By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Biller ate only 20 that day, tying him for fifth place, but he beat a handful of ranked eaters, and it was good enough to get the attention of master of ceremonies Eddie Dunn, who suggested a career in eating might serve him well. "I was like, 'How many of these contests are there?' I had no idea there was a pro level," Biller says.
A month later, Biller was on the main stage at the State Fair of Texas for his third contest. For three years, IFOCE ran the State Fair of Texas' corn dog eating championship, and LeFevre had claimed its $500 prize each time. In 2006, though, the state fair opted to run the contest independently, and Biller squared off against a field of amateurs, including token celebrity competitor Bo Bice, a former American Idol runner-up. Bice spent 10 minutes eating a single corny dog; Biller ate 12 and claimed the $500 first place prize.
A few months earlier, he'd had no idea any of this was possible. Now he'd eaten alongside some of the burgeoning sport's top talents, and even gotten his first paycheck for eating. It gave him plenty to think about heading into winter, typically competitive eating's off-season. In the meantime, he returned to college and applied for a graduate sports business program at New York University, which he'd begin in fall 2007.
There was one official contest in late January, though, a french fry contest at a Bikini's Bar and Grill along Interstate 35 in Austin. Biller drove down. George Shea called the event, announcing Biller for the first time for a few dozen spectators in the parking lot. As the waitresses laid 5-pound trays of fries before each eater, Biller stood at a far end of the table, alongside the toughest competition he'd faced yet, each of them in matching powder-blue T-shirts for the contest. Janus was there, wearing blue face paint and a yellow bikini top like the waitresses. "Crazy Legs" Conti ate with latex surgical gloves, crushing the fries into a greasy potato mash he ate by the mouthful. Joey Chestnut, gearing up for his Coney Island rematch with Kobayashi, creamed the competition, working well into his second tray of fries for a total of 6.5 pounds. Biller fell into a line of eaters, walking through the empty restaurant to a scale in the kitchen. He'd eaten 2.5 pounds, good for seventh place.
This is where plenty of new eaters have given up the dream: their first low finish against such intimidating competition. Biller, though, kept at it, set his sights on Coney Island, and learned how to toughen up for a contest. He'd always eaten big meals, but now he ate them with purpose. He ate 5 pounds of grapes and other roughage with days in between to stretch out his stomach. He drank half-gallons of water at a time. "You've really got to commit; you've got to commit a lot of time and energy to it if you want to really move up to the next level," Biller says. "It's not as much fun as it might sound to just gorge."
He lost to Conti in a Nathan's qualifying event at the Mall of America in Minnesota in spring 2007, but he came in third and ate 18 dogs. Chestnut finally unseated Kobayashi that year on the Fourth, blowing by the old record with 66 dogs and buns, but still just three dogs ahead of his rival. Biller kept at it on the circuit: matzo balls and pigskins, Myrtle Beach to Mississippi. He ate 3.25 pounds of deep-fried asparagus; 20 dozen oysters. By summer 2008, he'd assembled a string of respectable third- and fourth-place finishes, capped off by a six-gyro performance in Houston mid-May that earned him $300—his first paycheck in more than a year. He'd jumped 17 places to a 30th-place ranking in the IFOCE.
It was time to make another run at Nathan's. He entered a qualifier that June in Queens, and improved to 19.5 dogs. Janus blew by the rest of the table, finishing with 42. That year though, for the first time, IFOCE held a Dallas-area qualifier at a Sam's Club in Plano, and none of the top-ranked eaters made the trip. Biller ate a personal-best 20 dogs and buns, but he tied with another eater, Kevin Ross, who'd also gotten serious about eating in 2006 and had been charting a similar course along the circuit. In a five-minute overtime session, Biller put away five to Ross's four and earned his first spot at the big table that July 4.
For eating his way to the Coney Island contest, he was handed his first IFOCE contract to eat exclusively for the federation and a half-year's supply of Nathan's dogs. He spent the night before the contest at the W Hotel in Manhattan, then rode to Coney Island with the other eaters, greeted by a line of fans waiting to high-five him as he got off the bus. He had hours to wait backstage with other eaters and their families, and a torturous buffet spread of hot dogs and burgers. As Shea called his name, Biller took the stage in a Kanye West-inspired outfit—black polo, collar popped, retro shutter shades and scarf—an effect somewhat dulled by the official contest T-shirt he was told he had to wear. The crowd was stunning. "They said they had 50,000 people, but I had no idea what that would look like," Biller recalls. He went in knowing he'd get beat, just soaking up the experience, and he finished with 18.5 dogs and buns—18th out of 21 eaters. Chestnut and Kobayashi each ate 59 that year, and, as with Biller and Ross two weeks prior, the contest went to an overtime eat-off, this time a race to eat five more dogs. Chestnut won, barely, and claimed the $10,000 prize.