By J.K. YAMAMOTO and MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Staff Writers
“I’m hungry,” said Matt Stonie, before the food began to fly on Saturday, then quickly amended his statement.
“I’m hungry to win.”
The 21-year-old was not forced to eat his words, after the JACCC Plaza was the scene of 10 minutes of fast and furious consumption during the Day-Lee Foods World Gyoza Eating Championship.
Stonie, nicknamed the “Megatoad,” bested last year’s world record mark by eating 268 gyoza, thereby – dare we say it – upsetting world No. 1 eater Joey “Jaws” Chestnut by 17.
Chestnut, 29, set the record last year with 266 gyoza downed, but this time around only managed 251. In 2012, Stonie ate 234.
Sanctioned by Major League Eating and the International Federation of Competitive Eating, this event was part of the second weekend of Nisei Week festivities in Little Tokyo and drew a large and enthusiastic crowd as well as coverage from the likes of The Los Angeles Times, TMZ and USA Today.
Emcee Sam Barclay built up suspense by announcing that Stonie and Chestnut were the top two finishers and that one of them had set a new world record, then finally held up Stonie’s hand in triumph.
Stonie was presented with a trophy — a figure holding up a giant gyoza — from Jason Uno of Day-Lee Foods and a round-trip ticket to Japan from Israt Akhter of Malaysia Airlines.
With his stomach bulging from holding an estimated 10.3 pounds of food, Stonie said he was doing his best to stay ahead of the competition while cramming the fried potstickers down his throat. “I was keeping my eye on Joey and Miki [Sudo] next to me, just trying to stay in the lead the whole time.”
He added, “It was crazy, those 10 minutes. I knew I had the lead for a little bit, but I knew those two would pick it up. The competition was stiff this year.”
Chestnut, who last month won the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog contest and the Hooters wing-eating championship, was expected by many to retain his title, but Stonie – who at 120 pounds is nearly half the weight of Chestnut – is proving to be a force to be reckoned with. Just last month, he set a world record in the World Slugburger Eating Championship. (Slugburgers are a Southern delicacy and do not contain slugs.)
Chestnut said he had trouble finding his rhythm during the contest, and admitted, “Matt just came out hungry.”
Both men hail from San Jose, prompting Major League Eating to comment on its website that “there must be something in the water” in that Northern California city.
Barclay noted that Chestnut’s girlfriend, Neslie Ricasa, was also in the competition and declared that if they have a child, he or she will be the greatest competitive eating champion of all time.
Third place went to Miki Sudo, 27, of Las Vegas with 204. Her other accomplishments include eating 8.5 pounds of kimchi in six minutes in Chicago – less than a week before the gyoza contest – and 7.5 pounds of deep-fried asparagus in 10 minutes in Stockton. She finished second to Chestnut in the wing-eating competition, 179 to 155.
“I’m not as full as I thought I’d be,” Sudo commented after the gyoza contest. “They weren’t as fast to get down as I had hoped, but no matter what, I don’t think I would have gotten to 268 in 10 minutes.”
Sudo finished well ahead of the fourth-place finisher, 30-year-old Jeff Butler of Phoenix, who downed 160 gyoza.
“I could have eaten 40 less and still ended up with the same result,” Sudo said with a grin.
Rounding out the top 10 finishers were:
Juliet Lee, 45, of Germantown, Md. (155)
Michelle Lesco, 27, of Tucson, Ariz. (142)
Juan Rodriguez, 29, of Las Vegas (142)
Pablo Martinez, 27, of Los Angeles (141)
Rich LeFevre, 65, of Henderson, Nev. (139)
Steve Hendry, 27, of Dixon (117)
The other seven competitors ate fewer than 100 each: Dax Swanson (93), Jon Bello (80), Chillin Peng (75), Neslie Ricasa (59), Mary Bowers (53), Nana Takei (34), Chris Erskine (30).
A Nisei Week tradition is to have the outgoing queen and court compete as a team, along with the previous year’s festival chairperson. The team, led by Emily Folick and Rev. Mark Nakagawa, ate a combined total of 78 gyoza, which would have earned 13th place if one person had eaten that many.
2012 Nisei Week Princess Erika Fisher was surprised when told she ate a paltry six or seven gyoza when her turn came.
“It felt like I was eating a hundred,” she said.
The 2013 Nisei Week Court’s job was to serve up plates of gyoza during the contest.
The main event was preceded by the first Crazy Cuisine “Mid-August Madness,” an amateur gyoza-eating contest for college teams.
The USC Nikkei won by eating 18 in four minutes, receiving a trophy from Day-Lee Foods. Also represented were UC Riverside, UC Irvine, Cal State Long Beach, and Cal State Fullerton.