What’s cooking? Major league eaters prepare for the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest

nathan's hot dog eating contest
Coney Island is getting ready for the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest.
Photo courtesy of Paul Martinka/Nathan’s Famous

If taking part in the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest is an extreme sport, preparing all those dogs in the Nathan’s Famous kitchen is a carefully-choreographed dance.

At least that’s how George Shea sees it. 

Shea, the co-founder of Major League Eating and one of the minds behind the competition, took Brooklyn Paper on a tour of the original Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs location at the corner of Surf and Stillwell avenues less than a week before thousands of people would descend on the intersection for the July 4 event

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George Shea in the kitchen at Nathan’s Famous days before the 2024 contest. Photo by Qianshan Weng

As many as 3,000 franks will be prepped on the flat-top grills in the Nathan’s kitchen on the morning of the Hot Dog Eating Contest, Shea said, as well as two massive additional grills they bring in specially for the competition. 

“The servers use tongs to go in, and they flip. Go in, and they flip,” Shea explained, describing the motions of the cooks. “It’s almost an art, it’s almost a dance. You see the motion of a plié, almost an arabesque. It’s almost like a professional dance troupe.” 

When are the dogs done, perfect and ready to serve?

“You really have to be a grillmaster at Nathan’s to know that,” Shea said. 

Hot dog history 

The Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest started way back in 1972, when public relations experts Morty Matz and Max Rosey joined the team. Shea joined the team in 1988, and took over the contest after Rosey’s death in 1991. 

Back then, the contest was “pretty small,” Shea said, just a couple of contestants, a couple of cameras. 

crowd at nathan's hot dog eating contest
Thousands of people attend the hot dog eating contest every year.Photo courtesy of Paul Martinka/Nathan’s Famous

“What I saw in the contest was the opportunity for a lot of enjoyment, humor, and drama, real drama,” Shea said. “There’s nothing quite like this because it marries humor and the excitement of an actual athletic event.”

The contest really took off in 2001, when Takeru Kobayashi joined and wolfed down 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes. Before then, contestants were eating closer to 12 or 15 dogs. Then came Joey Chestnut in 2007, who sucked down 12 hot dogs and buns and defeated Kobayashi, then a six-time Hot Dog Eating Contest champ.

Today, the contest is a summer tradition and one of the biggest competitive eating events in the world. It draws thousands of spectators and is aired live on ESPN. There are only 14 spots each in the men’s and women’s eating contests — each with a $10,000 cash prize for the winner. 

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Joey Chestnut (pictured) and Takeru Kobayashi pushed the contest to new heights. File photo by Dean Moses

Qualifying events start almost a full year ahead of time, Shea said, and Major League Eating starts accepting applications from international eating champions right after the Independence Day square-off.

“You can’t get in unless you are an acknowledged world champion, or if you win one of the qualifiers,” Shea said. “There are hundreds and hundreds of people who want to sign up for these qualifiers, and there just aren’t that many seats.” 

Stiff competition 

So who might win this year? Chestnut, the 16-time winner of the contest, is usually the default winner. But the hot dog hero is banned from competing this year due to a partnership with a competing hot dog brand. 

“I wish he was here, we love him, everybody loves him, and we hope he comes back,” Shea said. ‘But that opens up an amazing competition this year. We have four top eaters who are going to be neck-and-neck.” 

joey chestnut and miki sudo hot dog eating contest
Hot Dog Eating Contest champs Joey Chestnut and Miki Sudo. Photo courtesy of Paul Martinka/Nathan’s Famous

Those four top-ranked competitive eaters are Patrick Bertoletti, Geoffrey Esper, Nicholas Wehry, and James Webb. There’s another competitor Shea thinks could be a wildcard winner: King Yamamoto, who recently downed 17 pounds of food “no problem” during a contest. 

The winner will likely eat at least 55 hot dogs and buns and maybe more, Shea said. 

Esper came in second to Chestnut last year, wolfing down 49 dogs to Chestnut’s 62. Webb and Wehry were close behind, with 47 and 45 dogs respectively. 

In the women’s contest, reigning champ Miki Sudo, who wolfed down 39.5 dogs last year, will face stiff competition in Mayoi Ebihara and Michelle Lesco, who came in second and third last year with a respective 33.5 and 24.25 dogs eaten. 

hot dog eating contest champs
The competitors who ate the most dogs at last year’s contest. Illustrations by Ava Mills

“The thing I think people don’t know is how much effort goes into this by the eaters,” Shea said.

For years, he said, people have been coming up to him to boast about how much they can eat. Then, they eat only seven or eight dogs when the time comes.

“It’s much harder in skill but also in technique,” he explained. “How do you manage the hot dogs, how do you breathe while you’re eating? When you’re dunking, what are you doing, you’re not wasting any time. Lots and lots of people go, ‘I could do that.’ And they can’t.”

Prepping for July 4

Though the contest itself takes just over ten minutes, it’s the product of hundreds of hours of work and a large team — most of whom are never seen by the public. 

“It’s an enormous undertaking,” he said. “There are just hundreds of people who put this all together.” 

While the contestants are preparing for the 11 a.m. start time, grillmasters will be cooking up the 3,000 hot dogs – taking care with their timing. Nothing can slow down the contest, Shea said, so ensuring the dogs are cooked and ready is paramount.

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The contest is now a holiday staple in Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of Paul Martinka/Nathan’s Famous

But they can’t be done too early — hot dogs set out too far in advance will cool down and seize up, making them harder to eat. Dogs fresh off the grill are too hot and, again, harder to eat. 

Shea’s favorite part of the contest is introducing each competitor on stage. 

“I spend a lot of time thinking about them,” he said. “There’s a whole mix of introductions. It’s not a typical, boring, stat-filled thing. It’s a mix of straightforward, grand, humorous, poetic, and outrageous.”

He works on those introductions all year round, including during regional and qualifying competitions, trying to see what works and what doesn’t. 

“Can you deliver something that is really poetic and way over the top in a way that people say ‘that is absurd, but I am also getting goosebumps,’” Shea said. “That is my goal.”

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Shea hosts the event and enjoys announcing each competitor. Photo by Qianshan Weng

Looking ahead, beyond the contest on Thursday, Shea said he would like to see the contest welcome more international competitors. In the U.S., he said, the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest is well-known, but he wants to spread the message far and wide. 

Even while eyeing international expansion, Shea said the growth of the contest from 1991 to now is amazing.

“When I look back at the contest, I’m astounded,” he said. “We never planned anything, it was always ‘What would be fun, what would be funny, what would people enjoy. It wasn’t a business plan, there wasn’t a strategy … and it grew because it was natural, and it had humor and the lighthearted spirit of summer.” 

The 2024 Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest will take place on July 4, 2024, from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. outside Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs at the corner of Surf and Stillwell avenues in Coney Island. Admission is free.