My Dinner With Kobayashi

Before he wins Wing Bowl tomorrow—and he will win—the world's best competitive eater hung out with me at Osteria.

My eyes bulge as the waitress brings bread to our table. I’m so excited. I have so many questions. There isn’t that much bread. Will he eat it all in one raw burst of energy? If he does, will she bring another? Will Osteria keep giving us free bread until they run out? I actually change seats so I can get a better look.

I’m at dinner with Takeru Kobayashi, the world’s most famous competitive eater, if not the best. He captured the public’s imagination by eating 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes in his first Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest in 2001. The old mark was 25. It was as if Roger Bannister broke the four-minute-mile mark when the record was five minutes.

“It was almost a religious experience,” Steve Addicks, the competitor next to him that day, told Jason Fagone in Horsemen of the Esophagus. I await a similar experience as Kobayashi’s hand moves toward the breadbasket. My heart leaps. He positions the basket just right and picks up a camera. This is even better! He’s going to photograph the meal before he devours it.

Done taking photos, Kobayashi picks up a piece, takes a bite and puts it down. He hasn’t even finished once piece!

“It’s good,” he says. “He loves the bread,” his interpreter, manager and friend Maggie James says later, after Kobi has finished three pieces of it.

During our dinner, Kobi cleans every plate brought to him, but he does not eat fast. The Great Kobayashi savors his food.

Tomorrow is Kobayashi’s first Wing Bowl. He’s going to win. (He is a 2-1 favorite, along with three-time reigning champ Super Squibb, but Kobayashi is on another level than even wing devourers like Squibb. This year’s Wing Bowl will be a coronation, not a competition.) He showed up last year, demoed eating a cheesesteak, opened the competition with Bernie Parent and announced afterward he’d be a competitor in 2012.

Kobi takes his eating very seriously. He wants competitive eating to be fair and real: boxing, not wrestling. But he’s always enjoyed a bit of theatrics. He used to have wacky hair colors—bright yellow, red, etc. He did a Wendy Williams impression when he appeared on her show to break the world record for Twinkies eaten in a minute. (He ate 14 to break the previous Guinness mark by 10.) He has a big plan for his Wing Bowl entrance, the usual highlight of the show.

Kobayashi says he is done with the hot dog contest. He finished second to Joey Chestnut from 2007 to 2009, and now he’s in a contract dispute with Major League Eating. In the past two years, he was arrested after rushing the stage at the end of the event (2010) and ate a would-be world-record 69 hot dogs simultaneously with the contest (2011). He’s moved on from hot dogs. Right now, Wing Bowl is pretty much Kobayashi’s marquee event.

He says he likes Philadelphia, too. He’s done the touristy stuff. He was wowed by 30th Street Station the first time he arrived here. His cab driver took him through Center City and past the historical sites. “He’s very happy Philadelphia is so close to New York,” his interpreter James says. “It’s his favorite of any of the other American cities he’s been to.”

Kobayashi lives in Chelsea now, getting a visa in 2010. The contract dispute keeps him out of most eating competitions but he says he’s able to compete in about five to six events a year and maybe wants to do a few more. He does short eating demonstrations, makes appearances and has endorsement and other deals (he’s involved with Foodspotting).

He won’t be able to eat competitively forever. While his technique is better now, he says, his body isn’t what it was in his 20s. His teeth and jaw are simply worn down. He still has years left. But one of the reasons he moved to America was to do something in the world of food.

Kobayashi says he still loves Japan, but, yes, he moved to America to make it big.

Kobi isn’t just an eater; he’s a foodie. He takes photos of everything he eats. (He really enjoyed the octopus salad at Osteria.) He goes out to eat all the time. He clearly thinks about food a lot. He claims he can’t cook, but James says she’ll see him frying things for himself on the grill. “We’re thinking about cooking classes,” she says.

He gets more talkative as the meal continues. It’s as if he’s getting drunk off how much he loves the food. (He only drank ice water.) He’s talking to James in Japanese, waving his hands in the air. He expands on the difference between the Japanese and American restaurant experience—there’s “too much fluorescent lighting” in Japanese restaurants—and his love of all foods, from a fancy lamb neck dish to a fast-food hamburger. There’s no food he doesn’t like.

My guess is Kobayashi is going to hit it big (well, bigger) in food. He’s an excellent dinner companion; even in another language he makes food exciting. Obviously, he and James know how to charm a reporter—I wasn’t the only journalist he had dinner with this week—but, whatever, I can admit I was charmed.

Kobayashi is like a lot of people I know: He’s hanging out in the city, living off his current artistic—yes, when Kobi eats, it’s an art form—talent and figuring out his next step. He even folded his pizza the right way when I offered him my last slice.

Kobayashi might be from Japan, but he’s as American as a pyramid of apple pies ready to be devoured. He’s perfect for Wing Bowl.