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.

Report: Temple's Obi Enechionyia withdrawing from NBA draft, will return for senior year

Report: Temple's Obi Enechionyia withdrawing from NBA draft, will return for senior year

It's only May, but it sounds like Fran Dunphy's Temple Owls just got a big boost for next season.

Star forward Obi Enechionyia told ESPN's Jeff Goodman that he will pull his name out of the upcoming NBA draft and will return to North Broad Street for his senior season.

CBSSports' Jon Rothstein first broke word of Enechionyia's decision Monday morning.

The 6-foot-10 Enechionyia was the Owls' leading rebounder last season with 5.8 boards per game. He was also second on the team in scoring with an average of 13.1 points per game. He dropped a season-high 26 points on rival St. Joe's during a 78-72 win on Hawk Hill in November.

Enechionyia can be a matchup problem for opponents with his length and his ability to stretch the floor. He shot 41 percent from field last season and 39 percent from three-point range. He will undoubtedly be the Owls' top frontcourt option this coming year.

But his mentorship and experience will be a big factor this season for the Owls, who will have to lean on underclassmen such as guards Shizz Alston, Alani Moore and Quinton Rose to pick up more of the scoring slack. Enechionyia, guard Josh Brown and role player Mike Robbins are the only remaining Owls who played in the 2016 NCAA Tournament first-round loss to Iowa. The 16-16 Owls did not advance to a postseason tournament last year.

Enechionyia declared for the draft in late March, but did not hire an agent, leaving him eligible to withdraw from the draft. He did not receive an invite to last week's NBA combine, but did have a private workout with the Boston Celtics in recent days.

The deadline for players without agents to withdraw from the draft is this Wednesday.

Phillies-Rockies 5 things: Jerad Eickhoff looking for consistency vs. Rockies' potent offense

Phillies-Rockies 5 things: Jerad Eickhoff looking for consistency vs. Rockies' potent offense

Phillies (15-26) vs. Rockies (28-17)
Coverage starts at  6:30 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

The Phillies return home after a disastrous 2-7 road trip to host the NL West-leading Colorado Rockies in a four-game split.

Jerad Eickhoff gets the start for the Phils and is coming off of his best start in a month, but has a tough matchup vs. the Rockies’ potent offense.

Here are five things to know:

1. Like the old Eick
Eickhoff has been the model of consistency for Phillies pitchers since he joined the club in 2015, with 31 quality starts (six or more innings with no more than three earned runs) in 49 career games. But Eickhoff struggled recently, before regaining his form in his last start at Texas.

In his three prior starts — vs. the Dodgers, Cubs and Mariners — Eickhoff averaged just 4.2 innings per start as his ERA ballooned to 4.76. But the righty seemed to regain his form vs. the Rangers in his last start, a six-inning, two-earned-run outing.

Building off of that step will be a tall task, though against an explosive Rockies lineup.

2. Better hitters than Rocky
The hard-hitting Rockies are coming to town.

Colorado boasts one of the league’s best offenses, ranking fourth in runs scored, 10th in home runs and fifth in extra-base hits. Take the Rockies out of the thin air at Coors Field, and the numbers tell a different story, though. On the road, Colorado drops to 12th in runs, 14th in homers and 10th in extra-base hits. Still solid numbers, but nothing that jumps off the page at you. The Phillies (as bad as they are on the road) have more extra-base hits.

The Rockies are led by Mark Reynolds (yes, that Mark Reynolds), with 12 homers and 39 RBI. Shockingly, Reynolds — who has set the all-time single-season strikeout record in a season — is leading the team with a .323 batting average. 

Just about the only thing you don’t have to worry about with the Rockies’ offense is their speed. The Rockies rank dead last in MLB with just 11 steals on the year. 

3. Not the same old Rockies
Despite the dip in numbers on the road, the Rockies are still 15-7 on the road this season, the second-best mark in MLB, behind only the Astros.

What’s different about this year’s team, unlike years past, is the pitching. This year, they’re a middling staff, which is actually a huge improvement for the club. Last season, Rockies pitchers ranked in the bottom five in MLB in almost all categories: 27th in ERA (4.91), 28th in runs allowed (860) and 28th in opponent batting average (.274), just to name a few.

This year, the Rockies have knocked off nearly half a run per game (4.48 ERA) and rank 13th in the entire league with a .250 opponent batting average. With an offense like theirs, a middling pitching staff could be all the Rockies need to earn a postseason bid.

4. Oh, 'Dubel
What’s happened to Odubel Herrera?

After an All-Star 2016 season, Herrera has been one of the Phillies’ biggest disappointments in 2017. Batting just .236 on the year, Herrera is on pace to easily set a career high in strikeouts (168) and career lows in runs (60) and extra-base hits (39). Not a good look for Herrera after signing a five-year deal to be a building block of the future in the offseason. However, there is hope: In his career, Herrera has increased his batting average, runs scored and OPS each month as the season has gone along. 

5. This and that
•Jeff Hoffman will make a spot start for the Rockies on Monday. He’s the Rockies' third-ranked prospect by Baseball America and has a 4.97 ERA with 32 strikeouts and 19 walks in 10 career MLB games. Batters are hitting .282 off him this season.

•Eickhoff’s numbers have risen with Cameron Rupp behind the plate. With Rupp catching, Eickhoff has a 3.53 ERA as opposed to a 3.13 ERA with Carlos Ruiz catching.

•After a red-hot start to the month, Aaron Altherr has cooled off over the last week, hitting just .231 with more strikeouts (five) than RBI (four).