For as long as he can remember, Joey Chestnut has had an affinity for food.
Steak. Pasta. Seafood. Name just about any dish and Chestnut has a favorable reaction to it.
“I just really, really like food,” said Chestnut, the top-ranked competitive eater in the world. “I always have.”
Normally Chestnut consumes those tasty items in a relatively relaxed manner, often dining with family or friends during meal times.
But put him in front of food in a competitive eating environment and his demeanor shifts. Suddenly he’s all business, focusing intently on consuming as much as he can as quickly as possible.
Eat. Swallow. Force the food down. Then repeat, faster and faster.
“When I’m eating competitively, I get into another zone,” said the 34-yer-old Chestnut, of San Jose, Calif. “I get intense ... I work to find a rhythm, to eat and breathe right and then keep it going.”
Chestnut has used that strategy to win 10 of the past 11 nationally famous Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contests. The event, held each July 4 in New York, is considered the marquee national competitive eating event. He has won many other speed-eating contests as well and currently is ranked first in the world by Major League Eating.
On Monday Chestnut was in Eau Claire to announce he has partnered with Silver Spring Foods to develop and market three sauces to be used on hot dogs, brats and other foods. The products — a Coney Island sauce, picnic mustard and a spicy mustard — comprise the Joey Chestnut Select brand and will be shipped to stores across the U.S. soon, Silver Spring officials said.
“We are extremely proud to partner with Joey on these high-quality, unique products,” said Robert Roemer, Silver Spring president.
As he watched the first bottles of the sauces that bear his likeness along with details of his competitive eating prowess be packaged at the Silver Spring production facility Monday morning, Chestnut said he felt a sense of pride.
“I love mustard, and this is a real quality product I am happy to put my name behind,” he said.
The pairing of Chestnut and Silver Spring has its roots in a seemingly unlikely meeting in Indianapolis three years ago.
Roemer and his brother had just finished watching the UW Badgers’ victory over the Kentucky Wildcats in the semifinals of the 2015 NCAA men’s college basketball championship and were at a downtown restaurant where they were introduced to Chestnut.
“I was there celebrating with my brother, and then I met Joey,” Roemer recalled. “We hit it off and stayed in touch afterward.”
Roemer and Chestnut continued to communicate in ensuing months and eventually hatched the idea of developing sauces to market under Chestnut’s name. They discussed multiple options before choosing ideas for the sauces.
Roemer then involved the Silver Spring research and development team, which formulated recipes to use for each of the sauces. The effort, driven in part by Chestnut, was a directed trial-and-error process of sorts, said Judy Christensen, a certified food scientist at Silver Spring.
“We would put together a sauce, then Joey would taste it and give us feedback, then we would take his input and combine it with our thoughts and work on it some more,” Christensen said.
After a couple of years of working on and off on the project, the sauces were deemed just right. Like Chestnut and Roemer, Christensen said she felt satisfied to see the sauces bottled Monday. “It feels good every time a recipe you helped create becomes a product,” she said.
Chestnut said his competitive fire to out-eat his opponents was stoked by a childhood spent as one of six brothers.
“I was the fifth-youngest,” he said during an interview at Silver Spring’s north side Eau Claire plant. “My brothers were bigger and stronger than me and could beat me at almost everything. But I could out-eat them. I’ve always been good at eating.”
Still, Chestnut never envisioned himself earning a living by eating. He earned an engineering degree at San Jose State University and worked in construction management. Then one day in 2005 his younger brother suggested he enter a competitive eating competition.
“We were watching an eating contest on TV and he said, ‘Hey, you can eat more than that guy,’ “ Chestnut recalled.
Chestnut subsequently entered a competition and placed third. He kept eating and started winning contests, learning along the way how to condition his body and mind for maximum performance. In 2007 Chestnut toppled eating champion Takeru “Tsunami” Kobayashi at the Nathan’s contest and has been among the world’s top competitive eaters since.
Speed eating requires arduous training that includes cardio work and eating on a cycle designed to expand the body’s ability to handle extreme food amounts. Recovery takes longer now than when he was younger, Chestnut said, and maintaining his ideal weight of 225 pounds is tougher too. He plans to continue competitive eating for the foreseeable future “or as long as I can still do it well,” he said.
In the meantime Chestnut said he is excited to help market his own product line of sauces, one of many happenings he said he is extremely fortunate to have in his life.
“I never imagined I would do this for a living,” he said. “I am so fortunate, all because I can eat a lot.”