Can Nathan's hot dog hero Joey Chestnut cut the mustard on July 4?

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Joey Chesstnut2
Joey Chesstnut2 Credit: Paul Martinka

Every July Fourth, it seems, Joey Chestnut becomes somewhat of a household name. He has won the Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog-Eating Contest 10 times and is Major League Eating's top-ranked eater in the world.

Chestnut set a new Nathan's competition record in 2017, downing 72 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes at the annual event in Coney Island. (Chestnut also holds the world's record of 73.5 hot dogs and buns, set during a 2016 qualifying event.)

The 34-year-old has guzzled down a variety of appetizers, sandwiches, desserts and the occasional oddity -- cow brain tacos, anyone? -- over the years. His first contest was getting his first taste of lobster as a 21-year-old excited to be offered a free hotel stay in Reno, Nevada, in exchange for participating. He tied for third.

In June, Chestnut notched two eating victories, devouring 257 Hostess Donettes in six minutes, and days later consuming 25-1/2 Baked Bear Ice Cream Sandwiches in six minutes. Then he turned his thoughts back to hot dogs. Wednesday marks his 14th consecutive appearance in the annual Nathan's event.

Chestnut has been featured in limited advertising and marketing over the years, but things are heating up a bit. In 2017, Intersport helped line up a hot dog deal for Nathan's Famous with Major League Baseball, which in turn led to Chestnut appearing in the All-Star Legends & Celebrity Softball Game. He was on the American League team, which lost to the National League. Chestnut lost another kind of contest earlier this year, when he and fellow competitive eater Tim Janus teamed up on CBS' "The Amazing Race."

Now, Chestnut is selling -- perhaps no surprise -- Joey Chestnut Select mustards (deli-style and spicy brown) and a Coney sauce ("like ketchup, but it's not quite as sweet and has a little more flavor," he says).

He also has a small ad running for Coney Island Brewery.

Chestnut spoke with Ad Age on Monday afternoon about training, the food that makes him hurl and what he'd like to do when he retires. Before eating became his full-time gig, Chestnut worked in construction management. "I'm really normal except for the competitive eating," he says.

Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

It's getting really close to the Nathan's Famous competition. How are you feeling this year?

I'm excited. I'm nervous as always. I'm hungry. I'm fasting today and tomorrow, so I'll be nice and empty for Wednesday's contest. It's pretty much a cleanse, just drinking lots of liquids and just trying to make sure I'm absolutely empty and loose for the contest. I had some salmon for dinner on Sunday night. I'll probably have some sort of protein shake later on and then maybe I'll be completely liquid.

Can you describe your training regimen?

Pretty much this is the only contest that I train this hard for. I do a cycle. I'll do a practice contest and then it takes probably three days to recover from that contest, and when I'm feeling good enough then I start doing a cleanse where I make sure I'm absolutely empty for my next practice. Once I get down to my target weight then I can do another practice. It's probably every fifth or sixth day I can do a practice.

How much does your weight fluctuate when you're training or competing? How do you drop the weight?

It can be 15 pounds of food and another seven to eight pounds of water. That's why it takes five or six days to get back down to my target weight, even eating really healthy. I'm at about 215 pounds now. (Eds note: He's 6'1")

How often do you exercise?

I'm trying to do three days a week. Running helps the most, I think. Once I start running I start losing weight really quickly and it helps me control my breathing. When I'm eating I try to make sure I can breathe through my nose the entire time. If I have to breathe through my mouth there's no way I'm eating or swallowing. I have to stay calm and just find my rhythm where I can just keep going. Usually, I run three miles. Sometimes I get lazy and I'll turn around early.

Do you think you're an athlete and that competitive eating is a sport?

I'm so competitive and the amount of time and energy I put into it and the sacrifices I make, the only way I could rationalize it is if I believe it's a sport. If I thought it was just a hobby it would be really hard for me to put that much into it. The way I can weight gain and the way I see my body respond when I make changes, I see it as a sport. And the competitiveness, when I'm standing next to somebody and I'm able to push myself to a new limit just because I don't want to lose, it's a sport.

How often do you eat hot dogs when you're not in training? When you're not competing, what do you put on a hot dog?

Whenever I can get away with it without feeling guilty. If I'm at a baseball game I'll definitely have some hot dogs. It's always tempting. At least a dozen times a year I'll find reasons to have hot dogs. I can put anything on a hot dog. For a long time, I was a traditionalist, it was just mustard and raw onion. But these days I'll put anything on there, I'll put cheese, I'll put kimchi.

What's the worst thing you've ever had to eat in a competition?

Cow brain tacos. I had to pretty much eat with my eyes closed. I won by one. I ate just enough to win. I wasn't going to eat any more than I had to. It might have been five years ago but I can remember the look of those brain tacos like it was yesterday. It was in Minnesota at a zombie-themed festival. They did not try to make it look like anything but brains.

Is there anything that makes you throw up?

Texture-wise, raw oysters. I've never built a tolerance for them, so I stay away from those contests. I get sick if I'm dehydrated, that's the number one thing after a contest, I get worried about the heat. New York is going to be hot this year. I usually stop drinking water leading up to the contest because I don't want water sitting in my stomach. I have to keep the perfect balance of drinking enough water without taking away my capacity.

What's your favorite food to eat when you're not training for a competition?

I love king crab a lot, I love good Mexican food, good tacos and chile rellenos. As far as things I crave the most, it's crab or maybe prime rib.

What's the biggest misconception people have about competitive eating?

That competitive eaters are unhealthy. In order for us to do well, our bodies have to be really healthy, to be able to push ourselves this far and this hard. It's like any sport. When you look at a marathon itself, it is not healthy. But in order for runners to do that, it's clear that their bodies are in great shape. Clearly competitive eating itself isn't healthy but we have to be in good shape and know our bodies in order to push ourselves this far.

What would you be doing if you weren't a competitive eater?

I'd like to own a little restaurant, a little bar and grill. I think food brings people together and it makes people happy. It's just hard in California (Eds note: Chestnut lives in San Jose) to find a location that I want and invest that much money into it. One of these days I'll do that. Eating keeps me busy right now. I'm doing 23 to 25 contests a year and a number of appearances, and the traveling takes quite a bit of time. I travel about 120 days a year.

It seems like you have a bit more competition this year in Carmen Cincotti (the No. 2 ranked eater). Do you agree?

I agree. He's beaten me once this year in a chili contest and he's been telling people that he's doing really well in practice. So I can't get lazy. I'm nervous and excited and hopefully we push each other to the limit.

Do you have any predictions for the number of hot dogs this year?

It's going to be high. It could be No. 1 and No. 2 are both above 70. I'd like to be above 75 and Carmen is capable of 70. I'm excited. We're going to push each other to do some amazing things.

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