Patrick “Deep Dish” Bertoletti eats to win

  • By Evan Swan
  • Medill News Service
  • October 11, 2007 @ 5:51 AM

It ain't nothin' but a chicken wing for Patrick "Deep Dish" Bertoletti, the 22-year-old Mohawk-wearing, native Chicagoan, who ate his way to victory on the Major League Eating Tour in the Chicken Wing Showdown in Las Vegas late Tuesday morning.

Along with the prize, he claimed the $25,000 purse after defeating international and hot dog-eating legend, Takeru Kobayashi, and this year's Nathan's Hot Dog Eating champion, Joey Chestnut.

Bertoletti crammed 4.05 pounds down in eight minutes, taking home the title in dramatic fashion by holding off Chestnut for the third contest in a row.

The full-time chef at Chef Freddy's Catering is in the zone.

"I am," he said Wednesday. "I hate to toot my horn, but I am on fire."

He said technique and sustainability played a major role in this triumphant victory.

"You get the technique down -- I know how to eat the wings real fast," he said. "Usually at some point your body is going to slow down, but I didn't this time, which gives me a real advantage over the other eaters."

On Sunday, Bertoletti decided it was time to make a run for the No. 1 spot in the International Federation of Competitive Eating rankings. He took on the world's No. 2 eater, Chestnut, in the Waffle House Waffle Eating Championship in Dallas at the Texas State Fair. Bertoletti swallowed up his opponents with 29 waffles in 10 minutes, edging out Chestnut, who ate 28 and one-half, to capture the $3,500 prize.

The Kendal College culinary student graduate and Pilsen resident is eating up his passion -- literally. Here's a five-course look into the career of Chicago's finest.

Appetizer: Before the whistle blows, minds are clear and stomachs are empty

He's all alone. With no teammates or coaches to help, the pressure's all on him. As 30,000 people eagerly wait for the clock to begin, adrenaline is pumping through his veins faster than a race car at the Indy 500. Amid the sun casting down on each competitor, giving each his own limelight, time slows down the sooner the competition begins.

Remember your strategy: clear the mind; focus now; once you start-don't stop. Seconds before the start of the contest, every athlete focuses with care, making sure each breath is right, every swallow is soft and their body is as relaxed as a great philosopher lost in deep thought. To be tense or nervous is a death trap-give up now, for you will never win.

On stage, the rookies are moving back and forth trying to draw attention to themselves. They're smiling now; in moments, they'll ask themselves, "Why did I ever do this?" The veterans, like Ed "Cookie" Jarvis, are excited to compete because they know there aren't too many days likes this left in their tank. They're happy and enjoying their final moments on the big stage, like any savvy fighter who knows this may be his final fight.

And for the best?

All eyes are on them and they know it-hesitating to blink and breathe, avoiding eye contact with every fan there, for it's most important to channel every energy and muscle and ounce of concentration in the body all in the competition's first minute, where a contest can be won or lost.

Every competitor is drooling-literally-waiting for the whistle to kick-off what everyone came to see-who can chew and swallow up their opponent the most and fastest.

Bertoletti devours his opponents in rare fashion at lightning speed. He's only been "playing" the sport for about two-and-a-half years; however he's considered a veteran on any level. Actually, he's ranked third in the world, and has defeated the world's No.2 eater twice in the last week alone.

In part-time work, he has accumulated more than $100,000 doing what he loves-eating.

Bertoletti fights against other people and himself, if that makes sense. Doctors say he pushes his body's physical limitations like a marathon runner. When his mind says he can't go any further, he has to tell his body: Yes, you can.

He swallows his fears and plays on. Food is the name of his game. Almost each weekend, perhaps 30-40 times per year, Bertoletti gets on a plane, puts his head phones on and visits a city that he's never been to-Las Vegas, New York, Milwaukee, small-town Minnesota, Nebraska and more.

The best part? He gets to stuff his face - and he gets paid to do it if he wins.

Though he only has been competitive eating for a relatively short time compared to his elders, Bertoletti continues to shake up the eating world, dating back before the second grade. Just think: It all started with a bowl of apple sauce would change his life forever.

At Hot Doug's hot dog place in Chicago's Irving Park neighborhood customers line up out the door and down the block. Doug, the long-time owner, is being interviewed by a Chicago television crew because of, well, his well-known hot dogs.

In an interview shortly after the Nathan's Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest, where Bertoletti -- who stands at a modest 6-1 and 180 pounds, ate 49 and one-half hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes, placing him third in the world-recommended we eat at this hot dog place.

We get to the counter and the owner is working the register like he always does each day. He sees Bertoletti wearing his 2006 Nathan's Hot Dog t-shirt -- he placed fifth in the world in that one -- and immediately asks the question, "How the hell are you feeling?" Bertoletti smiles, mohawk slumped over to one side, says, "I'm doing alright. I'll be doing better after I eat some more dogs."

Doug takes our order, and like a gentlemen, Bertoletti lets me go first. I order a brat and a Chicago hot dog. Mind you, I hate hot dogs. I'd rather eat pig vomit, but in the nature of the experience, I indulge on what could be the best hot dog in the city. My cohort in crime orders a Tracy Butler-a sausage with more toppings on it than a double-deluxe pizza-gyro sausage, a Greek-style sausage with feta cheese and sauce galore-and last but not least, an antelope sausage-don't even ask.

We pull out our money and Doug wants nothing to do with it. I eat free because I'm with a star - can life get any better? To repay Doug, Bertoletti autographs a picture of him competitive eating, and it gets put up on the Wall of Fame located near the rear of the restaurant with every famous person who has been there, including Britney Spears, Jim Belushi and Mike Ditka.

Before I can ask my first question, dog number one is gone. I don't say anything because why should I? The man's hungry, I'm the same way. Before I eat half of dog No. 1 and ask question No. 1, good bye gyro sausage. Now, I begin to chuckle-luckily he doesn't notice.

I finally muscle down the Chicago dog, which turns out to be good and surprises the hell out of me, and after I sip my Cherry Coke, dog No. 3 is gone. The antelope sausage is no where to be seen. I have to ask, "I know you eat fast and all in competitions, but, dude, what in God's name are you doing?"

He chuckles like he's about to spit out a joke. Instead he says, "They're just so good." I understand. Or maybe I don't. Where did this crazy obsession and talent of eating like this come from? Before I could ask, he says, "I've been eating like this since I was 7."

Please, tell.

Breakfast: How it all began

"Most of my memories as a kid revolve around food." That's like Babe Ruth saying his childhood memories revolve around baseball. Or, Michael Jordan admitting his fondest memories are of shooting hoops at the neighborhood park. I need to know more, so I say, "Tell me a story."

He remembers Thanksgiving dinner at his grandma's house more easily than his siblings' birthdays, which was never short of amazing. It was one of the few times the kids would go unwatched after they finished the first plate of food put together by mom.

Other kids would run downstairs and begin playing; Bertoletti made seconds and thirds famous in his household, but he also grossed out a number of people along the way. "I just remember getting plates of food and mixing it all together-I think I was under the impression it went down the same tube, so it didn't matter."

Because of this, his mom from time to time would monitor how much food he consumed. So, one day, when he was 9, she gave him a bowl of apple sauce for dinner.

Little did young Pat know, that applesauce wasn't the first thing he was going to eat that night, it was the only thing. He ran up to his room crying because he wanted, at the least, a bigger bowl of apple sauce.

Ever since then, because of the infamous apple sauce incident, his eating habits would be forever changed. A few years later, Bertoletti was at a neighbor's picnic and it was, as usual, all you can eat. He remembers chowing down 10 dogs for no other reason than to challenge himself.

No more than a year later, as a freshman at Morgan Park Academy, a few of his friends thought it would fun to present him a challenge. As Bertoletti remembers it, "As long as they kept on buying, I kept on eating."

More than a dozen dogs later, his friends either ran out of money or Bertoletti ran out of room … to this day, no one's exactly sure which came first. Bertoletti and his twin sister Susan realized this wasn't a freak of nature kind-of-thing, it was a talent that neither would soon forget.

Lunch: The First Contest

Influenced by the suggestion from his twin sister, who noticed there was a pizza-eating contest in Chicago, Bertoletti took his eating prowess to the stage. Being 19 years old and a freshman Culinary Arts major at Kendall College, the timing couldn't have been better.

The contest required each competitor to eat a huge slice; the person to eat the most in 10 minutes won.

Bertoletti was among a few legendary eaters from the International Federation of Competitive Eaters, including Ed "Cookie" Jarvis, Sonya "The Black Widow," Rich "The Locust" LaFevre and his wife, Carla LaFevre. Bertoletti tied Rich LaFevre for third in the contest and they went off into a 10-minute eat-off. Even today, Bertoletti acknowledges that after tying LaFevre he wasn't experienced enough for an extended eating overtime in such a stomach-crushing contest.

The rookie fell short and was taken to school by the savvy veteran-he would take fourth in his first contest. About an hour or so into the interview at Hot Doug's, two adoring fans come over and request Bertoletti's autograph. He's still not comfortable with his growing status as a star, but to those around him, it's clear as day.

Determined to show the world the pizza eating contest was a fluke, he registered immediately in a corn beef n' cabbage competition in Boston.

Without hesitation, Bertoletti hopped on a flight from O'Hare and headed east. He, unlike a few of the other world-renowned eaters, wasn't sponsored at the time. All expenses came out of his pocket. If he planned to break even on his trip, he would need to place in the contest.

His finish improved, but he still only took third. Bertoletti had a problem: he was smoked by a girl. Bertoletti says while laughing, "I got killed by a girl, man, who has never done anything. I was kicking myself, dude."

It didn't take long for Bertoletti's first few contests to give him the much-needed valuable experience competitive eating took.

After drinking his third large soda in an hour, he speaks of the turning point in his competitive eating career.

He hit the road and entered as many contests as he could. His bosses at Vivere, a restaurant in Chicago's Loop, pushed him to follow his passion because of their close friendship. Soon enough, eating wasn't only a hobby, it became a love.

Dinner: Victory, Triumph

Bertoletti speaks modestly when asked about his current achievements. As much as he wants to be No. 1 in the world, there's one thing he won't sacrifice-humility. "I want to be No.1 in the world, but I'm going to get there my way."

So far, he's had no problem getting this far his way, and he's making a pretty penny doing it. During the past two-and-a-half years, he has raked in more than $100,000 eating.

When asked if there was any specific methodology that goes into food choice, eating technique or people he competes against, Bertoletti says, it's simple: "I eat everything and compete against anyone."

It's only fitting that Bertoletti holds 19 international food-eating records, ranging from pizza to chocolate hearts. Again, there's no specific method to his madness when choosing foods. His only request? "I like the soft and chewy ones, the foods you can just swallow without chewing so much."

Maybe that would explain his liking for donuts, shoo-fly pie, strawberry rhubarb pie, strawberry shortcake and ice cream. After being asked his favorite record or most impressive record, Bertoletti begins to stammer and stutter.

"I don't know, man. I really don't."

"Why's that?"

"I just like to have fun, so I guess ice cream would be my favorite."

On March 26, 2007, Bertoletti showed the world how much he loved ice cream. He ate 1.75 gallons of vanilla ice cream in eight minutes - no gag reflex, no brain freeze. Months later, he devoured 19 slices of 16-inch pizza. Two weeks later, he ate 177 pickled jalapeno peppers in 15 minutes.

This isn't normal.

After one-and-a-half hot dogs I'm full. After one trip through the buffet I'm ready to unbutton my pants. I can go back for seconds, but thirds? I can't. Bertoletti acknowledges that it isn't easy stomaching nearly 50 hot dogs and buns at one time.

Instead, adrenaline kicks in and after the contest he needs some downtime. Though after a few hours of hanging around, he is ready to go out and party.

However, there has to be a scientific and physiological explanation for all for this.

According to Dr. Eugene Chang, a gastroenterologist specialist at the University of Chicago Medical School and Hospitals, there's a distinct difference to the way these eaters eat and store food that set them apart from the rest of us.

People, including competitive eaters, mix their food with saliva, shoot the food down the esophagus and it lands in the stomach.

The food is stored in the upper one-third of the stomach. Call this the stomach's reservoir. As the reservoir gradually empties into the lower two-thirds of the stomach, food is deposited into the lower intestine, where it's digested and absorbed into the body.

However, competitive eaters separate themselves because they can stretch the upper one-third of their stomach beyond comprehension.

Dr. John Martin, an associate professor of medicine and surgery in the division of gastroenterology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Northwestern Memorial Hospital, sees these achievements as physical and mental. "These [eaters] have some sort of innate ability to handle that quantity of food, where they probably exercise psychological control."

Each doctor acknowledges that all eaters must to an extent stretch the stomach out. By consuming large amounts of water or through various exercises, their stomachs are able to carry more food in a short period of time than the most of us. However, both also acknowledge that 50 hot dogs and buns are beyond unthinkable.

"They must psych themselves," Dr. Martin says. However, Dr. Chang notes, "The valve between the esophagus and stomach has to open well. [The valve] has to let the food empty in the stomach, and it has to close to let any return of the food from occurring. [The valve] has to work like a one-way street."

There are no foreseeable long-term effects from competitive eating if it's done in moderation. Eaters face the single problem of stretching out their stomachs to the point at which it loses its function.

When this happens, people are susceptible to diabetes and other diseases directly attributed to lack of nutritional digestion.

Two years ago, competitive eating took a toll on Bertoletti's body. He gained about 50 pounds because of eating and the fact he worked in a catering business and food market. There was only one solution: Get out and take care of himself.

"I was fat, man," he says laughing.

"I walk about five or six miles every other day now to keep the weight off." Needless to say, he lost the 50 pounds in a little more than a year because it was for his health and the face of the sport.

The majority of the best eaters in the world look like average Joes, Bertoletti says. He appreciates that the face of the sport has changed and it isn't only slobs pounding as much food as they can.

Bertoletti won't stop until he reaches No. 1, but he can't dismiss the fun he's having and the friends he's making. "It's great to go to contests with these guys because we do the contests and then we hit the streets to party," he says with a smirk on his face. "I have no qualms about that."