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Project Engineer Named Top Dog of Competitive Eating

Mon July 30, 2007 - National Edition
Brenda Ruggiero

Like most working college students, civil engineering major Joey Chestnut has a lot on his plate.

When he’s not taking classes at San Jose State University, he works at Gonsalves & Stronck Construction in San Carlos, Calif., where he currently serves as a project engineer. This would be enough for most people, but Chestnut enjoys loading up his plate a little more than the next guy. And he just happens to be very good at emptying it, too.

Chestnut’s hobby is “competitive eating,” and he is currently ranked first in the world by the International Federation of Competitive Eating. On July 4, he was named the winner of the 92nd Annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island in Brooklyn, N.Y. Besides winning the contest, he set a new world record by consuming 66 hot dogs and buns (HDBs) in 12 minutes. His win knocked down Takeru “Tsunami” Kobayashi, who was the six-time defending champion of the contest.

“My goal from the start was to win the contest,” Chestnut said. “This was my third year, and the guys at work are pretty tough on me. Whenever I’d enter a contest, they’d all say, ’But that little Japanese guy owns it.’ They wouldn’t let me forget it. They pushed me to be the number one American, and to push my body.”

Chestnut noted that he was introduced to the world of competitive eating by his younger brother, who had followed the sport for a long time. He signed Chestnut up for a lobster-eating contest, and he decided to go through with it. He ended up tying for third place.

“During the contest, I was thinking to myself that it was so easy,” Chestnut explained. “And it was. The hardest part was doing it in front of people. You usually don’t have anybody watch you eat.”

The next step, Chestnut realized, was that there were things that he could do to get better at it, such as controlling his thoughts during the contest and making his body “forget” where it was so he could push it harder.

“My next contest, I ended up winning, and then I went pretty much full steam,” he said. “And then, I pretty much set the goal (of winning the Nathan’s contest).”

Chestnut noted that the contests are all about the competitive nature.

“Nobody’s getting hurt,” he said. “We’re just all people having fun and pushing our bodies to crazy limits.”

His quest for the hot dog title has netted him a few more along the way. He’s lost count, but thinks he holds approximately 15 different titles. He holds records for eating ribs, chicken wings, fried asparagus, jalapeno poppers, horseshoe sandwiches, Italian sausages and “a bunch of weird ones.” The easiest foods for him to eat are those that he likes, and he noted that he’s still hoping for a good pizza eating contest to fit into his schedule. He also loves chicken wings.

“Buffalo wings are so easy — no matter how many I eat, you can’t fill up on them, because they’re so small,” he said. “I also love the hot dogs on the 4th of July. It’s so easy for me to push my body hard for that — so easy to get motivated. Sometimes during a long contest, like a 12-minute one, I just feel like stopping and giving in to feeling full, but that contest is so big. There’s anywhere from 30,000 people watching. There were so many people pushing me in that contest that I was not going to give in. I knew how much I could hold.”

Chestnut’s brother was in front of him at the contest, shouting out the count to him and encouraging him as he went through the 66 HDBs. In fact, Chestnut noted that his brother serves as his trainer, and is a big help to him.

As for training, Chestnut noted that competitive eating is similar to construction in that there is no book that can teach you how to do it.

“I’ve met guys with degrees and guys with 20 years’ experience, and without the experience, it doesn’t mean a lot. Competitive eating is all trial and error. Every time I’m trying to push my body, some things don’t work, and some things do. I remember the feeling of the food, and remember what it’s like to push my body to that limit, and pay attention to my body. I’ve been really lucky in not hurting myself.”

When he’s not preparing for a contest, Chestnut noted that he always makes sure his calorie intake is limited.

“I’m always counting calories,” he said. “I don’t want to become obese.”

What’s next on Chestnut’s agenda? “I’ve got a little bit of responsibility at work,” he said. But he also plans to enter a few more eating contests.

“I’ve been lucky with competitive eating,” he said. “I’ve been able to do a lot of it on the weekends, and that allows me to stay in school and stay working.”

Chestnut hopes to earn his degree in about three more semesters, but plans to stay with Gonsalves & Stronck.

“The company’s been great — it’s a class act,” he said. “They’ve taught me so much. They’ve helped me get through school, and whenever I need time off work for anything — school or the contests — they let me work late and make up my hours, as long as I get the workload done.”

Chestnut first started in construction industry when his uncle got him a job as a laborer after his first year of college, where he took general education classes. Some of the project managers took him under their wings, and he realized that he was interested in civil engineering.

What he enjoys most about the construction industry is the contact with people.

“If you’re building something, no one person can accomplish it,” he said. “There’s such a variety of people. It’s great. Every time a different contractor comes up to talk about what they’re doing, or they have questions, I’m learning so much about all the different phases. It’s amazing. There’s so much involved in every trade, and I’m lucky I’m able to absorb so much of the information.”

Chestnut’s co-workers are proud of his accomplishments, and enjoy the change of pace from their usual focus on the job.

“It’s nice to think about something else lighthearted for a change,” Chestnut said. “It changes the mood and lightens it up. It’s fun.”

Gonsalves & Stronck is a construction management and general contracting firm serving both the public and private sectors in the Greater San Francisco Bay Area. The company’s emphasis is on office improvements, research laboratories, seismic retrofit, essential services facilities, renovations and education facilities with construction values ranging from $50,000 to $25 million. CEG

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