Pat Bertoletti holds an impressive roster of world records when it comes to plowing down food. Some include eating 39 dozen oysters in 2011, putting away 5 lbs. 11.2 ounces of pickles in 2010, and crushing a whopping 72 cupcakes in 6 minutes. (Check out some of his accomplishments on his profile at Major League Eating.) The Chicago-based champion is also a longtime friend of The A.V. Club and The Takeout, and someone I’m happy to call a pal. So naturally, we prodded him for all the details of what it’s like to put your body through the rigors of competitive eating.
Recently, Bertoletti posted a photo to Instagram showing off his trophy from a Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest qualifying round hosted in Washington DC. Winning this showdown means he’ll be one of the competitors at this year’s Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island, New York, on July 4. Go find out when and where to watch, then keep reading below for all the details you never knew you needed.
The Takeout: Are you nervous for this year’s competition?
Pat Bertoletti: I’m not nervous about the eating part. I took like nine years off. I just don’t want to be that aging fighter that comes back and embarrasses himself.
TO: Can you walk us through your recent qualifying round?
PB: There were only two qualifying rounds [this year]. But the top eaters got byes into it, so I had to actually qualify. I call it “stage” or “stomach time,” but it’s good experience just to be back up there and remember what it’s like.
TO: Do you get uncomfortable up there? Stage fright?
PB: It’s not nerves. I guess it’d be like butterflies. It’s not even really a bad thing. It is a little unsettling. [laughs] And it is kind of funny in hindsight. You’re kinda like, “I’m just gonna eat a lot.”
TO: What is training like?
PB: I drink a lot of water. I practice with food. The biggest thing is going in with the technique; the standard thing for hot dogs is two hot dogs at a time separated from the buns, [then] dunk the buns in hot water or whatever liquid you like. I’ve been doing practice, I’ve probably done 8 or 10.
TO: Nine years off is a lot. Since you’re out of practice, that first run must have been miserable.
PB: It was awful, yeah. I think I ate like 25 hot dogs in 10 minutes. That first one I ate was almost like I’d never eaten food before.
TO: What do you eat the day before and the day after a competition?
PB: The day before, I just do simple carbs and some dairy. You don’t want heavy proteins in your system, because they’ll still be in you the next day. I would always eat mochi the day before, and I’d do Pepto [Bismol] because it’s supposed to coat your stomach, but I don’t think it really does anything. [laughs]
The day after, you don’t feel great, but we do all go out the night of the contest and drink, so I don’t know if it’s a worse hangover from the alcohol or the food.
TO: What is the biggest misconception people have about competitive eaters?
PB: I think you see us on stage and you think there’s something wrong with us… which isn’t 100% wrong. It’s kind of cool because this is a talent that most people would consider a curse.
I always grew up overeating. I’ve been worried about my diet since freshman year of high school. I was a big kid. When I was 16, I won a pie eating contest at my dad’s company picnic, and I ate another pie after to show off. I think I ate 10 or 12 hot dogs at lunch one year in freshman year of high school on top of my regular lunch, so I always kind of knew I could do it.
I mean, I think it is a sport. Have you ever looked at the Guinness Book of World Records and thought, “I’m going to jump on a trampoline one-legged for 18 hours”? It’s one of those things. A talent where you’re picking something so obscure and rare and random to be good at. But it definitely takes skill and preparation.
TO: When you start to get stressed out up there, we all know how you feel. I think we’ve all had that feeling of having eaten more than we should.
PB: This is true. The foods that are numbered or counted are always good for people to understand. Most people eat two or three hot dogs, but 50 is just a lot. I think I ate 42 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in like 10 minutes. Puts it into perspective for people.
TO: What do you like best about the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest?
PB: I really like the history, the camaraderie. There’s all these eaters from different walks of life that I don’t see very often and we just come together for something. There’s a communal misery, you know? Where we’ve all been training and getting ready, and we’re all just there. It’s a great hot dog.
TO: Are you all friends? Do you keep up with each other outside the circuit?
PB: We’re all good buddies. [Joey] Chestnut’s one of my best friends. There are a lot of newer guys I don’t know as well, but we’re all there because we have the same faulty hardwiring.
TO: It sounds like you have a little bit of regret that this is what you like doing. I can hear it, just a touch. Is that something that bothers you?
PB: No, I think I’m just self-deprecating, because I take it very seriously, the eating part, but at the end of the day I know what it is. Maybe I’m just deflecting, and the fact that I take it so seriously might be my only regret. I don’t do anything half-assed, so if I’m going to do anything, it’s going to be all the way.
TO: Is there anyone who makes a living from this? I know Joey Chestnut is an outlier.
PB: He’s the only one on the circuit that hasn’t had a job in I don’t know how many years—like 15 years? There’s a lot of YouTube eaters that are making a living, but you don’t make a ton. There’s a lot less contests these days too. My best year, I made $55,000. I think I had 47 events that year.
TO: Do you have a ritual on competition days? Good luck garments, stretches, anything to psych you up before you start?
PB: I drink a lot of water in the morning to expand my stomach. I tend to drink a Monster [energy drink], take some Pepto, and for whatever reason, I’ll drink one of those Starbucks Frappuccinos in the glass. You want to be jacked up, you just have to get into it and go crazy.
TO: Do you get tired of the taste of the food, or do you not even notice it after a while?
PB: In the beginning, the taste was really getting to me. One way around it was to do a flavored liquid. I always did red Kool-Aid, which was really disgusting, I won’t do that anymore because it’s really gross. If you’re trained, primed, and ready, you really shouldn’t taste the food.
The biggest variable for Nathan’s is always the weather. The ideal weather is in the 90s and low humidity, but whenever it gets humid or colder, it always fucks up the buns or the hot dogs. That’s another wrinkle—most people don’t ever think about it.
TO: Do you get any money? Or do you only win some if you place?
PB: If you qualify, they cover travel, which is nice. There is prize money, but I think it’s only for the top five. I’m not cashing any of those checks, because it’s not about that. I’d like to be in the top five, but it’s not because of the money, it’s more out of pride.
TO: We’ve known each other for a while. You seemed pretty resigned to never doing competitive eating again. What brought you back?
PB: I told myself I was going to just go to the contest anyways, to be a spectator. Then I thought, well, if I’m going to go, maybe I can see if I’ve still got it. I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. There was a doughnut contest a few months ago that I did. I did pretty well. I think it was just to see if I could still do it.
TO: You eat healthy to prepare, yes?
PB: You want to be as lean as possible. The stomach is restricted if you have too much belly fat. I’m a lot heavier than I was last time I did this, and I’m finding that to be challenging because my stomach won’t expand as fast or as far as before.
TO: Do you get sick of hot dogs afterward? Do you just not want to look at them forever?
PB: It’s not forever. I still love them after the thousands I’ve eaten. A normal person would never eat them again, but I love hot dogs. They’re one of my favorite foods.