Search the Site

Episode Transcript

Independence Day in America summons thoughts of rebellion, of freedom, of commemoration. To some, it also summons thoughts of hot dogs, consumed by the dozens in a short time in the noonday sun of Coney Island, New York. The annual July 4th hot dog-eating contest has just been memorialized in a new ESPN Films documentary called The Good, the Bad, the Hungry. Its most compelling character is Takeru Kobayashi, the Japanese man who revolutionized competitive eating. We thought it was a good time to dust off this 2014 episode, in which Kobi tells us how he did it — and explains how eating as much as you can in a short time is in fact the opposite of gluttony. It’s called “A Better Way to Eat.” Hope you enjoy.

Stephen J. DUBNER: Kobi, can you just count to 10 in your microphone?

Takeru KOBAYASHI: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.

DUBNER: Maggie, do the same? Or say anything you want, he just needs to get a level. Just keep talking.

Maggie JAMES: 1, 2, 3 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.

I’d like you to meet Takeru Kobayashi, known as Kobi, and his translator, Maggie James. I was asking Kobi about his favorite foods:

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: Yogurt and tofu.

DUBNER: What kind of tofu?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: Soft ones.

DUBNER: What’s your favorite kind of steak?


DUBNER: Filet? You like filet? No fat. You like lean.


DUBNER: What’s your favorite fish?

KOBAYASHI: Fish! Salmon.

DUBNER: Salmon. You like the skin or no?


DUBNER: What’s your favorite fruit?

KOBAYASHI: Strawberries.

DUBNER: Strawberries? How do you feel about hot dogs?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: During this time— it’s actually a time that I don’t want to think about hot dogs that much.

*     *     *

Takeru Kobayashi doesn’t like to think about hot dogs much right now because he is preparing to eat a very large pile of them. Not for pleasure. This is what he does for a living. In the world of competitive eating, as the sport is known, Kobi is the biggest star that has ever been.


It began back in Japan. He was a college student at the time, studying economics. A friend signed him up for a televised eating contest.

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: I really was shocked because at that time I really didn’t think I could eat that much more than the normal person.

But he gave it a try, largely because of the prize money: $5,000 for first place. It was a four-stage eating contest — starting with boiled potatoes and then a seafood bowl, Mongolian mutton barbecue, finishing up with noodles.

DUBNER: Your competitors were also amateurs, right? They weren’t professionals. So did you think you had a chance?


DUBNER: Because why— what did you think you could do better than the other amateurs? Was it mental or physical or strategic?


JAMES: Total, I thought I could— somewhere in between—

KOBAYASHI: Physical—

JAMES: There were players that were much bigger than I was physically, even in Japan, so I didn’t think it could be just a physical thing — it had to be total, mental and physical.

Kobi studied earlier contests like this one with qualifying stages. He saw that most people went so hard in the early rounds that even if they did advance, they didn’t have the energy — or the stomach capacity — to finish strong. So he decided to eat just enough at each stage to qualify for the next. And when it came time for the final round, he blasted past the others and he won. Having tasted victory as an amateur competitive eater, Kobi immediately thought about turning pro. The World Cup of competitive eating, as you probably know, is held every summer in New York City.

ANNOUNCER: Only one location at the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues at Nathan’s Famous. And why do they come? They come for the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog eating contest!

At home in Japan, Kobi began to train for Coney Island. American-style hot dogs weren’t available where he lived, so he used sausages made of minced fish. No hot-dog buns either, so he cut bread down to size. He took his training seriously. Very seriously. He began a long series of experiments. For instance: ripping the hot dog and bun in half before eating it — a move that would come to be known as the Solomon Method, after the Biblical story of King Solomon, who threatened to settle a maternity dispute by slicing a baby in two pieces.

DUBNER: The Solomon had been done before, or no?


He found another way to speed things up.

KOBAYASHI: Separating—

JAMES: Separating the sausage from the bun.


KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: Also eating hot dogs two at a time. I don’t mean two sticks at the same time, I mean breaking one in half and eating two halves.

The sausage itself, being slick and dense, actually went down pretty easy. But eating a hot dog bun on its own, without the meat, is harder than you’d think. How hard? You may have heard of the Saltine Challenge. Well, next time you want to win a bar bet, try the Hot Dog Bun Challenge. See if you can get someone to try to eat two hot dog buns in one minute, with no beverage. Here, listen to our Freakonomics Radio production team try it. This is David Herman doing the eating with Gretta Cohn, Suzie Lechtenberg, and Greg Rosalsky providing commentary.

David HERMAN: Okay, I am ready.

Greg ROSALSKY: And, go!

HERMAN: Oh yeah, it gets dry!

Gretta COHN: So he’s got half of a half of a bun in his mouth.

ROSALSKY: 35 seconds to go.

Suzie LECHTENBERG: Swallow it.

HERMAN: Blagh! I was so confident.

ROSALSKY: 4, 3, 2, 1 and it’s over.

COHN: Put down the bun.

LECHTENBERG: Not even one.

ROSALSKY: Not even one, wow.

HERMAN: I am ashamed.

So, to fight the dry-bun problem, Kobi came up with a novel solution.


JAMES: Dunking.

That’s right, dunking. As he fed himself the bunless, broken hot dogs with one hand, he used the other hand to dunk the bun in water. Then he’d squeeze out the excess water and smush the bun into his mouth, kind of like a bun ball. Not only did this make eating faster, but now he didn’t have to take time out between dogs to drink water.

DUBNER: So breaking, separating, dunking. What about the shake?


JAMES: I had never seen that before. Maybe somebody was shaking but I had never seen that.

This became known as the Kobayashi Shake.

ANNOUNCER: Kobayashi, now look at him shaking almost like Axl Rose on the stage at the Garden. Did you see the wiggle get there for Kobayashi? Just moving it around like someone put an ice cube down your back, look at that Kobayashi Shake. Chugging those hot dogs like a freshman at a keg party. It’s unbelievable.

Kobi videotaped his training sessions. He charted all his data and analyzed it. He wanted to find out what worked and, just as important, what didn’t work. At one point, he thought he should chew each dog very vigorously — but he realized this not only took too long but was also bad for his jaw. He was tireless in his experimentation.

DUBNER: Why do you think others before you hadn’t experimented so much?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: Maybe because they are not as serious as I am? Maybe that’s the only honest answer.

DUBNER: How did you get so serious?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: Simply that when I tried it, I thought the physical action felt like this is a sport.

DUBNER: A sport, and nobody had treated it like a sport before.

JAMES: And I simply wanted to be number one in the world at this.

DUBNER: No offense but you sound crazy. It sounds nuts. And I say that with all due respect because you know how much I love you and respect what you’ve done, but what I mean by this is that you were bringing a level of scientific inquiry to an activity that nobody had bothered before. That’s what I mean by nuts. So did you think it was nuts? Or did it make perfect sense to you?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: Now I guess I’m a little older and more mature now, because now I can hear that and actually say, oh, and laugh with you, but at that time there was definitely not even like a speck of me that would have thought that that was nonsense. It just made sense.

*     *     *

Today we are telling the story of Takeru Kobayashi, who dreamed a dream of eating more hot dogs than any human being in history. This happens every Fourth of July at Coney Island in New York City.

ANNOUNCER: Nathan’s annual hot dog eating contest is an international event. Champions from all over the world converging on Coney Island.

The Coney Island contest had been going on for roughly four decades. The world record: 25 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes. 25 and hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes! Just picture that for a minute. Now, there aren’t many rules. The competitors can have as much of whatever beverage they want. They can put condiments on the dogs — but no self-respecting eater is going to waste time or stomach capacity on ketchup. All the dogs and buns that enter your body must— well, they have to stay in your body. If not — this is known in the sport as a reversal of fortune — you can be disqualified. Okay, so it’s July 4, 2001. Kobi is 23 years old. He’s only 5’8”, 130 pounds.

DUBNER: When you showed up that first time to compete, did you feel that you belonged on stage with the other competitors? Did you feel you were justified to be there?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: I actually didn’t think even about that. I wasn’t thinking about that at all, but I was full of the feeling of, I have come here to win.

DUBNER: So the bell rings—

ANNOUNCER: 3, 2, 1

DUBNER: And you start to eat, and for 12 minutes you eat and you break and you separate and you slurp and you dunk and you smush and you swallow and you shake and you do all that. And then the bell rings. And then you see your number. Yes? Were you paying attention to your number before that or did you only see your number at the very end?

JAMES: I only saw it at the end. I wasn’t looking at all at the number.

DUBNER: And what was the number?


ANNOUNCER: The Americans just dropped their dogs in awe. The clear cut wiener: Kobayashi, who inhaled 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes. Shattering the world record.

MAN 1: The kid is incredible. Total beating of the Americans. He was like a conveyor belt, he was just putting them in two at a time.

MAN 2: I saw he was around 30 when I was at around 8. I took my shirt off, started waving the white flag.

MAN 3: I can’t believe it, a new record. 50!

DUBNER: 50! And the previous record was 25 ⅛ right?


DUBNER: So you doubled the world record. So nobody doubles any world record, ever! And what did you think then? What did you think when you saw that number of 50?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: I was actually shocked. I was not imagining at all that I would eat double, so it was super surprising to me.

Everyone was surprised. Some people were skeptical, wondering if Kobi was playing by the rules.

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: They said that they took me to outer space and that some aliens had given the man two stomachs. “Oh, he’s taking muscle relaxers.”

DUBNER: That you were doping. Did you take muscle relaxers?


DUBNER: Do you have two stomachs?


JAMES: He thought about it.

He won Coney Island six straight years. And a lot of other eating contests too:

ANNOUNCER 1: 106 tacos! Kobayashi.

CHEERLEADERS: Go, go, Kobayashi. Go, go, Kobayashi. Go, Go.

ANNOUNCER 2: 337 wings.

ANNOUNCER 3: The new record for the most grilled cheese sandwiches eaten in one minute is 13.

CHEERLEADERS: Go, go, Kobayashi. Go, go, Kobayashi.

ANNOUNCER 4: He took down an entire 12 inch pizza in one minute flat.

ANNOUNCER 5: Let’s make some noise for the one and only, the culinary Houdini, the best eater on earth, Mr. Takeru Kobayashi!

Kobi was not, however, unbeatable.

DUBNER: Tell me about the bear.

ANNOUNCER: And now, introducing to my right, his opponent, the beast. He descends from Kodiak Island, Alaska.

Kobi tried to beat the bear in a contest taped for Fox TV.

ANNOUNCER: This beast stands eight feet tall and weighs in tonight at 1,089 pounds. He can digest over 60 pounds of food in a 24-hour period. He possesses the ultimate appetite for destruction! Meet the beast! The Alaskan Cruncher!

Even against a bear, Kobi thought he would win.

ANNOUNCER: Now again the contest begins as soon as the bear eats the first hot dog. And it is underway. There we go.

DUBNER: In this case the dogs had no buns — why was that? Were the buns bad for the bear?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: I was told the bear does not eat buns.

DUBNER: Well, tough for the bear! The bear had a better lawyer than you had, apparently. So, was there a rehearsal?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: Yes. There was a rehearsal.

DUBNER: What happened at the rehearsal?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: I won at the rehearsal.

ANNOUNCER: When the bear came out, I saw a flash of fear for a second in Kobayashi’s eyes—

DUBNER: In the contest itself, what happened?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: When the real time came for it, the bear was really quick, like very fast. I was so shocked I suddenly almost panicked a little bit.

ANNOUNCER: I don’t see how he can beat this bear. And that is it. We have a winner, the bear, the beast has won. The Alaskan Cruncher is our new champion.

DUBNER: And the bear beat you. The bear won. Did you ever figure out how the bear did so well in competition versus the practice?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: Of course, that was the first question that I thought— I had to know. So I asked and I was told that the bear keeper had not given him anything to eat for like a day until coming in—

KOBAYASHI: —hungry—

JAMES: So they had actually made the bear very hungry, and when it came in it was starving. My competitor was a wild beast, and animals, when they are hungry they are different living things, they are—

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: I’m not a strong eater because I’m hungry. Whereas I was competing against a beast that was very hungry.

ANNOUNCER: Sometimes you get the bear and sometimes the bear gets you — tonight the bear got Kobayashi.

DUBNER: How do you handle defeat?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: I always change my mentality very quickly. Simply said, sometimes you win because someone is having a bad day, and sometimes someone beats you because you are having a bad day. Even winning or losing doesn’t necessarily even mean really that you are the best. So when you look at the long run, you can’t think about you and competing against a rival or rivals. That doesn’t even really tell you 100 percent that you are the best. What you can only do is compare yourself to yourself and see how far you can actually go.

So what did Kobayashi do that was different than everyone before him? Here’s one thing: he redefined the problem he was trying to solve.

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: The key to me was that I had to change the mentality that it was a sport. It wasn’t having a meal. It was to me— I had to think, this is a sport, it has nothing to do with how you normally enjoy a meal. It’s just a physical action.

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: My honest opinion was that people were just eating as an extension of regular eating meals, and it looked like they were all rushing to try to eat more than they normally could. Just one more hot dog, just a little more. And I thought, “Well, if you just look at it as a way of trying to put something in instead of, ‘How much more can I eat than normal,’ then it really just takes a few questions and a little research on my part and experimentation to see how far I could actually go.”

Here’s what the other competitive eaters were asking themselves: How can I fit more hot dogs in my stomach?” Kobi asked a different question — only slightly different, perhaps, at least to a layperson, but it changed everything. His question was: How can I make one hot dog easier to eat? But it wasn’t just that. If everyone before him was asking the wrong question, he thought, then maybe he shouldn’t give much credence to the existing world record. Maybe it was an artificial barrier that he should just bust right through.

DUBNER: This contest had been going on for over 40 years — why is it that it took until you to change the mental and strategic approach to this sport?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: I think people have to have a reason to rethink what could be wrong. If a whole 40-something years or more, people only see someone eating 25 is the limit, then someone who can eat 20 might think, wow, if I just eat five more, I could actually do that, and no one would ever think anything else can be done. But if you see someone suddenly come and eat 50, then everyone knows that there must be a different approach to the problem. And until something like that happens, people don’t question. So maybe I gave them a reason for everyone at the same moment to rethink the problem again.

DUBNER: So, I’m curious if you could look around the world at — whether it’s something having to do with money or government or education — can you point to something where if people could only rethink the problem, redefine the problem like you did and not accept the limit of the old world record like you did, can you think of an instance where it might not be so hard to do that? Where we’d all be better off if people could do that?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: I think it should be used for everything. The thing about human beings is that they make a limit in their mind of what their potential is. They decide, “I’ve been told this, or this is what society tells me,” or they’ve been made to believe something. If every human being actually threw away those thoughts and they actually did use that method of thinking to everything, the potential of human beings is really great, it’s huge compared to what they actually think of themselves. That is a factor that should be— if everyone could use it for everything, everything could be much better.

There’s a good bit of evidence that Kobi is right about how artificial barriers can hold us back. He no longer laps the field in competitive-eating contests. In fact, Kobi was beaten for several years at Coney Island by an eater named Joey Chestnut — who’s still the reigning champion — and the guys who used to eat just 15 or 20 hot dogs now routinely eat 30 and 40. Some of them use Kobi’s methods; all of them benefit from knowing that the old limits weren’t real. As for Kobi himself? He lives in New York now and travels the world, making a living by eating and talking about eating. But you won’t find him in Coney Island on July 4th any more. A while back, he got into a contract dispute with the organizers. For a few years, he held his own hot-dog-eating contests, in parallel with the Coney Island one. These days, he participates in an annual competition in April on the West Coast, and his numbers are even higher.

DUBNER: How many do you think you’ll eat this year?

KOBAYASHI: More than 72.

DUBNER: More than 72. How long does it take to recover?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: It depends on how I feel, but I like to rest for at least half a day.

DUBNER: Oh, that’s it? You must be a great athlete, because most of us with even three hot dogs, we need to rest for a whole day. So not only are you better on the front end — you’re better on the back end too.

*     *     *

Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Gretta Cohn and mixed by David Herman. Our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Matt Hickey, Harry Huggins, Zack Lapinski, Greg Rippin and Corinne Wallace. Our intern is Daphne Chen. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra.You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Read full Transcript


  • Takeru Kobayashi, competitive eater and six-time champion of Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest.