It was ten o’clock on a Saturday morning in May and Pat Bertoletti was in the tiny bathroom of an airplane, spiking his hair into a Mohawk with Got2B styling glue. Normally he’d wait to do this in the men’s room at the destination airport, but his flight had been delayed and he was getting nervous. Upon landing in Houston, he’d be shuttled to a Berryhill Baja Grill northwest of downtown, where he would almost immediately have to begin shoving as many beef tamales as possible down his throat.

Bertoletti got to the restaurant just before 1 PM, the contest’s scheduled start time. Nearly 200 people were gathered in the parking lot, sweating in the sun and the hot, sticky air, while a live band played Bob Marley covers. He wandered off by himself to do side stretches, listening to Chicago punks Mexican Cheerleader on his iPod. In the previous month Bertoletti had devoured nearly five pounds of deep-fried asparagus in Stockton, California, and 105 jalapeno poppers in Tucson. But both times someone else had devoured more. Around his wrist was a rubber band that had held together a bunch of asparagus he’d eaten in preparation for the California trip–a reminder that second or third place wasn’t good enough.

As the restaurant’s employees brought out tamales a dozen at a time, the competition’s emcee, Ryan Nerz, introduced the 13 contestants, among them a female college student, a pro wrestler from Baton Rouge, a retired police officer, and a diesel mechanic. Local favorite Levi Oliver came out to a healthy round of applause, and Bertoletti, whom Nerz referred to as “Deep Dish,” was announced last. They all took their places side by side at four tables that had been pushed end to end, packed together as tightly as the tamales on their plates.

Almost as soon as the contest started, all eyes were on Bertoletti. He had rhythm: two chomps, a swig of water, and the tamale would disappear. Six and a half minutes later he’d eaten more than three dozen, breaking Oliver’s record from the year before. The other competitors started to sweat and grimace. Oliver turned and vomited in a nearby trash can, thereby disqualifying himself. Bertoletti just kept eating.

As Nerz counted down the final ten seconds, Bertoletti smushed two more tamales into his mouth, bringing his provisional total to 48. But as the clock ran out he stood with his cheeks bulging, unable to swallow. Minutes passed. Spectators chanted his name as he sat down and sipped water. Finally he looked at Nerz, shook his head, and then grabbed the rim of the nearest trash can, letting loose a putrid stream of barely digested food. The crowd let out a collective sigh.

First place went to Chip Simpson, who finished 41 tamales, second to Tim Janus with 38, and third to Rich LeFevre with 36. All three, like Bertoletti, are nationally ranked competitive eaters. As they hoisted their oversize checks into the air, Bertoletti slumped in his chair and wiped vomit off his shorts.

A man in the crowd who’d been rooting for him turned to a buddy and shook his head. “That’s $2,500 he just put in the trash.”

Bertoletti, 21, is a senior at the School of Culinary Arts at Kendall College with a special interest in classic French cuisine. Someday he’d like to open his own place, maybe a soup shop. But he may never be as well-known for his cooking as he already is for his eating. Bertoletti is capable of downing more food at a single sitting than almost anyone else in the country, a talent that’s turned out to be quite profitable. This year alone he’s already won nearly $16,000 at eat-offs.

Bertoletti is one of competitive eating’s young guns, a rising star in the new generation of athletic eaters whose flair and record-breaking feats have vastly improved the commercial appeal of the pursuit. The events he and his peers compete in are sanctioned and regulated by the International Federation of Competitive Eating, a circuit started in 1997 by New York City publicists George and Rich Shea. The Sheas also run the Super Bowl of competitive eating, the Nathan’s Fourth of July hot dog eating contest at Coney Island. The brothers had taken over the long-running event in 1991, and hoping to raise its profile they set up a series of qualifiers across the country. Then they added a string of one-offs at restaurant chains, festivals, and casinos. “It kept getting good results in the media,” says George Shea, “and we got more and more calls from sponsors, eaters, and TV producers.” Over the next few years the IFOCE began to give its eaters quarterly rankings.

By 2001 the Nathan’s record had inched up to 25 1/8 hot dogs. That year a slight 23-year-old from Japan named Takeru Kobayashi, in his first time at the contest, ate 50 dogs in 12 minutes, doubling the previous record and drawing unheard-of media attention to competitive eating. Rich Shea refers to Kobayashi’s feat as the “belch heard round the world.”

In 2002 Fox television aired the Glutton Bowl, a two-hour showcase of IFOCE stars, and in 2004, when ESPN began broadcasting the Nathan’s contest live, 765,000 households tuned in. In 2005 the IFOCE put on over 70 contests and gave out $230,000 in prize money; officials expect to see 100 contests before the end of this year.

Bertoletti is what you might call a natural. In seventh grade, he says, he ate eight burgers at a neighbor’s barbecue. In high school he finished off ten hot dogs at another cookout, and at 16 he won a pie-eating contest at his dad’s company picnic. He loved to eat, obsessed about it, and it showed: by age 20 he was carrying almost 230 pounds on his six-foot-one frame. Cooking school only provided more opportunities for gluttony. “We’d all make dishes, and I would taste them all, and I’d finish all the ones that I really liked,” he says. “And then I would eat dinner in the cafeteria along with that.”

In June 2004 he signed up for his first real eating competition, a Bacci Pizzeria eat-off his twin sister, Susan, had mentioned to him. He did well against stiff competition, tying nationally ranked Rich LeFevre with five slices in 15 minutes. LeFevre smoked him in the five-minute overtime period, but he went home determined to try again. He read up on the stars of the IFOCE and adopted their primary training method: chugging water to stretch out the stomach. He started drinking a gallon at a time, and a couple months later entered a corned beef and cabbage match in Milwaukee. He came in third, but he took away a valuable lesson: some foods are harder to eat than others.

Foods like tamales that are soft, pliable, and easy to get down are considered “fast” in the competitive eating world; others, like chicken wings and asparagus, are “slow,” and their shape and texture require strategy. “You gotta practice,” Bertoletti says. “You’ll try different techniques, because there’s a bunch of different ways to eat stuff. Like, am I going to dunk the grilled cheese in the water and then eat it, or am I going to just take a huge bite and take a drink of water after it? You gotta kind of figure it out.”

To prepare for an oyster contest in New Orleans in March 2005, he ordered a few dozen wholesale through Vivere, where he was working as a line cook, and slurped them as practice. He got through 19 dozen in ten minutes at the competition, which was loaded with IFOCE heavyweights. The winner, Sonya Thomas, ate 46 dozen, but Bertoletti was undeterred. “I got inspired talking to a lot of the other eaters,” he says. “Deep down I thought I could do a lot better.”

Like other endurance athletes, competitive eaters teach themselves to recognize and push through “the wall.” For eaters, it’s the point at which “you keep chewing the same bit and you aren’t able to swallow it,” Bertoletti says. As 2005 went on he started to make some real progress. That August he won a grilled-cheese contest with 212 sandwiches in ten minutes. In November he ate 30 Krystal hamburgers (they’re small and square, like White Castles) in eight minutes at a qualifier and improved to 37 at the finals, finishing eighth. When the IFOCE issued its rankings last winter, he was number ten.

Then early this year everything seemed to come together. Bertoletti scored his first major upset, beating Thomas and 22-year-old Joey Chestnut, the two top-ranked American eaters at the time, with 11 corned beef sandwiches at a match in Hot Springs, Arkansas. In February he won a chocolate competition in Chicago, drinking hot water to ease down nearly two pounds in seven minutes. In March he went to Boston and ate almost six pounds of corned beef and cabbage, again taking first place. Less than a week later he won a spring break competition in Florida by inhaling almost 11 pounds of key lime pie. By April the IFOCE had bumped him up to number four. Bertoletti says his overnight transformation wasn’t unusual among professional eaters: “You can track their records; they’re mediocre and then something just clicks in their heads. Suddenly they know how to keep pushing themselves.”

As Bertoletti racked up wins he started to attract attention outside the circuit. In March the USA cable network tapped him for “Show Us Your Character,” a series of commercial-length portraits of eccentric people, and in May WCKG’s The Steve Dahl Show became Bertoletti’s sponsor, covering his airfare costs in exchange for on-air appearances. Bertoletti’s been on the show five times, once with one of his personal heroes, chef and author Anthony Bourdain.

Competitive eating has also helped the normally shy Bertoletti become more outgoing, and his family has noticed the change. “He has a lot of fun with all the other eaters he’s met,” Susan Bertoletti says. “I think it’s opened him up to a lot of new things and he’s become a lot more independent, traveling a lot on his own.”

His parents, Deborah and Louis, aren’t exactly thrilled with Bertoletti’s new avocation, “but we support the drive he’s using to get where he’s going,” Deborah said at the tamale contest in Houston. “He’s certainly made a name for himself, and he’s been to many different places.”

“It’s gross,” Louis added.

“It is gross,” Deborah agreed.

The past year of overeating has had one other positive effect on Bertoletti: being able to ignore the urge to stop eating, he’s also able to ignore the urge to continue. “It’s weird–through eating I know moderation,” he says. “I know exactly what my body needs.”

Between last summer and this spring, he shed more than 30 pounds.

Some of Bertoletti’s new friends came to Chicago for a visit in early March: 3rd-ranked Joey Chestnut flew in from Palo Alto, California, 6th-ranked Tim Janus from New York City, and 17th-ranked Hall Hunt from Gainesville, Florida. They decided to spend their weekend together beating regional restaurant challenges.

On Friday night the four hit Schiappa’s, a pizza place in O’Fallon, Illinois, where they broke into pairs and finished two 29-inch pizzas in six minutes, winning T-shirts, hats, and coupons. On Saturday they traveled to Pointer’s Pizza in Saint Louis, where teams of two can win $500 for scarfing an 11-pound pie in one hour. Chestnut and Janus played it cool, finishing in 48 minutes; Bertoletti and Hunt went full-speed and did it in 14. Later that day they headed across the city to Crown Candy Kitchen, where customers win a free T-shirt if they can drink five 24-ounce malts in 30 minutes. Janus and Chestnut each downed six. Bertoletti drank seven in 22 minutes. Hunt, still full of pizza, decided to sit this one out.

The final stop on their rampage was the Corner Bar in Rockford, Michigan, where they planned to win $500 for breaking the restaurant’s chili-dog record: 43 in four hours. With Susan at the wheel the guys, decked out in their Schiappa’s T-shirts, talked on and off about eating. The subject of Kobayashi inevitably arose. “He’s a really smart eater,” Bertoletti said.

“Potato skins, did you see what he did there?” Janus asked. “Everyone was just eating them one at a time. He took two of them, folded them on top of each other, then he ate the outer crispy crust and put them back down. He did that for every one of them on his plate. And then he went to the soft part, popped those and just got through really fast.”

The group arrived at the Corner Bar around 5 PM and took over a booth. Each eater ordered 30 chili dogs apiece. The waiter laughed. “Now, you guys really want 30 dogs?” he asked. “Because if you don’t eat them, you’re gonna have to pay for them.”

“We know,” Bertoletti said. “We’re hungry. How many people have done it?”

“Not many. A couple big guys have come in and ordered 20, but they’ve stopped after 15.”

The dogs came out five at a time. Bertoletti, Chestnut, and Janus pressed them into their mouths one after the other, like they were at the business end of a conveyor belt, each finishing their first 20 within half an hour. Then Hunt bowed out. Customers turned and gaped as the others continued to eat. A teenager wandered over. “What are you going for, 20?” he asked. Janus’s mouth was too full to speak, so he just pointed up with his finger. “Oh, no,” the kid said. “You guys are going for the record!” A little later a burly guy with a beard approached them. “We’re about to start laying bets on you,” he said, “so I’m coming to size you up.” After a waiter dropped off two plastic buckets at each end of the counter, a manager quipped, “I think I know what those are for.”

“Those are tip buckets, for us,” Bertoletti said.

But a couple hours in, the previous days of eating and partying seemed to be catching up with them. Bertoletti complained that he’d only slept for five hours the night before, and after his 28th dog he laid his head in his arms. Chestnut tried to stand up after his 36th and teetered back and forth. Soon he and Bertoletti disappeared to the bathroom.

By 8 PM Janus had finished his 40th chili dog but was having problems of his own. He took a break, swabbed ice cubes on his neck, wrists, and arms, and asked if someone could open a window. His 41st dog popped out of his mouth; he pushed it back in. His stomach was visibly distended and his face was flushed.

But with just a few minutes to spare Janus managed to eat half of his 44th chili dog, a new record. He posed for a photo, looking like the Hulk–green and angry. Then he went to the bathroom–where, he was proud to say later, he did not throw up.

The tamale contest in Houston was the one and only time Bertoletti has ever barfed during a match. Keeping food down is a point of pride for competitive eaters. “Anyone can just eat and throw up,” Bertoletti says. A real eater learns to live with the post-contest discomfort. But in this case he thought getting sick was a breakthrough: it meant he’d finally pushed himself hard enough to reach his full stomach capacity. And the incident didn’t totally ruin his day: three young women, one of whom had seen Tim Janus on an episode of MTV’s True Life, invited the guys out to a birthday party at a local bar. “It was really flattering that they really like the sport,” Bertoletti says. “They thought I was so awesome even though I blew it at the end.”

Bertoletti has never competed at the Nathan’s Fourth of July contest. But this year, he decided, he was going to make it to the big show. He started training in earnest in May and settled on a technique: separating two hot dogs from their buns, eating both dogs at once, dunking the buns in water, and then cramming in the soggy remains. It takes Kobayashi’s method–which is to break each hot dog in half, eat it, and then dunk the bun–a step further.

At his first Nathan’s qualifier, on June 17 in Minnesota, Bertoletti ate 32 hot dogs in 12 minutes–6 fewer than Chip Simpson, the winner of the Houston tamale contest. He says he could tell after his first bite that something wasn’t right–he looked over at Simpson scarfing down dogs and knew he was going to lose. “I think I’m a little drained,” he said wearily the day after. “I was thinking I need a week or two off after the Fourth of July just to chill. You think about it every day and you shouldn’t. I mean, I’m thinking about cooking every day, but I’m also thinking about eating. I think it’s just been too much.”

Last weekend he flew to Georgia for a qualifier at Zoo Atlanta–his last chance to earn a spot in the finals. Under a big white tent in 95-degree heat, he paraded around wearing overalls on top of his shorts and shirt and carrying a cowbell to mock fellow eater Dale Boone, who’s sort of the Larry the Cable Guy of competitive eating.

At 1 PM, in front of about 150 spectators, Bertoletti cruised to an easy victory, eating 33 hot dogs in 12 minutes, 13 more than the next guy, a lower-ranked eater named Sam Vise. He celebrated his win by going to the Corndogorama music festival with some pals and drinking several 16-ounce beers. By dinnertime his appetite had been restored, so he went to a Checkers Drive-In for a burger and fries.

“I felt really good with 33, stomachwise,” he says. “I shouldn’t have felt so good after this one. That means I have a lot more room.” To make a showing at Nathan’s on the Fourth, he’ll have to find that room and fill it up.

Takeru Kobayashi, who’s won at Nathan’s every year since the “belch heard round the world,” is expected to dominate the big event this year as well, but Bertoletti is hoping to make the same impression Chestnut did in 2005, when he placed third as a rookie in a field of veterans. (At a 2006 qualifier, Chestnut became the first American to eat 50 hot dogs.) “Even though I’ve been kicking ass no one’s looking for me to be a real threat to anybody,” Bertoletti says. “They expect me to do well, but it’s one of those things where I know I’m sailing in under the radar. What Chestnut did last year shocked everybody. That’s what I want to do.”

Bertoletti plans to spend at least the next three years giving competitive eating everything he’s got, but he knows some difficult choices lie ahead. “I’ve been worrying about it a lot actually,” he says. “Once I graduate I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do it as much. If I get a restaurant job, it’s all weekends. It’s gonna suck, because I think as soon as I start to get really good I’m going to have to give it up.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Saverio Truglia.