Top Dogs: Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Competition

Food Network Magazine's behind the scene view of the Nathan's hot dog-eating competition.

Illustrations by Nishan Akgulian

Competitive eating requires Rocky-style physical training: Nine-time competitor Crazy Legs Conti does cardiovascular training to improve his stamina. "I always slow down between the 15th and 20th hot dogs," he says. Patrick "Deep Dish" Bertoletti, who took third place the last two years, alternates hot dog-eating practice with fasting and drinking milkshakes. "Dairy settles my stomach, so I'll drink a lot of milkshakes the day before," he says. "With a few doses of Pepto."

As the big day approaches, top qualifiers from regional competitions head to New York City for photo ops, like a weigh-in with the mayor at City Hall Park. Before they're declared fit for competition, the pro eaters must get on a scale, and a dentist sometimes checks their teeth to make sure they're ready for the wear and tear of battle.

Early on July 4, competitors depart the hotel and travel on the Bus of Champions to Coney Island in Brooklyn, where they wait in "The Bullpen" for kickoff. "It's around the back of Nathan's, so the smell of hot dogs constantly drifts toward us, which is kind of unnerving," says six-time contestant Eater X.

At about 9 a.m., a crew of four at Nathan's begins cooking 1,000 all-beef hot dogs for the contest on a long flattop griddle. It's still a regular business day, so the cooks also have to make dogs for customers. Nathan's method is to slow-cook them, starting on low heat and upping the temperature until they're cooked through, about 40 minutes later. By 12:15 p.m., all 1,000 hot dogs are suited up in untoasted buns and ready for the competition.

After a New Year's Eve-style countdown, the competition begins at 12:40 p.m. Each eater gets four plates of five hot dogs to start, then more as they go. Crazy Legs, Eater X and Deep Dish all employ the Double Japanese method (named in honor of six-time champion Takeru Kobayashi): They eat two franks at a time and chase them with empty buns. Every competitor dunks the buns in liquid to get them down faster. Most choose water, but Eater X, who pioneered the "alternative beverage movement," uses lemonade. Deep Dish likes Crystal Light Fruit Punch.

When the 10 minutes are up, contestants stop eating but are allowed to finish swallowing. Judges count the empty plates, check for hidden or uneaten dogs and buns and ensure competitors don't have too much hot dog debris mashed into their faces and hands.

This year, for the first time, men and women will compete in separate divisions: Each winner will take home $10,000 and a coveted Mustard Yellow Belt. Joey "Jaws" Chestnut is the four-time defending champion and holds the all-time record: 68 hot dogs in 10 minutes.

Afterward, competitors are "sweating hot dog," Eater X says. "I can smell it every time I exhale." That night, Crazy Legs hosts an after-party, "the hot dog prom," where eaters and their families watch a rebroadcast of the event. "Competitive eating is like sharing a big meal, so we get together to raise a glass," he says. "Plus, you can drink a lot if you have 5 to 10 pounds of food in your stomach."