Last night at Victory Plaza, Major League Eating finally made good on its promise to bring the country's top eating talent to Dallas for a wing-eating contest, months after Snowpocalypse 2011 scrapped the original Wingstop World Wing-Eating Championship planned just ahead of the Super Bowl.
Just before the final Mavericks home game of the season, they were all out there: the top four eaters in the world, plus stars of Texas eating like Nate Biller, Bam Martinez and Gary Klucken, with MLE founder George Shea in rare form at the mic. Introducing hot dog champion of the world Joey Chestnut, Shea even made time for a dig at prodigal eater Takeru Kobayashi's new "modeling career."
Heading into the contest, most of the attention was on Chestnut and the woman who famously beat him in wing-eating last September, Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas. But as the minutes ticked away, Shea's play-by-play suggested an upset might be on the way.
"Patrick Bertoletti is eating hard, he's eating raw," Shea announced to the crowd. "I gotta tell you, I've never seen him eat like this."
Indeed, Bertoletti was eating with a vengeance, powering through all 12 minutes of the contest at a furious pace. While eaters across the table kept at the wings -- including former Observer cover boy Biller, with drool and snot a-flyin' -- the final push came down to Bertoletti, Thomas, Chestnut and the league's third-ranked eater "Notorious B.O.B." Shoudt.
The contest itself was messy enough, bits of chicken flying well into the crowd, but things got especially sticky when it came time to weigh the meat. Judging is notoriously fickle at Wing Bowl, the country's biggest wing-eating contest (and one that MLE hasn't officiated for years), but Shea told me months ago they'd run a tight ship at the Wingstop contest -- weighing each tray before and after.
And that's how they did it yesterday, with Wingstop accountants, Shea announced, manning the scales backstage. For some reason, though, there was still some confusion around the judging.
While eaters paced the stage, wiping off sauce and staring into the distance, Shea charmed the crowd with his YouTube mash-up of "Bette Davis Eyes" covers.
By the final count, Thomas finished fourth; Chestnut third with 128.4 ounces; Shoudt second with 164 ounces; and Bertoletti with 171.6 ounces of chicken for the big win. (By Shea's estimate, that amounted to 288 wings in 12 minutes, an incredible 2.5 seconds per wing.)
Within minutes, Bertoletti was on his way to D/FW International to catch his flight home to Chicago. I caught up with him over the phone this afternoon, though, to get his thoughts on the contest -- and on how you fly with a novelty-sized $10,000 check from Wingstop tucked under one arm. (Though, according to MLE's site, only $5,000 of that will go to Bertoletti.)
As to the latter question, apparently the answer is, you carry it on. "I just keep my head down and try to hide what it says," Bertoletti tells me today. "It usually goes right through the X-ray. Usually you have to talk to the TSA, but this time they didn't really seem too curious."
Bertoletti says he barely made his flight -- didn't have time to clean up before sitting down. "I reeked, like I smelled so bad. My pants were stained and soaking, they smelled like Kool-Aid and hot sauce."
The official totals are already being met with skepticism from some eating fans, and Bertoletti says he's right there with them. "Whatever we got credit for, it's almost impossible to eat," he says. "That can't be right...It didn't feel like 10 pounds."
Even with big prize money at stake, it's an issue you run into all the time on the eating circuit, Bertoletti says, especially with hard-to-count "debris" foods. "The thing is, it's only one representative of MLE," he says. As for the folks weighing the food, "the people who're running it, for the most part they've never run a contest before."
Though he's already ranked second in MLE, Bertoletti says he'd "been been due for a debris win," and just had a good day yesterday. "There was just an urgency. Most days, it's just not there," he says, but "the days it's there, I'm in total command of my body and my brain, just everything functions."
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Bertoletti -- a chef when he's not eating for money -- says his $10,000 prize is destined for a Chicago food truck he's hoping to start with fellow pro eater Tim "Gravy" Brown. Which'll be a "drunken gourmet" operation serving up the sort of "rich, salty, overpowering" food he likes to cook on his own.
It could be a while before the operation gets off the ground, though, because like Dallas, he says, Chicago's been dragging its feet on legalizing food trucks.
Check out more photos in our slideshow here.
Update: MLE just announced what figures to be the only Dallas-area qualifier for the Nathan's Famous contest on July 4, back up Interstate 35 at Winstar World Casino.