By Ben Small
“Normal life is so boring,” explains Patrick “Deep Dish” Bertoletti from his modest basement apartment in Pilsen, his spiked mohawk lying flat and unassuming. If it wasn’t for his girlfriend, he’d be out traveling every weekend to different locations around the world, wherever he can find a stage to do what he does best: eat a lot of things unfathomably fast.
Bertoletti takes his nickname from the city that made him who he is, where he grew up and discovered deep-dish pizza, his first culinary love. He had always been an impressive eater, a “big kid,” but it was his twin sister who convinced him to try it competitively. He entered a pizza-eating competition when he was nineteen and came in fourth, after eating five pounds of the stuff, before bringing it all back up on someone’s lawn on the drive home. “I felt like total trash” he says, describing his immediate reaction. He told himself he would never do it again. Nonetheless, a week later his opinions changed as he realized he liked the attention. “It was cool,” he says. Several years later, Bertoletti is number two in the world at eating: he has been to more than thirty states and five different countries and now holds thirty-five stomach-churning world records. And, at twenty-six, he is still considered a young athlete in the competition-eating world.
Most of us over-indulge on Independence Day with beer, fireworks and a BBQ. Bertoletti was, however, taking it to the next level at the competition that has been described as the Super Bowl of the competitive-eating world: Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. The competition, which has been held at the trademark hotdog stand in Coney Island every year since 1916, began when four immigrants tried to prove who was the most patriotic by racing to see who could consume the most of the all-American delicacy. It has grown in its hundred-year history to become a huge event, attended by 30,000 people and watched on live television by another two million.
“Eat two hotdogs at a time, dunk a bun [in red sugar-free Kool-Aid, believe it or not], swallow it, dunk a bun, swallow it,” Bertoletti explains his technique for getting those hotdogs down as rapidly as possible. This year, however, Bertoletti came in second after consuming a total of fifty-three hotdogs, bun and all, in ten minutes. His figure was unfortunately shy of Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, his archnemesis-cum-friendly compatriot, who won with a triumphant sixty-two. For Bertoletti, this is the only competition that matters to him, the focal point of his year. All he wants to do is to leave Coney Island with the yellow Nathan’s belt around his waist and more hotdogs than his nearest competitor in his belly. Second place was not enough.
He dedicated eight weeks of his life to training this year; a regime of eating only hotdogs and going through around fifteen or so practice runs, eating thirty-to-fifty hotdogs each time. Competition eating is not something that the world number two takes lightly. Yet, for now at least, it was not enough. “I was in the best eating shape of my life,” admits Bertoletti, “but next year I think I know what to do.” He likens himself to a baseball slugger; he knows he can hit a home run, but to do it every time is outside of the realm of possibility. He is chasing the elusive dragon.
The other competitions no longer give Bertoletti the buzz that they used to. He wins numerous contests throughout the year, sets records and walks away with a substantial amount of prize money, but often the best competitors are not there and the challenge is lacking for him. “I get kind of burned out about it and don’t care,” Bertoletti explains. “I love all the things about it but I’m not too impressed with myself just because I’ve done it so many times.” Each time that he goes out to a competition his hope is that he will have a good day: where everything goes right, the jaw, the throat and the stomach work in perfect unison. Then, if he is having a good day, he strives to eat an amount of food that shocks people. (He quotes 275 jalapenos in ten minutes as a personal favorite, although I was more impressed by thirty-four dozen, or 408, oysters in eight minutes.) That’s what keeps him coming back each time.
Despite his wavering attitude toward his achievements, Bertoletti has fun when showing off his talent. He occasionally takes on individual restaurants that have “eat all this and you get it for free” type challenges just for the kicks. Often he has to turn up disguised in case the owners recognize his face. He once embarked upon a steak that has an hour allotted to consume it, only to polish it off in ten minutes. Another time he ordered a five-pound burger, which no one had ever finished, at a suburban bowling alley. He told the server to wait there while he brought it out because he was feeling particularly hungry, knowing that he would make light work of it. The server expressed a nonchalant attitude toward Bertoletti’s bravado, before watching him eat the burger in two minutes as he stood by, flabbergasted. He even made light work of the fries whilst the server cried out to him that they weren’t a part of the challenge.
It has gotten to the point where stomach capacity is not even an issue; it is simply a matter of speed and technique. On July 4, Bertoletti finished his fifty-three hotdogs and the first emotion that came across him was irritation, angry because he did not even feel full, he knew he could have eaten more if he was having a better day. “At least if I was gonna explode I’d be happier,” says Bertoletti. “There’s only been a few times when I couldn’t possibly fit another ounce of food in me. Those were the days I was happiest, back then I was like ‘Holy crap! I ate some serious pounds today!’”
Despite the physical feat of eating so much food and the training required, Bertoletti is still reluctant to say that this activity, which he has dedicated the last six years of his life to, is a sport. The franchise that endorses professional eating competitions and to which all the main competitors worldwide are contractually restricted to, Major League Eating (MLE), he refers to as “one big, huge joke.” He jokes at the notion of people taking it seriously, like a sport. Yet, despite his lighthearted attitude toward MLE, there is unrepentant pride in the fact that very few people can do what he does, and that it is very difficult. There is an element of fear, however, to the abnormal manner in which competition eaters can manipulate their bodies. It’s more than mind over matter, it’s going against nature. “The more I think about it, it’s not right,” admits Bertoletti.
But for now, Bertoletti is committed. He will never give up until he wins the coveted Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. He knows he does not want to be doing it forever; his dream is to become a renowned chef when he retires from eating. His culinary qualifications as a Kendall College graduate speak volumes for his passion for food, just as much as his ability to eat twenty-one pounds of grits in ten minutes.
Keep up-to-date with Patrick “Deep Dish” Bertoletti’s current eating prowess at DeepDishEats.com.