The Performer: Furious Pete Czerwinski, competitive eater

On rivalries, the power of mind over matter and getting a five-pound burger named after you.

(Photo: Matt Barnes)

You’d never have pegged the teenaged Pete Czerwinski as a future competitive eater. As both his parents struggled with health issues, and in the wake of a cancer scare himself, the Mississauga, Ont., native developed anorexia, dropping to 120 pounds and ending up in the hospital.

Overcoming his disease and developing an interest in bodybuilding, Czerwinski completed a master’s degree in engineering. Along the way, he discovered he had a natural talent for wolfing down food. He’s competed around the world, volunteered his talents for charities, and become the star of a German television show where he travels the globe tackling extreme eating challenges. He spoke with Canadian Business staff writer Jordan Timm.

Won-Lost record: 62-6
His world-record time for eating a 72-oz. steak: 6:48
Date of his first competition (and win): 04/19/08
Date of his first loss: 10/24/09
Number of dumplings eaten in two minutes during that loss: 52
Number of dumplings by which he lost: 1

How did you get into competitive eating?
It was kind of random. I went out for breakfast after a night out in London, Ont., with my buddies, and one of them challenged me to try and beat some record in this restaurant, and I managed to double it. And I was like, “Damn, I can eat!” So I just decided to start doing a couple of these restaurant challenges, and I started doing challenges at home, and started recording everything and posting things on YouTube, and that’s how I got recognized.

When did you decide you wanted to do it at a higher level, as opposed to just knocking out the local breakfast special?
About a year after I started doing this stuff, I broke some big record, a 72-ounce steak in seven minutes, and after I posted that video I got asked by an eating organization to come down to San Diego in 2008 for something called the Collegiate Nationals, a contest between all the college eaters and university eaters of North America. And yeah, I blew away the competition, and things just took off from there.

What’s the prize money like?
I guess the top one I’ve done was five grand, and if you think about it, it’s like you’re working, technically, for five to 10 minutes. If you think about it, you’re getting paid pretty well per hour. It’s too bad I can’t do it all the time.

Is it something you enjoy doing? I doubt you’re savouring the food.
At this point, I don’t necessarily enjoy doing contests. It’s something that I’m good at, and I’m kind of taking advantage of it. It’s not fun to eat a ton of food really, really fast—and most of the time it’s cold, so it’s like…yeah, it’s not delicious at all. But you treat it like a job, and that’s it. It still feels cool to crush records, to really demolish them. But actual eating contests that are just 10 minutes of straight eating and that’s it. You’re basically going for the paycheque at the end.

What’s been the most difficult eating challenge you’ve faced so far?
It was in Boston, the most mind-over-matter challenge I’ve ever done. It was a five-pound burger with 20 pieces of bacon, 20 pieces of cheese, and a five-pound platter of fries.

Good lord.
Yeah, 12 pounds of food. And in 1,500 attempts, nobody had ever finished it—and if you finish it, the burger’s named after you. But I did it last year. The last pound or two of fries I was eating, it was just mind over matter. It was all this starchiness and greasiness. It’s just really gross. But I knew that I wanted to get my name on that menu. It took 45 minutes. And they had to throw out every single menu and print off new ones that feature the Furious Pete Burger, so, I mean, it was worth it.

I was wondering how much of what you do is actually mental.
It’s huge. There’s a lot of times where after five minutes you either feel like the food is really disgusting, or you’re actually feeling full. But you actually have the ability to keep eating if you just tell yourself to. I mean, it’s not necessarily healthy for you, but yeah, it’s not necessarily how well you can eat. It’s how well you can control yourself.

What about physical preparation?
It depends on the size of the contest, what I’m eating, the duration of the contest. If it’s a huge contest, really long, two days before I’ll stop eating whole foods and switch to liquid foods. The biggest mistake that people make is just fasting altogether. Then the stomach tends to kind of shrivel up. You want to keep feeding it something, and liquid foods are best because they’re easily depleted out of the body once you do start eating for the competition.

Is there a shelf life for competitive eaters? Is this something you can do your whole life?
There’s a competitive eater that I’m going up against in two weeks who’s 73.

Uh, really?
Yeah. And apparently he’s still pretty damn good.

Do you get motivated by the opportunity to break records?
It depends who has the record. Sometimes, if it’s a big shot. But in a lot of these contests, the record is my record. My name’s already up there. I think the motivation to break records was a lot bigger earlier in the day, when I was first starting. Now it’s just about finishing first.

Is it a competitive field with a lot of rivalries? I’m not quite imagining pro wrestling, but…
You’d be surprised by the characters that come out of competitive eating. One of my friends best described competitive eating as like wrestling, except real. A lot of people badmouth each other before competitions, there’s words that get exchanged here and there, and then you kind of fight at the table, right? So there are rivalries, but it’s nothing like, you know, “I’m going to get you down the block after the contest.”

Are there people out there on the competitive eating circuit with whom you feel a rivalry, or against whom you still want to prove yourself?
Sure—the one and only Takeru Kobayshi. I’ve competed against him three times, and he’s the one guy I can’t really beat. I can’t figure out how he does it. I’ve twice competed with him in a pizza contest. I kept up with him slice for slice for seven minutes, and then he just…you know, I just couldn’t do it anymore. He just eats for 12 minutes straight, at the exact same pace the whole time, without a sweat. And I can’t understand it. And you know, if I was ever on the same level as Kobayashi, I would probably do this for a long time.