The Fourth of July often means grilling, lounging by the pool and watching a dazzling fireworks display. But to others it also means tuning in to the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest.
Millions watch each year as competitors swallow dozens of hot dogs in a superhuman amount of time. 2011 was a record year, with almost 2 million viewers watching the famous eating fest. One of the competitors that year stood out from the rest: a man with a handlebar mustache, gold-tinted sunglasses and spiky mohawk, shoving hotdogs in his mouth.
That’s Patrick “Deep Dish” Bertoletti, a competitive eater.
The 34-year-old holds more than 30 world records in competitive eating. He placed in the top four in Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest five years in a row. He’s appeared on America’s Got Talent (when he ate 120 raw eggs). In his best year, he estimates he made $55,000 from competitive eating, participating in 44 events.
“I always liked to joke that when God was giving out talents, he gave me the gift of eating,” he said.
Discovering his passion
Bertoletti, who grew up in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, always loved to eat.
He participated in his first contest when he was 15, a pie-eating contest at his father’s work party.
“I had no idea what I was doing in my first event. I got so sick after,” he said. “I swore I would never do it again.”
Two weeks later, Bertoletti was signing up for more competitions. He had no idea he could make money from eating, let alone make a career out of it. Once he graduated high school, Bertoletti enrolled in culinary school. But his true passion was eating. After culinary school, he made it his full-time job.
Making a living off eating
For the next decade or so, Bertoletti traveled the country and participated in contests. He eventually earned the nickname “Deep Dish” after finishing an entire Giordano’s pizza in six minutes.
Major League Eating oversees all professional eating events. The organization manages competitive eaters and allows them to participate in their events.
“In the past decade we have significantly increased the amount of money in prizes and appearance fees on the circuit,” said George Shea, co-founder of Major League Eating. “It is a privilege to watch the eaters receive the praise and respect that they deserve."
Bertoletti said he had always been decent at saving, which allowed him to continue competing. He opened a Roth individual retirement account when he was 20. He put away money each year for taxes, which he had to file quarterly as a freelancer. Though it wasn’t the most lucrative career, Bertoletti loved it.
“I was in my early mid-20s and there was always a check in my mailbox,” he said. “It was awesome.”
Bertoletti’s biggest payday was from the Philadelphia Wing Bowl. He won $10,000, a motorcycle and “a really shitty fake Super Bowl ring.”
He ate 444 wings in 30 minutes.
“I probably did a lot of permanent damage to myself,” he said.
So how does he do it?
There’s no secret to competitive eating. Contestants train for events like they would a regular sport.
“You have to train yourself to hold the food,” Bertoletti said. “But there’s a mental part that’s equally important. You have to think of your stomach as a giant bag and you’re just trying to fill it up.”
If he was eating a foreign food for the first time, Bertoletti practiced. He was often the best at eating foods he hated. His favorite food to compete with was pickled jalapenos.
“I hate spicy food,” he said. “They destroy your system. But I love to eat them I always do really well. The last one I did was 15 pounds in eight minutes.”
Life after hot dog competitions
While Bertoletti said he was able to make a living for a couple of years, it wasn’t sustainable. He didn’t have health insurance. He had to pay for travel himself. He officially retired from professional eating six years ago, but still occasionally participates.
“I loved it, but it wasn’t very healthy,” he said. “Some of the eaters were my best friends. But when we all got together we were colossal idiots, drinking and partying. It had to end.”
Bertoletti has since returned to his cooking roots, owning and running a restaurant called Taco in a Bag, located in northern Chicago. He briefly had a second location inside a mall in West Dundee, Illinois, after winning Food Network’s “Food Court Wars.”
While he loves his job, Bertoletti admits he finds himself wishing he still competed. He misses the camaraderie, the travel. But most of all he misses the competition.
“It’s fun to be near the top,” he said. “I like being good at something a lot of people can’t do.”
Want to learn more about how people with unconventional careers make a living? Check out our interview with Rupert Boneham, reality TV star.
Image: Patrick Bertoletti