Last weekend, Yasir Salem polished off 30 hot dogs in a little over 10 minutes.
Salem, the world's 12th ranked competitive eater and top cannoli eater, wolfed down the first 27 and a half hot dogs during regulation time and another two and a half during the tie-breaking eat-off at the qualifying round of Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest in St. Paul. Hot Dish caught up with Salem to learn how he got his start, his training schedule, and the ethics of the sport.
Hot Dish: How was the competition?
Yasir Salem: It was a little unusual with the eat-off, which doesn't usually happen. It's quite unusual to have a tie in an eating contest. When we hit the end mark of the 10-minute contest, we've already pushed ourselves to the absolute limit, so to go beyond that sets us up for a possibility of not doing as well.
What is the appeal of competitive eating?
Everybody obviously has different reasons. I'm basically a marketing executive in New York City. It's a very high-stress office job and I've been doing this for a bit. For me, [competitive eating] is like a complete break from that daily life -- it provides me with somewhat of an escape. I also do marathons and triathlons along the same idea. It gives me something that's really just mine -- something I have really interesting cocktail conversations with my friends about. I don't want to be in a 9-to-5 job and that's all I have.
Honestly, the idea of dipping food in water is what grosses us out.
Yeah, I totally get it. It's definitely not for everybody. We're not just eaters -- we're also performing. People come in and watch us. There's sponsors involved. Accidents happen and people learn from their mistakes as to how to not be as gross. I used to dip my food in red drinks and my friends commented that I looked like I had blood on my hands. I moved away from it. I don't ever want to think like that -- where common decency is trumped by the desire to win.
How did you get involved in competitive eating?
It was more like a joke. It was 2008 when I was watching Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut on TV and I was like, "Whoa, all you have to do is eat hot dogs and you can be on ESPN?" It was a complete misunderstanding of how you get into it. You can't just jump into a contest and give it your all without any prep or training and just expect to do well.
How do you prepare for a competition?
There's lots of different things that you have to do. Obviously, you should be as physically empty as possible. Leading up to a contest, you would have tested the contest food, knowing the consistency, how you tolerate the taste, training your stomach to accommodate the sheer volume of food. Training is the foundation for figuring out whether this is something you're even capable of doing.
People do take it quite seriously. The incentive is so high, that people are trying really hard. There's lots of other guys who would happily train more than me and do better than me. I'm number 12 right now, so there are 11 other people, including women that exert quite a bit of effort. Those rankings are quite accurate for how much effort people are putting in. Joey Chestnut, for example, he's making upwards of $300,000 a year, which includes sponsorships, endorsements, appearances, contest prize winnings...
Describe your typical training day.
In the same way that I would at the Iron Man nine months out, I would look at the contest four weeks out. This is quite dangerous, so I wouldn't recommend it, but I will drink a gallon of water in the morning quickly -- under a minute or so -- to [prepare] my stomach and my overall mental state. A gallon of water is about eight pounds when you weigh it, and that is somewhere in the neighborhood of what 30 hot dogs on buns weigh. I actually ate 27 and a half hot dogs on buns in the regulation and another two and a half hot dogs on buns in the eat-offs, so it comes out to about the same.
On top of that, maybe once a week or so, I'll sit down and eat five hot dogs on buns and I'll videotape myself just to check my technique. First of all, it's really dangerous to train at home, so I don't really do that. I'll just check my technique. My technique, and this is one of the ones that top guys like Joey Chestnut and Eater X do, I will grab two hot dogs, chop them in half, eat that, grab a bun, dip that in water, and then pop that in my mouth, grab another bun, pop that in water, and then put that in my mouth. I'm looking for a certain pace and certain technique.
Do you derive any sort of pleasure from competitive eating?
I get pleasure out of accomplishing any sort of a challenge. I get a thrill obviously out of winning. It was very satisfying for me this weekend to get that win. To be on the floor with the best of the best -- that's my goal. I'm the cannoli eating champion.
Is that more pleasurable than eating hot dogs?
I love cannolis. I never really consumed them until I moved to New York back in 2005.
Do you face a lot of complaints about the gluttony inherent in competitive eating?There's like 60 or 70 contests a year under major league eating administrators. Most of the eaters will put maybe 10 or 12 contests on their calendars a year, so what that translates to is I'm basically having a Thanksgiving feast 10 times a year. If you look at the top 20, we're quite fit. Our body fat content is quite low. All of us do some sort of physical activity, so we kind of know how to handle that caloric intake. We're not consuming any more calories than what we need. There's no competitive advantage to overeating and being fat. Yes, we do eat a lot in the contest, but in the whole scheme of things, we're not consuming more than we need.