Kobayashi, perhaps the greatest competitive eater of all time, is ready to teach me the secrets of competitive eating—but I bought the wrong hot dogs.
The Guinness World Record holder (he has six world records for eating pizza, hot dogs, Twinkies, hamburgers, meatballs, and pasta) revolutionized professional eating with his "Solomon method"—a method named for the biblical king, but instead of cutting babies in half, Kobayashi yanks the dogs from their buns and eats them separately. It is a technique that has since been copied by the rest of the competitive eating industry, and one that Kobayashi is about to teach me. If I had the right hot dogs, that is. Kobayashi swears by the Nathan's brand "Bigger-Than-the-Bun" wieners. The regular-sized Nathan's beef franks I bought don't cut it.
"They're too thick," Kobayashi keeps saying, half in English and half in Japanese, which his manager, a cute and hip Japanese woman named Maggie, translates. "They aren't going to snap correctly."
The snap is important. The snap is what made Kobayashi the champion that he is. The snap is what allowed him to show up at Nathan's famous hot dog competition at Coney Island on July 4, 2001, and obliterate the 90-year-old world record. The long-standing record was 25.5 hot dogs in ten minutes. Kobayashi ate 50.
So on Monday morning, Kobi and I left the VICE offices to scour all the bodegas of Williamsburg for the ideal wiener.
The first bodega we hit on Bedford Avenue was, just months ago, a grimy convenience store. Now, the shop is sparkling and clean and newly health-conscious. They don't even sell meat. Kobi and I continued on.
"I've been training for the last six months for the hot dog eating competition on the 4th of July," Kobayashi says as we walk. "I practice drinking a little more water every day, to stretch out my stomach."
"How much water are you going to drink this afternoon?" I ask.
"Three gallons in 90 seconds."
It's all about thinking outside the bun. Kobayashi—a slight, funny, thirty-something guy with a Hypebeast eye for fashion—changed the entire world of competitive eating that day when he took the Nathan's stage and separated the hot dogs from their buns.
Kobayashi snapped the wieners in half, swallowing a big bite of hot dog before chasing it with a fistful of wet bun. The bun, dunked in hot water, helped coax the dog down his gullet while Kobi prepped the next mouthful.
The water's temperature is very important to Kobayashi's method—cold water constricts the stomach, warm water opens it up—but nothing is more important than having the right hot dogs. The dogs I didn't buy.
The next grocery store we hit is larger and better stocked, but the sausages are all plump, organic, and filled with things like apples and garlic chunks. Kobayashi may be a foodie with a discerning palate in his free time, but when he's working he needs the delicious, spongy mystery meat of bigger-than-the-bun Nathan's brand franks.
I send Kobayashi back to VICE HQ and run, sweating, into the Greenpoint neighborhood, to a fluorescent-lit grocery store where I knew I would find Kobayashi's perfect hot dog.
I make it back to the office 20 minutes later with a pack of the eight-inch wieners. I'm flushed and breathing hard and my shirt's wet with sweat. But at least I'd worked up an appetite.
Kobayashi and I sit down at a table and he places a plastic plate from the kitchen in front of him. His manager drops the Bigger-Than-the-Bun dogs into a Tupperware of hot water from the water cooler to warm them. He reaches for four huge, 24-ounce, rainbow-striped plastic cups, and sets two to the left of his plate. He hands the other two to me.
"These are the dipping cups," he explains, before filling all four cups three-quarters full with hot water.
His manager hands us two plastic bottles of water and Kobi opens one, slowly pouring some in to cool the water to the ideal temperature. Kobayashi dips two fingers into the water, stirs slightly, and then lifts a cup to his mouth for a sip. I do the same.
The water has to be almost unbearable for your fingers, Kobayashi tells me, but comfortable to sip. The nerves in your fingers are more sensitive than your mouth, so water that feels too hot to the touch won't burn your throat going down.
Once the water temperature is perfect, Kobi and I pile four hot dogs and four buns on each of our plates. We're ready to eat.
Kobayashi was studying economics in Japan when he discovered his talent for choking down inhuman quantities of food. One day, he and his friends went to a restaurant with an all-the-free-curry-rice-you-can-eat challenge. Eleven pounds of rice later, Kobayashi found himself surrounded by slack-jawed friends and a restaurant staff terrified that he'd explode. But Kobi felt terrific. He'd found his calling.
Kobayashi went on to win hundreds of thousands of dollars in competitive eating prizes in Japan and America, where the skinny, floppy-haired kid obliterated the competition at 2001's Nathan's hot dog contest. He even did a TV spot going head-to-head in a hot dog eating contest with a grizzly bear. That's one of the few eating competitions he's lost.
I look down at the four hot dogs on my plate and over at Kobi's pyramid of dogs and think about the bear video. I ask him about it, and before he can answer, his manager steps in.
"Kobi was very disappointed that he didn't win," she says.
"Well, it's a gigantic grizzly bear," I say. "You may be the world's greatest human eater, Kobayashi, but come on. The bear is huge."
"I beat him in rehearsal," he says.
Then we start to eat.
It all looks so effortless for Kobayashi. His hands dance over the plate, stripping dog from bun two at a time and snapping them in half. He takes the hot dog pieces in his right fist, and slides them into his mouth.
They disappear almost instantly down his throat, with only a single bite. Kobi's left hand is simultaneously plunging two buns into the giant cup of hot water and cramming them into his mouth behind the dogs.
He is a well-oiled machine. He inhales the first two hot dogs before I can get my coordination together enough to dunk the buns at the same time as swallowing a mouthful of barely-chewed wiener bits.
I'm actually hungry from the grocery store trek and because I skipped breakfast, so I kind of enjoy the first fistful of hot dog meat. They're lukewarm, and I'd prefer them grilled, but they aren't terrible. Maybe I'm a natural. But when the pair of soggy buns hit my mouth and chase the hot dog down my throat, I immediately gag.
A nub of hot dog rolls out my mouth, onto my lap. It looks like a toe. Liquefied bun leaks from between my lips. I start to feel a little bad about Kobi's attractive manager watching me—not so much about the food all over my face, but more about how poorly I'm performing next to the competitive-eating master. I gag again, but manage to swallow most of it down.
Kobayashi continued to destroy his competition at Coney Island until 2010, when Nathan's tried to strong-arm Kobi into signing an exclusive contract and only compete in their annual contest. He refused, and the company barred him from competing. They even pulled his image from Nathan's "wall of fame."
On July 4, 2011, Kobi took to the rooftop of a bar in Manhattan to compete simultaneously with a live broadcast of the Nathan's eating contest he was banned from. He finished a record 69 hot dogs—one more than the Nathan's "official" world record and seven more than Joey Chestnut, Nathan's 2011 champion.
This year, Kobayashi will be holding his own 4th of July competition at 230 Fifth Rooftop Bar in Manhattan.
As we walked from bodega to bodega only a few minutes earlier, he invited me to compete as a wild card. At the time, I considered it. Now, with wet bun spilling from my pursed lips, I reconsider.
I finally choke the last of my first two hot dogs down, and notice that Kobi has been patiently waiting for me to finish before he starts in on the other two.
My eyes are watering and my face is covered in gooey bread bits and my clothes are soaked from when I dunked too hard and sloshed water onto my lap. Kobi is clean. His plate is tidy, aside from a few stray crumbs.
I take a breath and reach for the next two hot dogs. I take them in my right hand, snap, then grab for the buns. I look over at Kobayashi. His two hot dogs are already gone.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in July, 2014.