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.
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.