By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Sports Editor
Perhaps it was not an event for the squeamish, but the 2011 World Gyoza Eating Championship last weekend at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center Plaza was likely the most-attended such competition since becoming a part of the Nisei Week attractions.
The lineup included the No.2-ranked major league eater in the world, Chicago’s Pat Bertoletti, as well as Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas. Notably absent was top dog at this summer’s Coney Island July 4 hot dog contest, Joey Chestnut, whose world record of 231 gyoza was in the crosshairs for Saturday’s competition.
“I’ve been focusing on breaking the record,” said Thomas, who still works as manager of a Burger King restaurant in Virginia. “I had a big dinner last night, but nothing today, so I’m pretty hungry now.”
Also stepping up to the plates was Matt Stonie, a 19-year-old from Chestnut’s home town of San Jose. At only 120 pounds, Stonie is considered the best young competitor gaining attention on the speed eating circuit, finishing fifth at Coney Island.
By the way, Stonie’s major at Mission College is nutrition.
Among those taking part in the amateur division of the contest was Naoyuki Kamiya, a self-described disciple of former hot dog eating champ Takeru Kobayashi. Kamiya traveled to Little Tokyo from Japan expressly for the gyoza event, even bringing along a bottle of his favorite sauce to complement the meal.
As has become tradition for this event, the outgoing Nisei Week Queen and Court tested their stomachs in the eat-off, and the 2010 court collectively choked down 97 of the Day-Lee Foods Dumplings, which were prepared at the Far East Cafe in Little Tokyo.
But the focus this day was on the professional “gurgitators” as they are often called. Gyoza were brought out on plates of 25 pieces each and entrants had 10 minutes to down as many as they could. Results were determined by how many empty plates each eater had at the end of the time frame, as well as any gyoza remaining in the competitor’s mouth, as long as it was swallowed.
“Reversal of fortune,” as it is known – you can imagine what that means – results in immediate disqualification.
At the start, Thomas and Bertoletti flew into their plates, shoveling handfuls of gyoza into their mouths and chomping furiously. Thomas helped the food down with gulps of water, while Bertoletti used his preferred beverage, bright-red fruit punch. As the audience of several hundred gasped, groaned and cheered, Bertoletti’s shirt, face and hands became stained a deep crimson, as did anything within splashing distance.
After 10 minutes and an official count of 2,143 gyoza consumed, the announcement of the winners was not much of a shock, although there was a scant bit of controversy involved.
When all was said and downed, Bertoletti was crowned the champ, having swallowed 264 gyoza, shattering Chestnut’s world record by more than 30.
Stonie, who had few words ahead of the contest, came in second with 213 gyoza eaten.
Thomas, the crowd favorite originally from Seoul, was announced as the third-place finisher with a total of 209, but she wondered afterwards if that tally was accurate, saying she thought one of her cleared plates fell under the table and went uncounted. If so, she would have jumped to second place, but 30 shy of Bertoletti’s gut-busting total.
A Nisei Week official told the Rafu on Monday that he was immediately made aware of Thomas’ concerns and had the results double-checked and verified, and he is certain the final counts are correct.
One contestant suffered the dreaded “reversal” and was DQ’d.
Speaking with a Bozo the Clown-like red grin as a result of the fruit punch, Bertoletti said he attended the contest with but one goal.
“I didn’t come all the way out here from Chicago to lose,” he insisted.