Competitive Eater Patrick Bertoletti on hot dogs, vomit, and cold hard cash
Bertoletti at the 2010 Nathan's contest (Photo: Flickr user Hello Turkey Toe)
Bertoletti at the 2010 Nathan's contest (Photo: Flickr user Hello Turkey Toe)

Competitive Eater Patrick Bertoletti on hot dogs, vomit, and cold hard cash

In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert WitnessThe A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.

Despite never winning the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, Patrick “Deep Dish” Bertoletti is one of the world’s best competitive eaters. He holds world records in chicken wings, chocolate, corned beef sandwiches, grits, oysters, and ice cream, and has downed 275 pickled jalapeños in just eight minutes. He’s eaten 11 pounds of shoofly pie in eight minutes and recently chugged 2.5 gallons of chocolate milk in just three minutes.

His latest project is Taco In A Bag, a gourmet nachos joint he opened in suburban Chicago after a win on Food Network’s Food Court Wars. And while he’s more into cooking than eating these days—maybe—he still has plenty of insight into the world of competitive chow. The A.V. Club talked to him about capacity training, reigning Nathan’s champ Joey Chestnut, and what actually happens after he shoves 50 hot dogs into his body in just 10 minutes.

The A.V. Club: How did you discover you were good at competitive eating? How did you get into it?

Patrick Bertoletti: I just got into it—it’s more like a lifelong affliction. Growing up, I was always eating way too much and not being able to control myself. Eating as much food as I could all the time was my goal. I think it was a comfort thing for me. It’s the thing that brought me the most pleasure. I could always go back to food.

If I’m ever in rehab it’s going to be because of food. It’s going to be a “Dear Pizza” letter that I write. Food is really my favorite thing in the world.

AVC: Could anyone become a competitive eater with top training, or is it something you think you have a genetic disposition for?

PB: I don’t have that switch that tells me I’ve had enough. I like excess in everything in my life. Too much of anything for anyone is not nearly enough for me. I don’t have that switch. It’s bad hardwiring really. And I don’t chew my food. That’s what it comes down to. I’m always eating way too fast and never chewing my food. That’s where it started, because I knew I was good at that. I knew I had an appetite, but then once I started training it just got crazy, because it’s like you turn off your brain. It’s not even eating at that point—when you’re in a competition.

AVC: How do you train? If you’re training for jalapeños, is that the same as training for hot dogs?

PB: It all starts with capacity training, which means drinking a lot of liquid—dangerous amounts, as you saw in my chocolate milk video. It’s amounts that normal people shouldn’t be drinking. I would actually suggest that no one try this kind of competitive eating or try any of this training, because it can be very dangerous and stupid. Anyway, I do the general training with drinking a lot of liquids and then—if I feel so inclined and I give a shit about the contest—I might actually practice with the food. But I’m really lazy and I don’t really care anymore.

For the Nathan’s competition I used to do upwards of 30 practices to get ready. But for the most part now I don’t really practice. I do the water thing and maybe do one or two practices, but I just don’t care anymore.

AVC: Why don’t you care anymore?

PB: My mind-set changed, because I’ve been doing it for 10 years. In the beginning, I felt like one of those bank robbers with the sack of money. I was getting paid to eat and it seemed like the funniest thing in the world to me. But over time my priorities have changed. It’s still fun—but I’ve done everything, I’ve been everywhere, I have the most records, I really put my mark on it, and I don’t have anything else to prove. Now it’s really about the money. I still love getting together with the other guys and getting stupid drunk. But maybe I’m just becoming an adult. Now it is just about the money. I don’t do stuff just to get a free T-shirt and a free meal.

AVC: For something like the Nathan’s contest, do you get flown out?

PB: That one is one of the few that flies you out. They also put you up in a hotel.

AVC: You have to qualify before, right?

PB: Yeah, you have to qualify. Normally you have to fly yourself to a contest unless you’re Kobayashi or Joey Chestnut, and then you get flown everywhere. Those are the two main names in competitive eating. If you’re a woman eater you get a lot of perks, but me, I’m just a gringo, so I didn’t really get a lot of those perks. I was the journeyman eater. I would go anywhere, because I didn’t care. I knew if I weren’t going to these contests, I would be sitting at home in Chicago not doing anything.

But the camaraderie’s great. Like I said, we all have this faulty hardwiring, and there aren’t a lot of people like that in Chicago that I’m friends with. It’s a unique breed. We’re the worst influence on each other, but it’s so much fun.

AVC: It sounds like professional poker players. When they’re hanging out with each other, they’ll bet about anything.

PB: Yeah, but it just comes down to drinking. There was this time in San Jose where we went to this place that sold a gallon of beer. The rule was that you had to have four IDs, but the guy working there didn’t care, so he gave me and Joey Chestnut one. And we were like, “This seems like a very smart idea: We’ll race to see who drinks this gallon of beer first.” It’s stuff like that where normal people would be like, “That’s a really terrible idea. You guys could get really drunk or somebody could get sick.” But when you’re with another eater, you’re like, “We just ate 50 hot dogs.” Drinking 10 beers in three minutes doesn’t seem like that big of a deal.

Another time, at four in the morning, there was another guy talking shit to Joey about how he could beat him in a butter-eating contest. I was hammered. They were pretty drunk, too, I would assume. So they went to three 7-Eleven’s and bought all their butter and had an impromptu butter-eating contest on the street at four in the morning.

AVC: You talked about Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut. What do you think makes one competitive eater better than another?

PB: Size or shape doesn’t really matter. The big guys are used to eating a lot of food all the time, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can do it really fast. And that’s what it comes down to. Eating like that is very physical. You have to be in some type of shape, honestly. What separates the top eaters from the good eaters is that they have that drive and they’re able to push themselves. Normal people aren’t motivated to want to be the best at this. You stick with it, you train and you improve, you make gains. Part of it is sticking with it. The other part is training and determination, and then some of it is stuff like genetics.

AVC: You’re not doing Nathan’s this year and that’s sponsored by Major League Eating. How did you make it into the Major League Eating organization?

PB: My first event was a League event. I started traveling and going to more of them, and they make you sign this contract. You know when you’re 19 and you just want to be a part of something? I did that, and it was a great thing for a really long time. They’re the only league in town, and nobody else does anything close to what they do. So I did that, traveled for a while, they were like, “Hey, do you want to sign?”

I’d just had my appendix out and my parents were really pissed. They thought it was really funny for a while, but then they got tired of it. And they’ve gone through the whole spectrum like three times where they’re like, “All right, this is cool,” then they’re like, “All right, do something else,” then, “All right, this is cool.”

This is obviously not a healthy activity. My parents are very supportive of me, but in the back of their minds they’d be a lot happier if I didn’t do this, because it’s dangerous and unhealthy.

AVC: Do you go to the doctor? What does he say?

PB: My doctor now thinks it’s funny. My tests are all normal. I’m aware of all the side effects, but there are a lot of side effects that doctors don’t know. There could be no side effects, but there could be something horrible; we don’t know, because we’re the first breed of eaters that, like Kobayashi, started taking it as a sport. The training and what we’re doing is so untested that we could be fucking ourselves up for the rest of our lives honestly. But I think part of it is just ignorance and being young, because it started when I was like 19. There’s a rift, but you don’t see the rift, because you haven’t had any problems. There haven’t been any scares. No one’s gotten hurt from it. So you think it’s all right, and it probably is all right. But there’s a chance it could not be all right.

AVC: No one’s gotten horrible ulcers.

PB: The doctors are just saying the most basic shit, like “diabetes.” “Your stomach could rupture.” I guess it’s a possibility, but your stomach isn’t really going to rupture. If it was going to rupture, it would have happened already, because my stomach can hold up to three gallons of liquid. It’s weird.

AVC: Is there a doctor at something like Nathan’s giving you guys pre-checks?

PB: Maybe there should be physicals, but there aren’t. You sign a waiver before these events so that if anything happens they’re not liable. But there’s always an EMT present, which in the beginning I thought was hilarious. For a while, I was trying to—you know how the eaters get introductions? I was trying to ride out on a gurney, strapped down like I had a neck injury. But they never let me do that.

AVC: Why aren’t you in this year’s competition?

PB: My contract was up. I was on this hamster wheel of this lifestyle and I needed a break and to think of my future. It was paying me really well, though—$40,000, $50,000 a year. But I blinked my eye and did it for nine or 10 years. It was crazy. I probably would keep doing it, but I realized I had to think of my future and my future is my business and me. The eating only goes so far. Cooking has always been my biggest passion. Eating was a crazy detour from what I want to do, but at the same time, it’s given me so many opportunities that it’s crazy. They just keep getting handed to me. It’s ridiculous. I refuse to take credit that I’m skilled, although I am. I just look at it like it’s luck. I’ve been really lucky throughout my whole life.

AVC:  Is there a record you’d like to hold that you don’t? You’ve won a bunch of jalapeño contests and that seems like that would be hard to do.

PB: That’s one of my favorites. My most impressive records is pickled jalapeños, because I remember how I ate that day and I’ve never felt so good. The only thing I don’t like is that I’ll never really get credit for that one, because it didn’t take place on the Fourth Of July. There are so many other events everywhere. The media just cover the bigger ones, or basically just hot dogs, because they don’t really cover any of the other ones. At one time I was eating in upward of like 40 or 50 contests a year.

AVC: When was that?

PB: It was probably four years ago. I had a September once where I had seven events. It was insanity. There are a ton of events. It sucks that Nathan’s is the only one people know. The eaters take it like a sport, and the league doesn’t even take it as seriously as we do. I still think they don’t even believe it turned out to be what it was.

The one thing I never did was win Nathan’s. I would love to be able to say I won that. But the longer I’m away, I’m less motivated and I’m willing to let it go and I don’t care. I’ve beaten Joey [Chestnut] in a bunch of other foods, but they don’t count, because they’re not Nathan’s.

AVC: It almost feels like Nathan’s wants Joey to win. Or they want Kobayashi to win. They want there to be a dynasty.

PB: They want anything that they can exploit. Honestly, it’s been kind of boring, because Joey’s the best and no one comes close to him. Kobayashi is his own entity and no matter what anyone says, in 10 years, people are still going to think about “the Japanese guy.”  Joey is one of my best friends, but his gimmick is winning. He doesn’t need a gimmick, because he’s the best, but Kobayashi, for whatever reason, he’s an enigma, because he is a small Japanese man and it’s a lot more visual. Joey Chestnut, they think that’s a fake name or a porn name, but that’s his real name. At least he has a name that you can remember.

That’s a thing I realized in the beginning: I could be forgettable, or I could do these little things that would help separate me, like have a mohawk when it’s not cool. I had the mohawk for like 10 years. I’d dress in dumb outfits. For my last Nathan’s, I wore a speedo with a thong back. They edited it out, but I definitely wore it.

You can’t take it too seriously, because at the end of the day it is just eating. That other stuff is to entertain us, because it can be so boring. Ten minutes is a long time to eat. I was in the crowd last year watching Nathan’s and I thought, “This is boring.” Every year I was in it, I would try to find a loophole in the contract or something where I could do something different, and then every year I would and then they would change the rules. It should be like wrestling. You should come out wearing a feather boa and a mink coat or something. All that pageantry is awesome. But we’re terrible actors. We could never actually have a disagreement or a fake feud. It would have to be a real feud. We’re really terrible at acting, and we’re mediocre with media at best.

AVC: Didn’t Kobayashi have some sort of falling out with Major League Eating? It’s not that he’s forgotten how to eat. He’s just not invited to all these contests anymore, right?

PB: He still is arguably the best eater ever. But his contract was up and he was trying to renegotiate and they just couldn’t come to an agreement. And he wasn’t winning Nathan’s either. He’s not going to beat Joey in hot dogs. A lot of people are like, “Well, he’s afraid of eating against Joey,” and I don’t know if that’s the case. If he did that every year, he’d keep getting bigger and bigger, even if he lost every year. Now he’s never going to go back, because they tried to fuck him over, I think.

AVC: Why do you think Joey is so good at hot dogs? Is it about mouth speed?

PB: I think it’s just the food that’s really good for him. I’m really good at sweets and pickled jalapeños. That’s a food built for me. Joey—I don’t know what it is. You have to maximize your capacity for hot dogs and that’s something I was never great at. You dunk the buns in water and that’s where you get your liquid. He doesn’t drink any extra water. And he’s able to go to the point where, if he coughed—he’s at the point where he’s going to burst at the end. He couldn’t possibly fit another hot dog in him at all. It really shows at the end, because he separates himself from everybody else. He’ll be 10 or 15 ahead of everyone. I’ve only finished within nine or 10 one time. He’s not that much better than me at anything else. Usually I’m right with him, but for some reason, hot dogs—I don’t know what it is. He’s able to utilize everything. He has that killer instinct where he’s not going to lose.

AVC: Why do you think you’re good at sweets?

PB: I think it’s because I have a lot of experience and the sugar doesn’t bother me. A lot of people will get sick part way through. The sugar contests are the most dangerous, because it has the quickest and most devastating effect on your blood sugar. That never really bothered me. And I’ve done enough.

Training is the other thing that helps Joey. He really trains his ass off for these events. But I would just be happy going in cold and not having much training at all with the food. It doesn’t really benefit me that much.

AVC: You said Joey would throw up if he ate one more hot dog at the end. What’s the aftermath of any given contest? Do you go throw up? Are you in the bathroom for days?

PB: I will speak for me. It depends on the amount consumed. Obviously, after the chocolate milk, I threw up. I thought I was going to die. If I’m only eating three to five pounds of food, it’s fine. But sometimes you eat so much it restricts your breathing. You’re so full that you can’t even move, and then sometimes you’ll get sick after. But not always. It just depends on how much you eat.

Jalapeños, I got sick. That was about 14 pounds of peppers. That one was bad. It really comes down to the food and the preference. I know what everyone does, but I don’t want to speak for them. It does happen, though.

In the beginning I was never sick. And then I would go out drinking and get sick four or five hours later, because I’d eaten 20 hot dogs and then tried to drink. I couldn’t even get drunk and I’d end up getting sick at the bar six hours later.

I can only imagine what would happen if I tried to ingest 55 hot dogs now—I could hardly sit down,  the sodium, and I’d feel like I was going to die. It’s unnatural.

AVC: “I’ve got to get this out of me the quickest way I possibly can.”

PB: Get this demon baby out of me!

I’m not with the League, so I don’t really give a crap anymore and I’ll say whatever, but maybe they think people just assume what’s happening. A lot of people are oblivious and they don’t know, and then maybe a lot of eaters think if what happens gets out, maybe it’ll take away some of the mystique.

AVC: It has to go somewhere. It doesn’t disappear.

PB: Sometimes you’ll be at the bar after and people will see you drinking, chugging 10 beers, and they think like, “This is totally normal. He still has 50 hot dogs in him.” Why the hell would anyone think that? It’s just kind of funny. My parents didn’t really know what was going on for a while, and I think they figured it out. And I felt bad about that.

AVC: It’s not like you have bulimia.

PB: It’s like controlled bulimia. It’s bulimia where you get paid for it. It’s me trading on an eating disorder for money.

There was always an issue with me overeating and binging. The best way I can describe it is—I was in New Orleans and there was this game where you put 75 cents into this machine, and then you urinate through it and it tells you how many ounces you urinated. So every time I’m in New Orleans, I do that. It’s a game and somebody figured out how to capitalize on garbage. It’s awesome. I got obsessed with it and then I think my record was like—and I don’t know why I’m telling you this—but I think I peed maybe 43 ounces.

AVC: You’ve eaten 47 doughnuts in five minutes, or 21 pounds of grits in 10 minutes. When you’re eating that much, do you enjoy it?

PB: I don’t taste the food usually. If I taste it, I’m having a bad day and it’s going to bother me. It comes down to texture. Some days I’m on and I feel great. I’m in the zone. Those are the days I remember. I think that doughnut day, with 47 doughnuts, I had a great time, because I ate really well and everything worked in my stomach, my jaw, and I felt really good. I didn’t have any issues. But for every good contest I had 10 mediocre ones. I flew to Tucson and ate 10 jalapeño poppers and was like, “Jesus Christ, I don’t want to keep eating and I’ve got another nine minutes of this shit.” My body is very fickle. Some days I just woke up and I had it and I felt good. And then a lot of the other days, no matter what I did preparation-wise, I didn’t feel it. But when you feel it, it’s the best feeling. You’re just on. It’s amazing what your body can do when you feel it.

I have all those records, because I was willing to go to anywhere and do events so often. Now, there aren’t as many events, but people are doing a lot better in these events, because they don’t have to travel and they’re able to concentrate. Doing 44 events in one year was crazy. I didn’t have time to train. I was doing something every weekend. Luckily, I was young. I was doing really well and winning, but it didn’t have any effect. Thank God.

AVC: Is the money worth it? How much are you usually getting for these competitions?

PB: The prizes were usually about a thousand or $1500 bucks. They weren’t big, but I was 22, in culinary school, and I didn’t really care. I was getting sent checks every time I needed money. I’d go to the mailbox and, “Oh, I got paid for this event I did.” I still don’t know how to be on a budget. From such an early age, I was making this money. I never had to think about it. Do I want to go to New York and spend $1,100 at Per Se? Hell yeah. I didn’t even think twice about that stuff. I still don’t. It’s especially difficult now that I have my own business and there’s not a lot of money coming in from that yet.

AVC: Talk about your business. How did you decide to open the restaurant?

PB: We had this truck in Chicago, and it was a side project just for fun. We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. We’ve had it for six years, but the city had its head so far up its ass with food trucks at the time we started. They still kind of do. It’s perversely impossible for us to navigate the bureaucratic bullshit. So we put it on the back burner. Then we got called to do Food Court Wars. We did it and we won. And so the restaurant was kind of handed to us, like, “All right, now we have this rent-free restaurant in the suburbs in a mall.” Unfortunately. But it’s good. So we have that.

We only had two days to reconfigure our truck menu for the show, because they picked us three days before shooting. So basically, we had to make up our concept on the spot. We already did a walking taco on the truck, but for the show we decided that was all we were going to do. I was taking recipes from other dishes I made that I knew worked and put them on chips and it seemed to work. The concept is good and unique. I’m really excited about it. We’re going to open up back in Chicago when our lease ends.

AVC: When’s that?

PB: It’s in March. We’re about five months in.

We get a lot of press. Basically it’s because we’re eaters, but the food is good enough. The hook is us, but then people will keep coming back for the food.

That’s a great thing with the eating, because if you put a microphone in front of my face when I was 19, I didn’t know how to speak. I didn’t know how to do anything. Eating was great media training. And you have to do that stuff now. Chefs can’t just hide. As much as I would like to hide in a kitchen and not deal with people, you have to do all these things, because, if you’re not, you’re losing out. But after eating, I could go on CNN or do anything now. It doesn’t bother me as long as I’m talking about myself or eating or cooking. If you try to ask me what my favorite color is at a dinner party I might go into the fetal position and start crying. But if you ask me about food, I could talk about it all day.

AVC: I have one last question, then. You’re on death row. What’s your last meal? Because it’s you, it could be huge.

PB: I could spread that meal out. Although my stomach capacity would probably be low, because I would be in jail and I wouldn’t be training. But I don’t have one item. I would definitely get them to try to get Hot Doug’s to come in there and make me something. I want an Aurelio’s pizza, for sure, and an In-N-Out burger.

AVC: And what would you want to drink?

PB: I would ask for a gallon of gin and tonic. I would like to be loaded when they flip the switch. They wouldn’t know if I wet myself when they electrocuted me, because I was so drunk.

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