AUSTIN, Texas -- Takeru Kobayashi is sitting down to a chili dog at a restaurant called Frank.
It's a house of indulgence and excess and all meats in tube form -- the kind of place that puts macaroni and cheese on a dog because "why the hell not?" Here the six-time world champion hot dog eater sits tucked in a corner at a table behind the hostess booth, in a setting that could not be more appropriate, for a meal built around the food that's made him famous.
Then comes the surprise.
"This is the first hot dog I've ever eaten for a meal," the 34-year-old Kobayashi says.
He then eats an entirely reasonable amount of food, and enjoys his time with new friends around the dinner table.
Move along, folks. Nothing to see here. If you expected a sideshow of monumental proportions with your evening meal, well, you're not getting it tonight.
It's an unseasonably cold, rainy, and miserable Friday night on the opening weekend of the city's annual South-By-Southwest festival. Kobayashi is sporting a jacket that most closely resembles the driver jacket that Ryan Gosling wears in "Drive," black skinny jeans, and brilliant bright red Chuck Taylor-style high tops.
He takes at least a dozen photographs of the establishment both before, during, and after dinner. He didn't pick the restaurant, but he's happy with the choice. Sure, he doesn't eat hot dogs for dinner, but he cheerfully downs this one. And he probably spends more time posing for fan photos with his food than he actually does eating the stuff.
For the curious and uninitiated, the first myth of Kobayashi is dashed upon the discovery that generally speaking, he eats most meals like a normal human being. The king of all excess and gluttony spends most of his time politely and graciously consuming the attention that comes with the crown.
But make no mistake -- he came to Austin to set a world record, and spread the legend.
After the chili dog, he snacks on poutine, waffle fries with bacon and cheese and a Frito pie. Dessert at the Driskill Hotel is banana pudding with a few bites of chocolate chip cookie and brownie.
It's sort of ridiculous. Kobayashi has become household name all over the world, and especially in America. He has done this by eating absurd amounts of food at absurd clips. The numbers are crazy: 69 hot dogs in 10 minutes, six Nathan's Famous hot dog eating contest titles, 87 tacos in 10 minutes, 57 cows brains in 15 minutes (this was his least favorite of all the challenges), and so on. He has been banned from Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest, the Independence Day event he helped make as popular as it is today, because he refuses to sign himself over to Major League Eating. This came to a head at the 2010 event, when he showed up after refusing to sign and then crashed the stage afterward. He was arrested, spent a night in jail, and a Brooklyn judge dismissed the charges shortly thereafter. His career is full of achievement, popularity and drama. He has traveled the world (10 countries and 20 states), and created improbable questions about whether eating competitively is a sport and requires athletes.
Does he ever sit back and realize just how silly it is that he has built a life and fame around all of this?
He laughs and shakes his head.
He says this on the way to lunch with Green Bay Packers receiver Greg Jennings, who is in town for a panel at the technology conference.
The rain is still falling. As the car pulls up to restaurant, out of nowhere, the crew from Epic Meal Time walks by. Kobayashi's manager/girlfriend, Maggie James, bolts out of the car and shouts to Harley Morenstein, the monstrous leader of the YouTube stars that have gained viral fame in the last two years for creating and devouring the most unholy culinary creations in the history of food. Kobayashi knew they would be in town for the festival, and was hoping they would cross paths at some point.
And now here they are, the biggest titans of epic eating, on a street corner in the middle of Texas. Harley says it's an honor, while towering over the man that would laugh at the portions at Epic Meal Time. It is a safe estimation that Harley is nearly a foot taller than and weighs twice as much as the 5-foot-8, 130-pound Kobayashi. The rest of the Canadian crew is more reasonably sized, sporting black t-shirts with the show's logo on the front. They are immediately jealous they aren't going to lunch with Jennings. They invite Kobayashi to a live taping they're doing the next night, and just like that, the meeting is over, with both parties moving on. It feels anticlimactic, two parties pulled apart by schedules and, of course, waiting food.
Jennings goes down as the most excited person to meet Kobayashi during the weekend. The two eat salmon and talk about possible future collaborations. Jennings tweets about his encounter, and posts a video as well. As usual, Kobayashi smiles, laughs, and like clockwork, poses with food in his mouth. The Super Bowl champion giddy to meet the food champion. This is normal. Of course it is.
Next, Kobayashi and company hustle across the street to judge a food trailer event. He'll eat something from every trailer, then decide on his favorite. He chomps into a hamburger, multiple tacos, kimchi fries, chicken and waffles, and a red velvet cupcake. But he never actually finishes any of them. The chicken and waffles get the nod, but the half he doesn't eat gets carried around for a few minutes by him, then passed off to Maggie, before it eventually finds a trash can. He then shoots short flip book movies with friends, and then fans who notice what he's doing and want a memento of their own. He poses for a half dozen of the movies, with cardboard cutouts of hotdogs and hamburgers in front of his mouth. The temperature is dropping, though, and it's time to move indoors.
Dinner is set up with a venture capitalist, a friend of Kobayashi's agent, who has lots of questions about Major League Eating and Kobayashi's career. In the process, multiple rounds of food are brought to the table. He takes tiny bites of everything, but especially savors the pork ribs, picking at the bone. By the end of the meal, he's been eating for seven straight hours. He is unfazed.
"I don't get hungry like most people," he says. "Ever since I started competitive eating, I stopped having hunger pangs. Most of the time, I just eat when something the opportunity is present."
Almost on cue, he orders a coffee. He mixes in cream and sugar and drinks. While he's not looking, his waitress refills the cup. He mixes in cream and sugar and drinks. The process continues. After four cups of coffee, the waitress stops to ask.
"Do you really want another cup?"
He looks up, snapped away from whatever he was focusing on.
"Oh. No. No thank you."
He spends the rest of dinner indulging in another passion: baseball. He's excited about new Texas Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish. He recommends seeing the Yomiuri Giants and Hanshin Tigers in their home stadiums if you visit Japan. He now lives in New York, but has only been to one Yankees game.
"I can't really go by myself," he says.
It makes sense. Spend enough time around him, and it's clear that while he doesn't draw a crowd on sight alone, the mob grows as word spreads that he is who he is.
"And I don't really have many friends in New York," he adds with an unsure laugh. This is also understandable, but not because of who he is or how he acts. He's on the road every month for promotional events or challenges, hardly leaving time to bond with anyone in the Big Apple. Further complicating this is his public persona, one of excess and extremes that masks an earnestness that is disarming.
This is never more on display than when Kobayashi is constantly pointing and firing with his camera, despite being the one others' cameras are trained upon. On his first day in Austin, he takes 80 pictures. His favorite is of the city's famous Frost Bank Tower.
"What is this?" He asks while gesturing at the photo.
He receives this news in the same way he would have if you had told him it was a Picasso.
Meaningful connections are hard to come by in his position, but in America, baseball forges an easy bond. He finishes dinner while watching video of Tim Lincecum pitch. He had never heard of the pitcher before tonight. He's impressed that someone closer to his size could throw so hard, but he's not surprised. If anything can be learned by looking at a group of competitive eaters, it's that looks can be deceiving. For years, the smallest guy at the table has whipped the big boys.
When dinner wraps up, Kobayashi's agent decides to meet with some friends at a bar called Donn's Depot.
For those not from Austin, Donn's Depot is a bar housed in an old Missouri-Pacific train depot, with real train cars serving as seating areas, and a caboose serving as the ladies' restroom. It almost always features ensemble bands playing old classics while senior citizens dance alongside sorority girls.
Kobayashi enters in a hail of sensory overload, but finds a place by the piano to sit. Then word starts spreading, as it has everywhere he's gone in the last 48 hours.
"What's he doing here, of all places?" a bar patron announces.
This has been a comically common question, and it begs a greater question: Where should he be, exactly?
"He's really nice," the patron shouts over the music. "It's really cool that he's here."
Sunday is the challenge, and a late Saturday night in this odd, hopping joint suggests this challenge is not one he thinks will be much of a task. He's known for entering a zone before competitions, for taking nothing lightly and immersing himself in the struggle. He's out until about 2 a.m., and falls asleep in the backseat of the car on the way to the house where he's staying.
Sunshine breaks through Sunday afternoon for the first time this weekend, and just in time to push the crowds toward the tent where Kobayashi will put on his show.
The event sponsor has provided t-shirts for the eating champ to wear, and Maggie is cutting off the sleeves and the bottom of the shirt to fit Kobayashi's traditional competition style. The first one is cut too short, so she's cutting up another. While he styles his hair up for the challenge, a group of four takes the stage ahead of him to set the initial world record. They are festival-goers or work for the sponsor, and the crowd first gets behind them, and then mocks them as they fail to impress. The winner of the group eats 4.5 grilled cheese sandwiches in a minute. The crowd goes crazy for its people's champion, and seems impressed with the mark. Kobayashi has jokingly mocked the challengers the entire time from a window behind them.
After a short ceremony to mark the new world record, Kobayashi is brought out to wreck it. He's given a sterling introduction from the master of ceremonies, and then a spontaneous "Kobi! Kobi!" chant builds. He takes a few sips of water and organizes the sandwiches in a manner that appears to be at the very least meticulous and at the very most obsessive-compulsive. This is a glimpse of the hyper-focused eater.
Then the countdown, then the fury.
He breaks the record within the first 15 seconds. He finishes with 13 total. He eats a 14th after time expires for the heck of it. People like to see him eat, he obliges.
The crowd, packed in to standing room only, hails the victor and mobs him for autographs and photos.
While he soaks up the adulation from giddy observers in his still humble way, he also understands there is still much more left to accomplish in his career. How long will he go on? He speculates 10 years, but it's just an arbitrary number. He concedes, like any athlete would, that when he's no longer mentally committed to the next competition, he'll walk away. But this weekend has been fun. A lot of them are. He likes making friends, he likes surprising people.
"I don't think it will ever be something I don't enjoy," he says. "I just think there may be other things I start to enjoy even more, like working with youth."
For now, he's completely committed. There are more festivals to visit, more obscure food challenges to conquer. He leaves the event en route for the Salt Lick and all-you-can-eat barbecue just outside of Austin, for a dinner with people that won the privilege to share a meal with him. He's excited. This is his first chance to eat Texas barbecue, the one thing he wanted to do when he found out he was coming.
Now that the work is done, it's time to eat.
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