By J.K. YAMAMOTO and MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
JACCC Plaza was packed on a steamy Saturday afternoon for the annual Day-Lee Foods World Gyoza Eating Championship, one of the highlights of this year’s Nisei Week Japanese Festival in Little Tokyo.
Joey “Jaws” Chestnut of San Jose, last year’s champion and the No. 1 ranked eater in the world, retained his title by eating 359 potstickers in 10 minutes. However, he did not break his own world record of 384, set in 2014, and ate fewer gyoza than last year’s 377.
Chestnut won $2,000 out of the $6,000 purse.
In second place was Geoffrey Esper of Oxford, Mass., the No. 3 eater in the world, with 297. He won $1,500. Esper also finished second last year with 317.
Darron Breeden of Orange, Va., the No. 5 eater in the world, was third with 232 and won $800. He was fourth last year as a first-time competitor with 250.
“Darron and Esper have gotten a lot closer this year, so this competition as a whole is getting better,” a visibly stuffed Chestnut said after the contest. “As good as they are, I come here to win. I don’t want to end up with a full belly in second place.”
Coming in fourth was three-time gyoza champion Matt “Megatoad” Stonie of San Jose, the No. 4 eater in the world, with 222. He won $550. Stonie was third last year with 291 and his personal best is 377 in 2014.
Stonie said he hadn’t fully prepared for Saturday’s event, coming off what has been a tough year for him.
“I really haven’t been putting up the numbers I usually expect,” he explained. “That last minute today was a struggle. I was trying to down as many gyoza as I could.”
Nonetheless, Stonie said the Nisei Week contest is one of his favorites on the professional eating circuit.
“Every year I come here and everyone makes me feel so welcome. I would never miss this.”
Adrian Morgan of New Orleans (world No. 8) was fifth ($450) with 205;
Miki Sudo of Las Vegas (world No. 7) was sixth ($250) with 192;
Juan “More Bite” Rodriguez of Crestwood, Ill. (world No. 11) was seventh ($150) with 175;
Michelle “Cardboard Shell” Lesco of Tucson, Ariz. (world No. 9) was eighth ($125) with 168;
Richard “The Locust” LeFevre of Henderson, Nev. (world No. 14) was ninth ($100) with 167;
Juan Neave of Austin, Texas (world No. 17), making his gyoza contest debut, was 10th ($75) with 155.
Sudo, the top female finisher in this contest and the highest-ranking female competitive eater in the world, placed fifth last year with 200 gyoza.
This year, Sudo said she made the crucial error of not drinking enough during the contest, a strategy that helps to ease the slick gyoza down one’s throat.
“That was the biggest factor for me, not taking in enough liquid,” she said. “I came in pretty prepared, but that was my biggest mistake.”
Sudo said the best way to keep up with the constant challenges of competitive eating is to stay in shape and be sure to stay hydrated.
As for the danger of suffering the dreaded “reversal of fortune” – having all that food come back up the way it went down – Sudo insisted that no one wants to be disqualified in that manner.
“That’s embarrassing. No one wants that,” she said.
Also in the running were first-timer Derek Jacobs of Vandalia, Ohio (world No. 19), 153; Steve Hendry of Dixon (world No. 22), 143; Erik “The Red” Denmark of Scottsdale, Ariz. (world No. 20) and Pablo “El Guapo” Martinez of Visalia (world No. 24), 118 each; Eric “Badlands” Booker of Selden, N.Y. (world No. 23), 117; Jon “Bastos” Bello of Torrance (world No. 27), 113; and Sarah Reinecke of Seattle (world No. 29), 110.
As he does every year, Booker rapped about gyoza before and after the competition.
The event is sanctioned by Major League Eating, whose members take part in competitions across the country year-round, including the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island on July 4. Chestnut and Sudo were the top man and woman this year.
For the first time, all MLE competitors downed more than 100 gyoza.
They were joined by AMP Radio’s Brian Moote and Casey McCabe, who ate 38 and 21 gyoza, respectively.
Emcee Sam Barclay declared Chestnut the winner, eliciting cheers and applause from the enthusiastic audience. Chestnut received the gyoza trophy from Jason Uno of Day-Lee Foods and a Day-Lee Foods happi coat from 2018 Nisei Week Queen Alice Amano. He was then joined on stage by the entire Nisei Week Court, Nisei Week Foundation President Cory Hayashi, and Aki the Akita, Nisei Week’s mascot.
Chestnut was asked about once again facing former MLE competitor Takeru Kobayashi, whose superhuman exploits at the Nathan’s contest ushered in an entirely new level of competitive eating.
In 2001, the slim 23-year-old from Japan stunned the crowd at Coney Island by devouring 50 hot dogs and buns, doubling the previous record that was considered unsurmountable.
Kobayashi’s gastric feats set up a years-long rivalry with Chestnut, until a 2010 contract dispute with MLE led the Japanese star to stage his own exhibitions and enter other non-MLE contests.
“He’s a great competitor,” Chestnut said of Kobayashi, calling him one of the world’s best. “He has me blocked on Twitter, and I don’t know why, but I hope we’ll see him again someday.”
The event began on a serious note with MLE members announcing that Gweneviere Mann, the wife of Yasir Salem (world No. 12), recently passed away from a rare form of lung cancer. The contest, with the help of Crazy Cuisine, raised funds for the Gweneviere Mann Foundation on-site.
For donations of $5 or more, attendees entered a charity raffle for such prizes as a jersey and T-shirts signed by the competitors, and a taco handbag and bento box of sushi hairpieces created by Mary Bowers (world No. 49), who was present but did not compete this year.
For more information, visit http://GweneviereMann.org.
In addition, for every pound of gyoza eaten in the contest, Day-Lee Foods donated 20 pounds of food to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank.
The main event was preceded by three competitions with local participants.
In the Little Tokyo Gyoza Eating Championship amateur contest, the winner was Eric Komatsu of Kizuna, who ate 56 in two minutes. He was followed by Kevin Lew of Go For Broke National Education Center (42), Andy Shimazaki of Nisei Week Hospitality (26), David Lee of the Tanabata Festival (23), Kate Pap of Far Bar (10), and Mitsuko Brooks of Little Tokyo Service Center (10).
The 2017 Nisei Week Queen and Court ate a combined total of 86 gyoza.
The Crazy Cuizine Ninin Baori is based on a Japanese comedic act in which two people wear the same large coat (haori) and pretend to be one person. The person in the front provides the face and the person in the back provides the arms. Without being able to see, the person in the back must use chopsticks to put gyoza into the mouth of the person in front.
Competitors represented different kenjinkai or prefectural associations. The winner, the first to consume 10 gyoza, was Team Saitama. Also competing were Team Hiroshima, Team Yamanashi, Team Gifu, Team Yamaguchi and Team Osaka.
In the annual battle between the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Fire Department, with five members on each team, LAPD won with 158 to LAFD’s 147 in two minutes. Last year, LAPD won for the first time.
Winners of the preliminary events received cases of Sapporo Beer.