Culture

Max Suzuki takes America

On the Fourth of July, the Japanese competitive eater attempted to make his mark on the notoriously jingoistic Nathan’s hot dog eating contest.
Culture

Max Suzuki takes America

On the Fourth of July, the Japanese competitive eater attempted to make his mark on the notoriously jingoistic Nathan’s hot dog eating contest.

About thirty minutes after one of the more bizarre conclusions to the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest, Max Suzuki, Japan’s number one ranked pro eater was out back, mingling with a few dozen fans, flexing, and mock-screaming. He looked… fine. Good, even.

By all accounts, he should not have looked fine. He should not have been fine, not after ingesting 34 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes, finishing a fairly distant third to the 11-time champ, Joey Chestnut, who’d set a new world record with 74. Though he had 10,000 calories of processed meat sloshing around in his gut, along with mug after mug of water, Suzuki beamed and gesticulated wildly whenever a fellow countryman slowly approached and said something in his native tongue. Suzuki doesn’t speak any English, but even without his manager-slash-translator by his side, the gesture for “can I take a selfie?” transcended any and all linguistic barriers.

In contrast, Chestnut looked like he’d been put through the gauntlet. During the post-game interviews, he was sheet-white, sweat still pouring off his brow. Given the physical feat Chestnut had just pulled off, that was completely understandable. The other competitors were all in various states of disarray too, leaning on the main table for support, and looking like they never wanted to eat any kind of cuisine ever again, let alone a frankfurter.

I was in awe of Suzuki’s recovery skills and seemingly endless reserve of energy, but I shouldn’t have been. Two days earlier, we’d met for an early-evening pre-dinner at Smith and Wollensky, the venerable Manhattan steakhouse and tourist trap, where Suzuki seized upon the opportunity to wolf down a truly impressive amount of food.

Max Suzuki signs autographs at the Nathan’s hot dog eating contest.

Max Suzuki signs autographs at the Nathan’s hot dog eating contest.

Suzuki is 37 years old, but if you only caught a glimpse of him, he could easily pass for 16. He wore a white t-shirt with the word “SKULLMAX” emblazoned across the front, black Adidas sweatpants, and a low slung backpack. His spiky black hair was bisected by a streak of orange. Wiry and fit, he somehow seemed as if he were dancing even while sitting down for a meal. Befitting his youthful attitude, of all the available attractions in his second trip to New York (the first was for another televised Japanese TV show), he really wanted to check out the supermarkets to see what kinds of junk food they might have to offer.

In the restaurant, a white jacketed waiter with a gruff New York City accent straight out of central casting jabbed a pudgy finger at the house special, the 24-ounce slab of prime rib. Suzuki accepted, and asked it be prepared bloody as hell. His manager ordered the same, though medium-rare. Our waiter insisted we get a side of creamed spinach and hash browns; there was no objection. And so, for the next hour, unless he was responding to a translated question, Suzuki never stopped eating. Not only because he was preparing for Nathan’s — he planned to distend his stomach by eating as much as he possibly could nine hours before the contest — but because he was hungry, and simply enjoys the act of eating.

For 15 years, he got by working a variety of nondescript gigs — slinging drinks at a nightclub, driving a truck, and working the counter at a pizza joint. Then, three years ago, he took a fancy to a famous female Japanese pro eater named Moe Azu. To impress her, he entered a televised eating contest — ramen noodles in the final round, and before that, soba noodles and rice — even though he’d never tried his hand at competitive eating before, or practiced at all.

He won, earning the one million yen top prize (a little over $9,000 USD). “My whole life was changed,” he said. Now, he earns a living pumping out daily YouTube videos of his eating feats, the most popular of which has racked up millions of views.

Twelve minutes into our conversation, all 24 ounces of the prime rib were gone. Watching a competitive eater up close is the dinner and the show. He grabbed the hunk of meat with his hands, by the bone, gnawing off the last few bits of flesh while also scooping piles of spinach and spuds onto his plate. Every time I looked away, to take a note or concentrate on what his manager is saying, the food almost evaporated. But it wasn’t disgusting watching him eat, nor did it resemble the masticatory carnage of an eating competition. He just kept going, savoring every morsel, but at a prodigious rate. Not long after he’d polished off the slab of meat, his manager started slicing off chunks of his own steak and depositing them on Suzuki’s empty plate.

After our steakhouse dinner on Monday night, Suzuki and his manager left to find… another meal. Given that he just ingested his and two thirds of his manager’s meat, amounting to 40 ounces of prime rib plus the majority of both side dishes without breaking a sweat, it would seem like a challenge, even for a pro. In this instance, it is a literal challenge. They were planning to attend Clinton Hall in lower Manhattan, which per their website offers a test of strength: if you can consume their entire monstrous three patty, two-pound burger with three slices of American cheese, bacon, onion rings, and two buns, all surrounded by a heaping pile of french fries, within 25 minutes, it’s free. I didn’t join them, but I have no doubt that Suzuki wolfed it down with ease. (In case you were wondering, the bathrooms of pro eaters suffer as a result.)

Max Suzuki shows off his stomach.

Max Suzuki shows off his stomach.

Max Suzuki shows off his stomach.

Japanese pro eating contests differ from their American counterparts in one crucial aspect: time. Their matches can last up to an hour and the goal is volume as opposed to speed. In contrast, U.S. eating competitions are bound by a strict, and usually much shorter time limit and generally get a lot messier. For example, Nathan’s is ten minutes of mastication — no more, no less. As such, Suzuki has had to change his game and re-jigger his techniques. On top of that, he’s had to adjust to consuming American foods like breads and ground beef. (Ramen, soba noodles, gyoza, and rice are more up his alley.)

Suzuki’s mentor — and hero, and friend — is Takeru Kobayashi, the former top-ranked U.S. eater. They met over Twitter about two years ago, after Suzuki reached out to him as he began climbing the Japanese pro eating ranks. Though he’d offered Suzuki plenty of guidance, asking Kobayashi for tips when it came to hot dogs didn’t feel appropriate, not after eight years of animosity between Kobayashi and Major League Eating (MLE), the sport’s organizing body, and especially not since Kobayashi is still banned from the context.

Understanding how something as ostensibly silly as a hot dog eating contest could involve bans, as though the eaters were jacked on some form of performance-enhancing substance, requires a brief history lesson. For the bulk of the contest’s existence, it was little more than a sideshow, a relic from Coney Island’s glory days when sideshows were all the rage. Kobayashi changed all that. From 2001 to 2006, Kobayashi was competitive eating’s One True God. After devouring 50 hot dogs in 2001, he doubled the previous record set by Kazutoyo Arai. He continued to best his own Fourth of July mark year after year, until Chestnut snatched the mustard belt in 2007 and began setting numerous records of his own.

Max Suzuki speaks with his manager at the Nathan’s contest.

Max Suzuki speaks with his manager at the Nathan’s contest.

At the time, Chestnut’s triumph was framed as the vanquishing of some foreign other. Here was Kobayashi, a tiny athlete from Japan, besting Americans at a truly American sport. This injustice would not stand, and so when Chestnut won, it was framed in nationalistic and downright jingoistic terms. “He may indeed have changed the course of our nation, righted the course of our nation,” the ESPN play-by-play team said, also noting Coney Island’s proximity to many of George Washington’s triumphs during the Revolutionary War. “He’s a true American hero.”

On the Fourth of July, prior to the opening bell of the men’s competition, George Shea, the emcee for the Nathan’s contest and the CEO of MLE, said that Chestnut “took the belt back for America,” causing him to weep “tears of joy.” The day prior, at boxing-style weigh-in held in the main lobby of the Empire State Building, Shea tipped his omnipresent straw boater at Suzuki’s relationship with Kobayashi. “The hopes and dreams of a nation rest on his shoulders,” he said.

The competitors, including Joey Chestnut (right, facing the camera) pose during a “weigh-in” at the Empire State Building.

The competitors, including Joey Chestnut (right, facing the camera) pose during a “weigh-in” at the Empire State Building.

Partly this can be chalked up to hyperbole and Shea’s standard over-the-top, beyond purple prose. (To get a sense of his overall vibe, imagine Mitt Romney if Mitt had decided at a young age to become an old-time carney and fervid street preacher.) But the nature of the contest, with over-the-top, booming and unironic patriotism wrapped around every available square inch, means this kind of framing is almost inevitable.

The Chestnut-Kobayashi rivalry continued until 2010, when Kobayashi, who was dealing with a jaw injury, was kicked out of the sport. According to Kobayashi, MLE was demanding too much of his earnings, blocking him from entering non-MLE sanctioned contests, and cordoning off potential sponsorship agreements. Since then, he’s been trolling the league, holding his own alt-hot dog eating contests, and continuing to rail against what Kobayashi describes as an ongoing injustice. In 2010, he tried to rush the stage at Nathan’s and was arrested.

Reached via Twitter direct message, Kobayashi praised Suzuki, highlighting both his current skills and ability to grow even further as an eater. Moreover, he knows all too well how difficult it is to compete while dealing with the stifling New York summer humidity and suffering from jet lag. That said, Kobayashi he has no intention of letting his beef with MLE go. In his mind, they remain a “dishonest and greedy organization that uses the players for their own desires,” he said.

“Their pettiness & lies continue as they talk loud and don’t act from their heart… I’m still the greatest eater and prove that year after year at the Gringo Bandito Chronic Taco Contest in April. I will continue to say loudly, that If MLE/Nathan’s would release Chestnut a day to eat against me, I will be MORE than happy to compete against him on another stage with another brand- with NO ties to them.” When asked if he wanted to see Kobayashi competing again, Chestnut told me on Tuesday, “Oh absolutely,” before he was quickly hurried away by an MLE official.

Max Suzuki sizes up his prey.

Max Suzuki sizes up his prey.

But the Chestnut-Kobayashi rivalry and all the attendant drama isn’t something that has really registered in Japan, Suzuki explained. He has nothing but respect for him, but Chestnut’s feats don’t carry the same weight, and until he arrived, Kobayashi was Japan’s only noted speed eater. At the dinner, I unpacked how, for some, Chestnut’s wins meant America’s honor had been restored. He raised an eyebrow, nodded and went back to grab another fistful of bread.

As to this year’s Nathan’s contest, something seems off. Fans and tourists still sported all manner of red, white, and blue garb, but less so than in years past. If you’ve only watched the proceedings on ESPN, you haven’t caught what amounts to an overpriced, overproduced talent show and all the interstitial acts. They’re endearingly unimpressive, but always performed with gusto and verve. The best way to enjoy it in person, then, is to drop any eye-rolling irony, and shout along when, say, The Bun Boys take the stage.

Sweaty fans in the Nathan’s crowd.

Sweaty fans in the Nathan’s crowd.

The Bun Boys are the Nathan’s dance team, hype men, and, oddly, stand in back during the competition like bodyguards. Muscle-bound decked in American flag shorts, bandanas, cowboys hats, mirrored sunglasses, and red Nathan’s shirts with the sleeves cut off, they writhed onstage, thrusting their hips at the crowd, doing pushups, and firing off water cannons and air horns, while hollering and cupping their ear asking for a response. Imagine Duffman, but without the self-awareness.

Watching a seven-foot-tall hot dog mascot dance a jig or wearing a foam rubber yellow hot dog hat is fun, really. But the crowd wasn’t as into it. Even Shea, who usually reaches apoplectic heights of ecstasy, was holding something back. You could pin it on 90-plus degree temperatures, but I couldn’t help but think something else is going on. Namely: There are plenty of reasons why it might be hard to engage in a fully-throated celebration of Americana at this particular moment in history. It’s impossible to determine the political affiliations of the crowd, but given the number of tourists that flock to Nathan’s — “tens of thousands” will attend in total, per MLE — it would be reasonable to assume that it’s not as heavily Democratic as the rest of the city. Yet after an off-key version of “God Bless America” was belted out onstage, someone tried to kick off a halfhearted round of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” chants. It quicky petered out.

Max Suzuki bounds up to the stage, wrapped in a Japanese flag.

Max Suzuki bounds up to the stage, wrapped in a Japanese flag.

When I alluded to all this during our meal, Suzuki listened intently and said he’d felt nothing but welcomed. Any worries about coming to this country right now didn’t trouble him, or else weren’t worth commenting on. On the day of the competition, he seemed preoccupied in a different way. At 10am, I corralled him backstage, where he was a bundle of nervous energy, scanning the already-sizable crowd, and saying he’d only had to eat in front of fans like this once, during the Las Vegas qualifier. (He won with 42.5 franks, which netted him a spot at Nathan’s.)

Seconds before the contest starts, I caught his eye from the press box, a riser platform which is set up on Stillwell Avenue about thirty feet from the main event, and shot him a Michael Jordan-style fist pump. He nodded and smiled. At that moment, I hoped against hope that he could pull off a shocking upset. And amazingly, for the first few minutes, Suzuki was right there with the leaders, trailing only Matt “Megatoad” Stonie, who is also a YouTube star and the only other eater to top Chestnut in over a decade. But by the three-minute mark, Suzuki had dropped back to fifth, and Chestnut’s usual mid-match kick had him at least ten sausages in the lead.

Max Suzuki hard at work.

Max Suzuki hard at work.

Even so, Suzuki was an engrossing, stylish eater. Unlike Chestnut, who operated with a machine-like sense of precision, Suzuki threw himself into it, bounding and hopping like mad. He grabbed a whole frank with one hand, the other perched against his cup of water, ready to fling down his mouth to force the last few morsels of hot dog and bun down his throat. At times he’d dunk the bun in water and wad it up before shoving it in his face. Bending towards the pate, Suzuki crammed the frank it into his mouth, then vaulted himself upright, his head jerking from side to side. (The latter is a common technique eaters use; it forces you to swallow, even when your entire body is screaming otherwise.)

In the end, Chestnut won. It should have been much more exciting. Neither the broadcast nor the fans in attendance knew how many hot dogs he’d actually eaten, thanks to a misplaced and then uncounted plate of hot dogs and contrary to the totals shown on the scoreboard. In reality, Chestnut was well on his way to breaking his own record, but no one save for him had any idea. (Once honorary judge Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez had verified the real score, ESPN writer and generally overserious pud Darren Rovell got mad online.)

Cooling down after the competition.

Cooling down after the competition.

In Japan, competitive eating more closely hews to the pre-ESPN status the sport had in the U.S: an amusing activity viewed at best with a raised eyebrow. No one there posed a threat to his athletic supremacy, which is why he’d come here seeking better competition. It very much is a sport, though. And when I told him I believed this, his eyes lit up and his arms stretched wide, before giving me a thumbs up. He’d be back next year, he said, promising to do better and calling the competition, even surrounded by the honking performative patriotism, “the thrill of a lifetime.”

He even missed out on the entire scoring controversy. When I told Suzuki what went down, he laughed. His blissful nonchalance, and the ability to consume it all, was enviable.

Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly omitted Kazutoyo Arai’s accomplishments.

Robert Silverman is a freelance journalist living in New York. His work has appeared in The Daily Beast, The New York Times, ESPN, The Guardian, VICE Sports, Deadspin, Esquire, and more. He previously wrote about the mystery behind Jethro Tull’s Aqualung cover for The Outline.