Photo Credit Wisconsin State Fair
Thirty seconds into the very first Wisconsin State Fair World Cheese Curd Eating Championship, it looked like Joey Chestnut would achieve yet another record-breaking food feat. And to be frank (pun intended), why wouldn’t he? The 11-time Nathan’s champ had recently surpassed his own personal best, gulping down 74 hot dogs in 10 minutes at the annual July 4th hot dog eating tournament on Coney Island. Now, on August 11, 2018, Chestnut had already downed a half-pound of dairy onstage at the State Fair’s Associated Bank Amphitheater…and he still had five-and-a-half minutes to go before finish time.
Chestnut—who holds several dozen eating records—had naturally aimed big, resolving to guzzle down at least eight pounds of moist curdled milk bits. But halfway through the six-minute contest, an upset occurred. It wasn’t somebody’s queasy stomach, but a fellow competitor named Darron Breeden stealing the limelight. The high school teacher from Orange, Virginia was suddenly neck-and-neck with Chestnut, shoveling handfuls of curds into his mouth and washing them down with huge gulps of water.
“It was funny to watch, you know?” recalled Kay Schmitz, co-owner of Henning’s Wisconsin Cheese, which supplied the competition with 125 pounds of cheese curds. “It’s like, gosh, that guy has to be constipated.”
This wasn’t the first time Breeden—a rising star in the competitive eating circuit who even has his own YouTube channel—and Chestnut had found themselves neck-and-neck at a Major League Eating-sanctioned event. In February, the two faced off at the 2018 World Chili Eating Challenge in Orlando, Florida, placing third and fourth, respectively. This time around, though, their rivalry was closer than ever.
Five, four, three, two, one… surprise: By the time the crowd counted down the contest’s end, Chestnut had only downed four pounds and eight ounces of cheese curds. The average person can only eat maybe a quarter-pound of the snacks, according to Schmitz—but among his steel-stomached peers, Chestnut only scored third place. Breeden ate five pounds, two ounces of curd, besting both the famed champ and second-place winner Gideon Oji, who guzzled down four pounds, nine ounces.
A relative novice to the competitive eating scene, Breeden, 29, gained national notice in 2016 when he ate 28 hot dogs in 10 minutes at a Nathan’s Famous hot dog qualifier in Norfolk, Virginia. Since then, the teacher has placed third at the 2018 Nathan’s contest (just behind Chestnut and competitor Carmen Cincotti), nabbed first place at the 2018 Acme Oyster Eating Championship (Chestnut hates oysters), and secured his place among top Major League Eating heavyweights. And now, he’s set a world eating record and bested Chestnut in two individual events. This makes him a cheese champ worth watching.
“I think it’s safe to say he’s the fastest rising star in competitive eating,” says Richard Shea, co-founder and president of Major League Eating (MLE), the body that produces the Nathan’s Famous July 4th Hot Dog Eating Contest and other similar promotional events.
Before becoming the newly anointed World Cheese Curd Eating Champion, Breeden ranked eighth in the world among MLE members; his curd-eating prowess has since helped him skyrocketed to fifth. Breeden, however, still has a smaller ego than he does appetite. He modestly chalks up his success to his “enormous gut,” which he claims remains capacious even after losing as much as 100 pounds with diet and exercise.
Breeden partook in his first food challenge in 2016, while teaching in Japan. The longtime Man v. Food fan scored a free restaurant meal by eating five pounds of curry rice; hooked, he completed similar tests upon his return to the U.S. before signing a contract with MLE and hitting the pro circuit.
Between competitions, Breeden trains by doing mock practice runs and by “increasing what I call my stomach capacity—basically how much my stomach can hold—by eating tons of low-calorie food,” Breeden says. “For instance, some days I’ll have a really large four-to-five pound salad, and after I finish eating I’ll drink tons of fluids, like maybe a gallon of water and two-liter of soda or something like that.”
Shea, himself, chalks the eater’s success up to dedication, focus, mental focus, and raw talent. “There’s an inherent skill,” he says. “You know, some people could take the violin, some people take to downhill skiing, golf—[Breeden’s] taken to competitive eating.” Plus, he adds, top competitive eaters have varying degrees of “hand speed, jaw strength, and stomach capacity,” and some are experts at consuming particular foods.
Chestnut, for instance, can likely eat more hot dogs than anyone else in the entire world, Shea explains. But that doesn’t mean he’ll be a dairy darling—especially if he’s more used to eating solid foods and if he didn’t practice much before a match. This might explain his loss to Breeden.
Cheese curds are ubiquitous in Wisconsin, where “you can go to almost any bar or eating establishment and there’ll be deep fried cheese curds on the menu,” Schmitz says. They’re scarce elsewhere, so neither Chestnut or Breeden could attempt a trial run before the State Fair—although the former did experiment with chopped-up mozzarella. But sometimes, intuition can supplant practice. “Every food has to be approached differently because of the different textures, how it goes down the throat, things like that,” Breeden says.
Prior to the cheese curd eating contest, Breeden gauged the food’s texture and “immediately knew that it wasn’t going to be hard to eat fast,” he says. “I knew it was more of an eating technique contest than a stomach capacity one, meaning that it’s not one where you’re going to have to worry about filling up.” He cut down on chewing—and thus, on time—by pounding down mouthfuls of cheese with water.
Unlike Chestnut, who makes a living via sponsors, prize money, and appearance fees, Breeden views competitive eating as just a delicious hobby at which he continues to improve and excel. “It’s just a little victory, and plus, who doesn’t like a free meal, right?” he laughs.
Chestnut, though, plays—and eats—to win. “No excuses, I just was slow,” Chestnut told news outlets after his Wisconsin State Fair loss. “I didn’t find a fast rhythm.” He’s vowed to practice for next year’s event, this time with bona fide Wisconsin cheese curds instead of substitutes.
In the meantime, Breeden hopes to enjoy Wisconsin’s finest delicacy in his off-hours: “After the contest, I ate cheese curds normally and I was like, ‘This is pretty good, I could see myself eating it in a more recreational capacity—not five pounds of it,’” he said. “I’ll have a little bit of it with some crackers or some celery or something.”
Still, as long as Breeden doesn’t rest on his laurels—dairy-wise, or otherwise—the inaugural World Cheese Curd Eating Championship appears to have set the stage for a delicious rivalry between him and Chestnut.
“I could see [Breeden] as the number one eater in the world someday,” Shea said. “I think he’ll have trouble knocking off Joey in hot dogs, and that’s typically what gives you that number one ranking, but I imagine his future’s quite bright.”