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.


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.


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?"


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."


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.

Penn State's signature win over Ohio State has it feeling it's back on map

Penn State's signature win over Ohio State has it feeling it's back on map

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – In another day and time, the late John Facenda — the voice of NFL Films and the very “Voice of God,” as he came to be known — described Marcus Allen “running with the night” while scoring a particularly memorable touchdown for the Raiders in a Super Bowl victory over Washington.

On Saturday, another Marcus Allen went soaring into the night, not to mention Penn State lore.

A blocked field goal by the Nittany Lions’ junior safety resulted in a go-ahead 60-yard TD return by teammate Grant Haley, as PSU upset No. 2 Ohio State in Beaver Stadium, 24-21 (see story). That led to the team’s fans, dressed appropriately for a White Out, to storm the field, and led to the kind of emotions that hadn’t been felt on campus in a long, long time.

“This is for everybody,” coach James Franklin said.

The Langhorne native talked about the game being “a big step in the right direction” as far as healing a community wounded by the Jerry Sandusky child sexual-abuse scandal. He talked, with tears in his eyes, about the death of his brother-in-law four days earlier.

Yet he didn’t wish to discuss whether it was the kind of signature victory he needed to propel the program back toward prominence (or, for that matter, ensure his job security).

“That’s for you (media) guys, all that signature stuff,” he said, adding that he “didn’t want to spend a lot of time talking about the big picture.”

Rather, he said, “I just want to enjoy tonight.”

Understandable, since the Lions, 5-2 after their third straight victory this season, beat a ranked team for the first time since 2013 (No. 14 Wisconsin), beat a team ranked in the top five for the first time since 1999 (No. 4 Arizona) and earned a victory over their highest-ranked opponent since knocking off No. 1 Notre Dame in 1990.

PSU also snapped a 20-game road winning streak on the part of the Buckeyes (7-1). Seventeen of those victories had come in Big Ten play.

Few people saw it coming, though middle linebacker Jason Cabinda said that amid a sleepless Friday night at the team hotel, he and his roommate, fellow ‘backer Manny Bowen, allowed themselves to dream.

“We were just talking about how great it would be to pull this off,” he said, “and how we believed we could pull this off, and how it would be like writing history.”

It was already etched upon the pages of Brandon Bell’s mind.

“This was no fluke,” the senior linebacker said. “This is what we train for. This is what we go out there and play for. Obviously everybody is (saying) we shocked the world, but this is what you expect. Or what I expect.”

Bell, playing for the first time since the season’s second week because of a leg injury, had a career-high 19 tackles and one of his team’s six sacks. Cabinda, playing for the first time since the opener because of a hand injury, had 12 tackles and a sack of his own. Bowen added 11 stops, and defensive end Garrett Sickels, suspended for the first half for violating a team rule, had career highs of nine tackles, 3½ tackles for loss and 2½ sacks.

“Maybe,” Franklin said, “I should suspend him for the first half for the season.”

With Cabinda and Bell back, the Lions were more aggressive on defense than they had been, more varied. Yet the game seemed to be getting away from them when Ohio State built a 21-7 lead through three quarters.

J.T. Barrett, the Buckeyes’ splendid quarterback, had thrown for one touchdown, Curtis Samuel had busted off a 71-yard run for another and PSU’s repeated special-teams blunders (a blocked field goal, a fumbled punt and a bad snap on a punt) had left the Lions staring up at a team that had won its previous 78 games when leading by 14 points or more in the fourth quarter.

OSU had, however, been extended to overtime the previous weekend at Wisconsin, while PSU had a bye, two things that might very well have contributed to all that happened next. You had Lions QB Trace McSorley capping a brisk 90-yard drive with a scoring run early in the final period. And freshman linebacker Cam Brown blocking a punt (even though the block wasn’t on) to set up Tyler Davis’ field goal, cutting the gap to 21-17 with 9:33 left.

Then Allen blocked Tyler Durbin’s 45-yard field goal attempt as well, the first time since 2007 the Lions had rejected two kicks in the same game. Haley collected the rebound and set sail down the left sideline.

Durbin and holder Cameron Johnston gave chase, and Johnston, the punter, closed the gap on Haley, one of the fastest guys on Penn State’s team.

“I told him, ‘If you would have gotten caught by the kicker I never would have let you live that down,’” McSorley said.

Never mind that — Haley admitted he would have never forgiven himself.

He managed to make it the distance, though, and after Ohio State’s final drive ended with a pair of sacks, PSU had the victory.

When the gun sounded several Lions sprinted toward the student section at the south end of the stadium and performed their own version of the Lambeau Leap. And as the fans spilled out onto the field, two male spectators turned to each other high up in the west stands.

“We’re back in business,” one said to the other.

That seemed to be the feeling in the locker room, too.

“It’s just a game that put Penn State back on the map,” Haley said. “We needed that signature win, and we did it tonight.”

All because Marcus Allen soared, and took everyone else along with him.

Flyers Notes: Ivan Provorov bounces back with help from Shayne Gostisbehere

Flyers Notes: Ivan Provorov bounces back with help from Shayne Gostisbehere

Shayne Gostisbehere has been through it before.
The ups and downs of a rookie season. Although his season a year ago was mostly up and up as a Calder Trophy finalist.
Nonetheless, Gostisbehere felt badly for 19-year-old Ivan Provorov following that minus-5 performance in Chicago on Tuesday and then another minus effort in the home-opening loss to Anaheim on Thursday.
So "Ghost" had a talk with his Russian counterpart about life on the blue line.
“He was down after a few games,” Gostisbehere said. “I didn’t really tell him much other than, ‘Hey, we’ve got 79 more of these.’ I told him to keep his head up and he’ll get over it. 
“He’s a hell of a player and sometimes you don’t get all of the bounces. He’s a great player as you guys could see. He had a great bounce-back game tonight.”
Indeed he did during Saturday’s 6-3 win over Carolina (see story).
Provorov says when the play seems slow to him, he knows he’s focused on what has to be done.

“Once you get comfortable, you get used to the speed and the game slows down for you,” he said. “With every game, I’m getting more comfortable and trying to make more plays.”
Provorov set up two critical early Flyers goals with two assists during a plus-2 outing that led to a 3-2 lead in the second period. The Flyers didn’t trail thereafter.
Both his shots went right to the net. Several other times this week, he had his point shots blocked.
“You try to read off how much time you have and stuff like that, how fast the player is coming at you,” he said. “You’re trying to [decide] what kind of shot to take.”
Provorov admitted some of his teammates were giving him encouragement.
“I think everyone is going to have tough games, it’s only his third game,” Gostisbehere said. “You have to give the guy a break. It’s tough to be in that position, he’s 19 years old.  
“He’s a kid, it’s tough. I was 22 so it was a little different, I’m a little older and everyone is going to have those tough games, but it’s how you bounce back.”
Provorov also had two hits and four blocked shots.
Scoring streaks
Matt Read and Wayne Simmonds both extended their goal-scoring streaks to four games. They are each one shy of their career-high — five games.
The last Flyer to have a four-game goal-scoring streak was Claude Giroux, who did so from March 19 to 28, 2015, with five goals.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, the last time the Flyers had two players concurrently on goal-scoring streaks of four games or more was 1993, when Josef Beranek had an eight-game streak from Oct. 9 to 23 and Eric Lindros had a six-game streak from Oct. 12 to 26.
Read is truly enjoying the best start of his career.
“It made hockey a little bit more fun,” he said. “The last couple of years have been frustrating. You are battling as much as you can out there to try and get better.
“Scoring a couple of goals here early gets the confidence high. I enjoy going on the ice every shift and giving it your all and trying to make this team better every shift.”