Takeru Kobayashi: Epicurean, Champion, World-Class Athlete

Takeru Kobayashi: Epicurean, Champion, World-Class Athlete

The story of my dinner with the greatest eater in the world.

One of the many distinguishing characteristics of Philadelphia sports fans is that we appreciate the players who work the hardest, often even more than those who have the most natural ability. Grit over grace, to put it another way. Phillies fans absolutely lose it when Roy Halladay is outdoors at Citizens Bank Park in frigid, mid-winter temperatures, working as diligently as humanly possible to become the greatest pitcher in Major League Baseball. More than the remembrances of scoring titles and highlight-reel goals from the mid-90s, Flyers fans latched on to the fact that Jaromir Jagr holds late night skates to build his lower body strength. We hold second baseman Chase Utley in high esteem for the tremendous amounts of film he watches of his opponents before and after games every day to be as prepared as possible to be the best baseball player he can be.

Could that same work ethic be found—and appreciated—in competitive eating, long a source for humor if not scorn toward its indulgence in the most physically revolting of the seven deadly sins?

I recently sat down to dinner with the world’s most recognizable eating champion, Japan’s Takeru Kobayashi, and was left wondering if he isn’t every bit as respectable in his approach to his own arena of competition. What follows are my impressions of Kobayashi after sharing a delicious meal with the champ.

They call Kobayashi “the Babe Ruth of competitive eating," which is fair in that it points out that he is considered the greatest to ever compete in his sport -- and it is a sport to him, we'll get to that later -- but that's probably where the comparisons end. Kobayashi may have played baseball as a young kid in Japan, but that’s where his career in traditional sports ended, veering into a competition that Ruth looked far better suited to win. Separated by generations, Ruth and Kobayashi may still be kindred spirits in that neither’s body looked the part. The Babe never took impeccable care of his body like this diminutive, toned Japanese eater does. Ruth looked a lot more like most of the other competitors Kobayashi will sit among at WIP’s Wing Bowl XX, the first time he has ever competed in the infamous Philly celebration of chicken wings, loose women, and way-too-early-in-the-morning beer.

[photo gallery: the 2011 Wing Bowl | video: the 2011 Wing Bowl]

Kobayashi sustains an exacting focus on nutrition and a cutting-edge weight training regimen, and he watches game film to turn his body into the absolute perfect vessel for his sport. Like me, you may be wondering, but how can a guy who puts so much crap into his body weigh only 128 pounds and be so physically fit at the same time? It certainly an enigma, but the more he shares of his training routines, the more normal it becomes.

KOBI THE FOODIE

Shortly after taking photos of the seared scallops he selected for his main course at Garces Trading Company on Tuesday night, Kobayashi, or “Kobi” as he’s also called, said that what distinguishes him from other competitive eaters is that he isn’t just a junk food dumpster, despite appearances to the contrary at events such as Wing Bowl and the Nathans hot dog competition in New York.

"I'm the only person who is able to completely separate tournament eating and eating as a whole," he says. "I have always loved food. I've been obsessed with it to the point where I maybe would have enjoyed being a food critic. When I eat normally and when I compete, it still goes in the same mouth, but it's completely different. My brain works in a completely different way."

Part of the gimmick of going out to a nice dinner with the man who can eat more than any human on the planet, I thought, would be watching him order his meal to see just how much food he'd choose to consume under normal circumstances. That ploy was foiled a bit when I learned that it happened to be Restaurant Week in Philadelphia which meant a four course pre fixe menu.

As I'd learn, Kobi -- while he did eat all of his meal and most of his manager/interpreter Maggie James's meal as well -- is much more concerned with taste than quantity. It also helped that he had already had quite a bit to snack on earlier in the day.

Whereas my own breakfast and lunch consisted of a bowl of oatmeal and half a meatball sub, Kobi had already polished off… wait for it… 300 chicken wings, a couple of Tony Luke's Italian Roast Porks and a few Cheeesesteaks, and a whole box of cookies to wash them down. The tiny man sitting across from me cleaning his plate had already eaten 300 wings earlier in the day as part of his training for Friday's big event, the top prize of which is a $20,000 pay check.

Three hundred wings. For practice.

(He also weighed in on the age-old Philly debate: "If I want to have a heavier food, I order the cheesesteak. If I want a bit lighter food, I'd order the Roast Pork.")

But while the 300 wings he ate earlier in the day may have still been lingering in his body, Kobi was enthralled with his current surroundings and the opportunity to eat again. The restaurant I had chosen is sort of part market, part restaurant, with a wine store attached to the side as well. "I love it. It's so cool," he told me of Iron Chef Garces’ joint.

"I'm in love with the performance here," Kobi said of Garces Trading Co. "You can shop, you can get quality cheese, you can taste all the different oils."

"They took all those things I love about Chelsea Market and you get to sit in the middle of it and look at it all while you're eating."

Being the best competitive eater on the planet has afforded Kobayshi the ability to travel all over the world and eat at many of the finest restaurants. For a guy who shovels food into his mouth for a living, I didn't expect such an appreciation of aesthetics, taste, and in particular the fact that many of the products used to prepare our meal were locally sourced. Perhaps the most emotion he showed all evening was when his translator Maggie told him that everything he ordered, from the house made pork rillette to the funghi pizza and seared scallops were all regional.

Kobi doesn't just enjoy eating delicious meals, he's also been taking photos of them for years and posting them on his blog -- sort of a Foodspotting before Foodspotting. If you're not familiar with the website or iPhone app, it's a service dubbed as "a visual guide to good food and where to find it" where you basically post photos of all the different foods you eat to share with fellow food geeks. So it was a natural fit for Kobi to team up with Foodspotting to share the many meals he eats with thousands of fans. Just this week he became an official feat
ured partner at KobiEats
.

Here's the photo he took of the delicious scallops from our meal on Tuesday.


SERIOUS TRAINING TO EAT 300 WINGS

He called the scallops, "beautiful," but I still couldn't get the 300 wings he had eaten earlier in the day out of my head. When was the last time you ate more than 10 or 20?

Curious about the rest of his training regimen for Wing Bowl, he told me he began his training for Wing Bowl in early December. For the first few weeks, that training consisted solely of "stomach stretching" by drinking obscene amounts of water. Once the stomach stretching was progressing nicely, he finally started out with a "small amount" of wings at the very end of the December. What's a "small amount" to Kobi? Only a measly 100 wings. But his training isn't set in stone months in advance. Instead, he trains based on how his body is feeling at any given time.

"Some people think that I have this thing that I do for every food, but it's not that way,” Kobi said, noting different foods do different things to his body. “Every competition with every food is completely different; your body feels different so you kind of have to tailor it each time and do what you think is right."

Kobi thought it was right for his body to eat at least 200 wings every day he's been in Philly for the entire week leading up to the big competition on February 3rd -- aside from today, when he’ll eat like a “normal person” to rest his throat for tomorrow. You do the math and Kobi will have eaten well over 1,000 wings this week. That's before the competition even starts.

Kobe Bryant may practice in the gym and not leave until he makes 300 jumpshots. That's in preparation for the real competition which are the games. Kobi is no different, except his "work in the gym" consists of eating 300 chicken wings. Just a day at the office.

While many in the States may scoff at the idea of Kobi being one of the best athletes in the world, he regularly meets with a group of elite Japanese athletes to compare workout notes from a variety of fields. They often marvel at his physical abilities and training regimen.

"When I first realized that I wanted to take this seriously and turn it into a sport, I knew that I had to drop everything that was extra in my life and focus completely," he says. "If I expect for the world to believe this, I better put everything into it. When I line up with other athletes, I better make sure that they look at me and say 'wow!' That was in my mind from the very beginning. There's no room to be silly about it.”

Part of the problem some athletes have, according to Kobi, is that they think bigger is always better. Instead, they should focus on what is appropriate for their particular sport.

"Many Japanese athletes I've met, I always think they should learn more about weight training. There's no sport that athletes couldn't do better with a little more education about weight training. People think weight training is just about creating hard muscles and becoming stronger, but it's not just that. A lot of it is about which muscles to train, some muscles are supposed to be soft and flexible. It's really about where you put it and how you want to use it. Is that muscle even necessary for your sport?"


WELCOME TO THE STRIPPER CIRCUS, A LONELY WORLD

Bringing the conversation back to Wing Bowl, the majority of the competitors pretty much think it's a gag. Training? Most competitors think showing up at a local bar and simply throwing down as many wings as they can while washing it down with a few pitchers of light beer will have them ready for Wing Bowl. But Kobi knows that reigning champion Super Squib and former champion El Wingador are skilled at the art of wing eating, but that will not bother him on Friday.

"I know that they are strong players," Kobi says of the pair. "I know that they have certain things they are better at than I am. But I don't worry."

He admits that the art of cleaning a wing is much more of a technique than, say, a hot dog. His main competitors have plenty of experience in mastering the technique, but Kobi's been fine tuning his like Chase Utley works on his approach at the plate (the other plate).

"The key to success with wings is technique, but that's not the only thing that's going to get you through the entire contest. Hot dogs take more energy, wings take more technique."

Aside from eating thousands and thousands of wings over the past two months, Kobi has watched hours of film of his main competitors, gleaning the best aspects of their wing-eating style and trying to turn it into a style that works best for him. He's watched how his competitors eat. He's timed the pace they eat wings at to better prepare himself and know what it will take to win.

"I watch all the actions of all the eaters. Of course I learn from them, especially going into a contest I've never been in before like wings. First I look at what each of the competitors do and then I see what aspects of their game that I could use."

He watches film on wing techniques. That's how seriously he takes all of this.

Kobi is also not worried about Bill "El Wingador" Simmons -- a competitor he considers a good friend -- warning's that the Japanese outsider could get booed by the local crowd. Kobi says that if 20,000 people are booing him, it would be hard to ignore, but when he's on his game, he's in a zone and it's all about him not what's going on around him.

It's also impossible to talk to anyone about Wing Bowl without pointing out that 9 out of 10 people think it's a joke, an occasion to get drunk at the crack of dawn and see the yearly gathering of strippers show off their breasts. Kobi embraces this circus atmosphere and credits the creators for the base idea, but he won't let it knock him off his game either.

"When I first went [but didn’t compete], I was like 'What!' but the thing is, if you're not negative about it, not the sports part, but the whole concept of the event is funny. Whoever created Wing Bowl was thinking about everything a man would want: wings, beer, and women. The concept was 'Let's make an event that would make the male animal happy.' If you don't think of it negatively, and look at it as a funny project, it can be funny in a positive way."

It's a bit of a contradiction, how he takes his sport so seriously -- "there's no room to be silly" -- yet at the same time realize that his Super Bowl, his World Series Game 7 takes place in a booze-infested stripper-packed arena where fans cheer the loudest for nipples and vomiting. But make no mistake, he's absolutely serious about eating as a sport. After pointing out that he's at the top of his craft, considered the best in the world to ever do what he does, Kobi seemed to get a bit philosophical.

"You say I'm at the top of my game which isn't a bragging statement because I am at the top of my game. The thing is, I didn't grow to be there. When I first came out I was at the top. I didn't really know what losing was about. Every time out I would double my amount or set a record. It's always been that way. I've never felt like I was going up. Because I've always been at the top, my standards have never been how far I go towards the top. My standards have always been what can I do with what I have and how much stronger can I be myself. I'm always only going against myself because it's a lonely world. There aren't that many people around me to look at. If you think about it that way, I'm still always trying to go further.

"From the beginning, my job has not been to come into this sport and be
another player and just be the best player. I came into this and pioneered this as a sport," Kobi said. "I'm telling people this is a sport. It's not just a fat man's thing. That hasn't changed, I'm still on that mission to tell people this is a sport. I haven't even come close to the goal of what I'm going for as an athlete or as a pioneer of the sport."


WING BOWL 20 AND THE CHEESESTEAK GUY

It's clear that there's more to Kobayashi than simply wanting to win every competition he participates in. He also wants to bring a legitimacy to the sport that could inspire others to take it as seriously as he does, but while he's here in Philadelphia, he's going to have as much fun with it as possible -- a sea change of sorts from his earlier days in eating. He's admittedly a strange character, but says he's really opened up in the last few years, enjoying going out to dinner with sports bloggers and opening up about how he approaches not only his sport, but his life. "I was a late bloomer in understanding life, but I was always great as an eater," he says.

Aside from his giddiness when told about the food we were eating being locally sourced, Kobi got most animated when asked about his "entourage." Part of the Wing Bowl tradition requires each eater to make a grand entrance, as flashy or fleshy as possible, preferably. The goal is to excite the crowd to get them on your side when the munching gets under way. The two key ingredients to a solid entourage are Philly sports bonafides and breasts. Kobi will employ the former with the help of Philadelphia personality, SAG Award shower-upper, and cheesesteak impresario Tony Luke Jr. Kobi appreciated the value in good entrance.

"There's no way that you can completely separate sports and entertainment," he said. "No way. I'm very dedicated to the rules of sports and I'm an athlete, but packaging is so important. Of course, going into something, any artist wants to get pumped up."

Kobi and his people wanted to keep the exact details of his entourage under wraps until Friday, but expect a very Philly-centric theme on Friday.

"For me, I was kind of like, 'woo-hoo!' This is kind of the cool thing about Wing Bowl. I get to be really creative for once. I want to do this, this, and this."

After learning about his love of fine food, photography, and his higher goals of striving to bring legitimacy to his sport, I ask him over dessert what he expects to happen on Friday at Wing Bowl 20.

Finishing a spoonful of his winter verrine of caramel apples, butterscotch pudding, and cornmeal streusel, he answered matter of factly.

"I want to win," Kobayashi said with a big smile before pausing. Then clarified further.

"I don't just want to win, I want to win with a score over 300 wings."

The record set last year at Wing Bowl 19 by Super Squibb was 255 wings eaten by one man.

I'd be shocked if Takeru Kobayashi didn't shatter that on Friday.

Best of MLB: Bryant homers twice, Cubs spoil Ruiz's Dodgers debut

Best of MLB: Bryant homers twice, Cubs spoil Ruiz's Dodgers debut

LOS ANGELES -- Kris Bryant hit a tiebreaking two-run homer in the 10th inning to go with an earlier solo shot, lifting the Chicago Cubs over the Los Angeles Dodgers 6-4 on Friday night in the series opener between NL division leaders.

Bryant's 35th homer capped a comeback from an earlier two-run deficit and extended the Cubs' winning streak to four games. Chicago fans chanted "MVP! MVP!" as Bryant scored behind Dexter Fowler, who singled leading off.

Chicago improved to 19-4 in August while earning its major league-leading 82nd victory.

Travis Wood (4-0) got the victory with one inning of relief. Aroldis Chapman struck out two in the 10th to earn his 10th save.

Adam Liberatore (2-1) took the loss, allowing two runs and four hits in one inning (see full recap).

Mariners overcome Sale's 14 K's to beat White Sox
CHICAGO -- Chris Sale struck out 14 but got outpitched by Felix Hernandez and the Seattle bullpen, and the Mariners ended a three-game skid Friday night by beating the Chicago White Sox 3-1.

Hernandez (9-4) improved to 5-0 in eight starts since returning from the disabled list, throwing 7 1/3 innings of one-run ball.

Sale (15-7) gave up five hits and walked none in his fifth complete game of the season. He retired the final 16 batters, striking out 10 of them.

Sale struck out six straight in the sixth and seventh innings, one shy of Joe Cowley's team record.

Franklin Gutierrez hit a solo home run and Adam Lind added an RBI double off Sale.

Todd Frazier's 32nd home run in the seventh was one of eight hits off Hernandez until he left with the bases loaded (see full recap).

Gonzalez earns 100th win as Nationals top Rockies
WASHINGTON -- Jayson Werth and Daniel Murphy hit solo homers and drove in two runs each, and Gio Gonzalez earned his 100th career victory as the Washington Nationals beat the Colorado Rockies 8-5 on Friday night.

Gonzalez (9-9) threw six innings and allowed two runs and four hits with one walk and five strikeouts.

Mark Melancon retired Christhian Adames for the final out. Melancon entered the game shortly after Nick Hundley hit a three-run homer off Shawn Kelley to pull the Rockies within three.

While Gonzalez hit the century mark, Rockies rookie Jeff Hoffman (0-2), remains in search of his first major league win (see full recap).

Best of NFL: Tom Brady on target, leads Patriots to win in preseason debut

Best of NFL: Tom Brady on target, leads Patriots to win in preseason debut

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Tom Brady looked sharp in his preseason debut, throwing a 33-yard touchdown pass to Chris Hogan in helping the New England Patriots to a 19-17 preseason win over the Carolina Panthers on Friday night.

Brady relieved Jimmy Garoppolo late in the first quarter and completed a 37-yard pass to Aaron Dobson on his first play from scrimmage, leading to a field goal. On his second drive Brady heaved a perfectly placed over-the-shoulder pass to Hogan down the right sideline for a 9-0 lead. Brady's other two drives failed to produce points.

While Brady was on the mark, league MVP Cam Newton struggled mightily in his most extensive playing time of the preseason. Newton was intercepted twice and the Panthers failed to get any points on his eight first-half possessions. Overall, the Panthers scored just three points in 10 Newton-led drives.

The sixth-year quarterback was high on some passes and didn't get much help from his receivers, who had problems getting separation and dropped four passes, including one by Brenton Bersin on a fourth-and-2 at midfield.

New England's defense shut down the league's highest-scoring offense from a year ago. They also intercepted Derek Anderson and allowed only one passing play of more than 15 yards in the first half.

Garoppolo, expected to start the first four games for the Patriots while Brady serves a suspension for his role in "Deflategate," returned in the second quarter but couldn't get anything going.

In the third quarter he rolled out of the pocket while under pressure and missed an open receiver who'd gotten behind the defense. His six drives resulted in no points, although Stephen Gostkowski missed a 30-yard field goal on the New England's opening possession (see full recap).

Redskins overcome slow start to beat Bills
LANDOVER, Md. -- Kirk Cousins found a groove and undrafted rookie running back Robert Kelley made the most of his chance and the Washington Redskins beat the Buffalo Bills 21-16 Friday night in the third preseason game.

With the Bills (1-2) resting almost their entire starting defense, Cousins overcame a rough start to finish 12 of 23 for 188 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.

Despite coming mostly against Buffalo's second- and third-stringers, it was an important recovery for Cousins, who had thrown only five passes in the preseason and didn't play last week in an effort to test backup Colt McCoy.

Kelley ran for 51 yards on 12 carries in a personal showcase with Matt Jones and Chris Thompson out and after seventh-round pick Keith Marshall sprained his left elbow on his only carry of the game.

Bills starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor played only two series, by coach Rex Ryan's design, going 2 of 5 for 11 yards before being replaced by E.J. Manuel.

Ryan also opted to rest running back LeSean McCoy and several key defenders, including defensive tackle Kyle Williams, linebacker Jerry Hughes and cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Stephon Gilmore.

Coach Jay Gruden took a more conventional dress-rehearsal approach to the third preseason game for the Redskins (2-1) and got the kind of performances he'd like to see from top players such as tight end Jordan Reed, receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, left tackle Trent Williams and cornerback Josh Norman.

Reed, Garcon and receiver Ryan Grant each caught a touchdown pass from Cousins, and Norman looked sharp on defense along with second-year linebacker Preston Smith and lineman Ziggy Hood (see full recap).

Roethlisberger shreds defense in Steelers' win over Saints
NEW ORLEANS -- Ben Roethlisberger torched New Orleans' defense for 148 yards and two touchdown passes on his first two series of this preseason, then got the rest of the game off while the Steelers rolled to a 27-14 victory over the Saints on Friday night.

Roethlisberger, who sat out of the first two preseason games, opened by leading a 14-play, 76-yard drive on which he converted two third downs and found tight end Jesse James for a 5-yard score. His next series was highlighted by his 57-yard scoring pass down the left sideline to Antonio Brown, also playing for the first time this preseason. The Steelers star finished with 12 completions on 17 attempts.

Pittsburgh running back Le'Veon Bell also made his preseason debut, gaining 21 yards on three carries, but his lost fumble in the second quarter -- forced by cornerback Delvin Breaux and recovered by linebacker Dannell Ellerbe -- led to Drew Brees' only TD pass. Brees' strike went to Willie Snead, who made a difficult juggling catch as he landed on his back following a collision near the back of the end zone.

Brees had a difficult night behind a struggling offensive line. It didn't help that starting left tackle Terron Armstead left the field unexpectedly in the first half for undisclosed reasons. Brees completed 9 of 12 passes, but for only 78 yards. One of his better throws connected with newly acquired tight end Coby Fleener for 26 yards, but it was called back for holding on Armstead.

The Saints have dropped all three preseason games.

Steelers backup Landry Jones went 19 of 22 for 206 yards, including an 8-yard touchdown pass to Sammie Coates. He also completed a 58-yard pass to Coates to set up Chris Boswell's 40-yard field goal (see full recap).

Adam Morgan, Phillies allow 4 homers in latest loss to Mets at Citi Field

Adam Morgan, Phillies allow 4 homers in latest loss to Mets at Citi Field

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK — The New York Mets set the tone for this game early on Friday night. Their first two batters stroked Adam Morgan fastballs over the wall and they were off and slugging to a 9-4 win over the Phillies at Citi Field (see Instant Replay).
 
“There’s not much to say,” manager Pete Mackanin said afterward, “other than we have to pitch better.”
 
The Mets, very much in the thick of the NL wild-card race, played inspired ball in powering their way to their fifth win in the last six games. They hit four home runs on the night, including three against Morgan, and got a typically strong start from Bartolo Colon.
 
“It’s never good when you start a game by giving up two home runs,” Morgan said. “If I make better pitches, it’s a different outcome.”
 
The third home run that Morgan gave up was the killer. It was a grand slam by Wilmer Flores with two outs in the bottom of the fifth. That turned a 2-1 Mets’ lead into a 6-1 Mets’ lead.
 
Flores’ grand slam came on a first-pitch slider. Morgan threw nine pitches before walking Neil Walker, the previous batter, to extend the inning. One of those pitches was a foul pop down the right-field line that Ryan Howard could not chase down. Had he been able to make the tough play, Morgan would have gotten out of the inning unscathed.
 
Then again, the pitcher could have gotten out of the inning unscathed if he did not give up the two-out walk to Walker.
 
Or make a mistake with the first-pitch slider to Flores.
 
“It was a bad pitch,” Mackanin said. “He tried to backdoor a slider and it ended up in his wheelhouse.”
 
As for the pop-up down the right-field line …
 
“I was hoping somebody could run that down,” Mackanin said. “Nevertheless, you’ve got to pitch around those things and make good pitches. That mistake to Flores put it away for them. Morgan had command issues. Too many pitches out over the plate.”
 
In all, Morgan allowed eight hits, including five for extra bases, in his five innings of work. He dropped to 1-8 and his ERA rose to 6.50.
 
Reliever Frank Herrmann gave up the Mets’ fourth homer, a two-run shot to Asdrubal Cabrera in the sixth. Cabrera homered from both sides of the plate.
 
Meanwhile, Colon, the Mets’ 43-year-old control artist, did what he often does to the Phillies. He gave up just three hits and a run through seven innings before hitting the wall and giving up three runs without getting an out in the eighth. Colon had to settle for seven-plus innings of four-run ball. He is 12-7 with a 3.44 ERA. He is 9-3 with a 2.98 ERA against the Phillies as a member of the Mets.
 
“He seems to own us,” Mackanin said. “We can’t seem to square up the ball against him. He does a tremendous job with control and command.”
 
Peter Bourjos concurred.
 
“He’s different than any pitcher you see these days,” Bourjos said. “You don’t see many guys throwing mostly fastballs at 88 mph and sinking it. You see some guys throwing a majority of sinkers, but it’s 95. This guy changes speeds on his fastball and locates it so well.”
 
The game marked the Phillies’ first without Carlos Ruiz, who was traded to the Dodgers on Thursday. Jorge Alfaro came up from Double A and served as the backup catcher. He is expected to return to the Reading club on Saturday when A.J. Ellis arrives. The Phillies picked up the veteran backup catcher in the trade.
 
Alfaro did not play, but called the experience of coming to the majors “a dream.”
 
That was the only thing that resembled a dream for the Phillies on Friday night.
 
They have lost 20 of 29 games to the Mets over the last two seasons and 12 of their last 16 in Citi Field, hardly encouraging with two more games to play in the series.