A former construction engineer has turned his love of eating into a profession that earns him more than $200,000 a year.
Joey Chestnut gave up the security of a job in engineering to follow his dream of being a professional eater, and the move seems to have paid off.
The 28-year-old from California, the reigning world champion in competitive eating, made $205,000 in 2011 as part of Major League Eating, a slight dip on his 2010 income of nearly $225,000.
Having previously competed while holding down his full-time job, Mr Chestnut ditched the more conventional occupation at the start of last year.
“When I first started out I just thought it was something I was good at, but then as it became more and more serious over time I had to look at it as a sport,” the 1.8m-tall, 99kg Mr Chestnut told ninemsn.
“I had to be able to rationalise putting in that much time and be able to say ‘I’m going to get better’ in the same way a runner or a baseball player pushes their body to get better.”
Mr Chestnut — who insists his name is the one he was given at birth — said pay packets for construction engineers tend to “top out” at around $115,000 a year in the US, but when he discovered he could make almost double that eating, the decision to go pro was an easy one.
Major League Eating claims to be the fastest-growing sporting league in the US, and sporting network ESPN has reportedly just renewed a contract that will see it broadcast its flagship Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs Fourth of July event until 2017.
While the sport has enjoyed a healthy cult following in the US, the league is trying to take the competition international, with Australia and a number of Southeast Asian countries playing host to events over the past year.
“Last year, we held a Nathan’s qualifier in China for the first time,” league president Mike Antolini told ninemsn.
The finale of the Biggest Eater competition was held in Bangkok on Saturday and event sponsor CP Foods, a Thai agribusiness company, jetted in media from all the competing nations in an effort to boost international coverage.
But competitive eating is far from pretty.
Contestants suppress gag reflexes as they battle it out to shove the most amount of a particular food into their mouths in a set time. In Bangkok it was shrimp wontons, but previous foods include tacos, boiled eggs and chicken wings.
Mr Chestnut won the Bangkok championship and set a new shrimp wonton eating record of 390 in just eight minutes.
He said he is happy to reap the rewards while his body still allows him to.
“I know I’m one of the best eaters, but the ball’s rolling and it’s taking me for a ride and I’m riding it out and having fun with it,” he said.