphia since last August, so I’ve been pretty busy.

When you are training, do you have a typical schedule per day, or is it different depending on what you’re training for?

Basically, it’s the same program every time, but it depends on what kind of food I’m going to eat, and I have to arrange the kind of training I do.

Last February you were granted a 0-1A visa by the Department of Homeland Security, which allows individuals with “extraordinary ability or achievement” to live and work in the United States for a three-year period. When did you apply for this?

It’s difficult to answer.

Did you run this plan by Major League Eating before applying?

No matter what my visa situation is, if I signed their contract, I would be in a really hard situation. So, I didn’t sign it for that reason.

You announced that you would not compete the day before this year’s Nathan’s contest. Were you still trying to negotiate with MLE at that point?

I did not contact them from myself at all.

Why did you wait until the day before if you had already made up your mind?

I had been negotiating with them for a long time before that, but I also had a little hope that they might change the contract and let me eat. That’s why I attended in the end as a spectator.

When you tried to climb on stage, did getting arrested go through your mind?

I didn’t think about it before I got on stage, but as soon as I got up there and saw policemen coming up after me, I did.

After it happened, were you worried about your visa being taken away?

I wasn’t worried about it, but my other friends and colleagues were very worried about that.

You were confident that you didn’t really do anything to break the law, because things turned out okay.

I didn’t have any idea that I did a bad thing, so I couldn’t believe that it ended up in something like an arrest.

Has MLE reached out to you recently about your participation for next year? Is it impossible to compete there if you don’t sign?

Unless I sign the contract, I can’t compete. I don’t know anything else about MLE’s plans.

I’m curious to know about your dating life here in New York. Do you get the chance to meet people? What kind of places do you go to?

I’d like to go to Central Park; it’s lovely. I’ve been to the Empire State Building with four friends, and it was very beautiful at that time around midnight.

Is this your first winter in New York?

Yes, for living here.

Do you cook much at home? What do you like to make?

I don’t even want to call it cooking! [laughs] I just grill chicken and make very simple cuisine.

You’re an incredibly fit guy for a big eater. What’s your workout program like?

I basically go to the gym three times a week to do weight training for one or two hours.

Does having a lot of muscle help you in competition, or is this more of a health choice for you?

It’s really good for my health, but it connects to the result of my competition.

If you weren’t a competitive eater, what kind of job would you have back home in Nagano?

I wouldn’t be in Nagano [laughs]; maybe in Tokyo. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a baseball player.

Which team?

[Seibu] Lions.

What are your ultimate goals? How much longer do you think you can do this physically?

For competitive eating, if my motivation lasts I can do this for 10 or 20 years. But I won’t! [laughs] If I put my body and health in very good condition, I’ll be able to do this for a long time.

They can create a new class: ojiichan (grandpa) competitive eating.

That would be fun. [laughs]

Any last messages?

I’ll continue to eat for all my fans, so please keep supporting me.

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