Competitive eater Jeff "The Beast Man" Butler devours the competition one wiener at a time.
Jeff "The Beast Man" Butler eyes his opponents warily, his gregarious, gap-toothed smile melting into a hardened line.
To his left, a petite blonde gauges the mountain of food in front of her like a seasoned climber at Everest's base. Another participant rolls his shoulders and flexes his jaw. As the countdown ends, Butler opens his mouth wide, crams a stuffed tortilla inside and gnashes his chompers up and down like a wood chipper disintegrating a log. He gulps some water to wash the grub down. Butler crams and sips, crams and sips. Ten minutes later, he places fourth at the Western Days Festival World Tamale Eating Championships in Lewisville, Texas, taking home a purse of $250.
Sitting across from Butler at a Thai eatery in the East Valley, it's hard to believe this is the same guy gorging on tamales all over YouTube. Dressed in slacks and a button-front shirt for his day job as a social worker, Butler looks like the kind of guy you'd find warming a stool at a sports bar. But after hours, the 30-year-old Arizona native is a top professional eater, ranked 16th in the world. So it's a wonder he isn't tipping the scales at 400 pounds. "If you have a lot of fat on your stomach, it presses in," Butler says. "The competitive eaters who stay in shape have an advantage." Case in point: Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas, a 98-pound wiener specialist and current fourth-ranked eater in America. A fast metabolism definitely helps.
Growing up in the Valley, Butler was the kid who cleaned his plate and asked for seconds. So when he saw an advertisement for a pulled pork sandwich qualifier at Dickey's Barbecue Pit in October 2008, he entered on a whim. "My first time, I just had a ravenous appetite. I was hungry," Butler says. The contest was judged picnic-style, meaning contestants couldn't separate meat from bun. Butler inhaled 10 and a half sammies in eight minutes, narrowly missing first place. "I knew the only way to win was to be as fast as I could and hopefully win a victory," he says. "The name Beast Man fits my eating style because I try to come in and be as aggressive as possible."
Butler took a hiatus from food challenges during a three-year stint in the military. But his voracious appetite didn't recede. After being discharged, Butler hit the eating circuit with renewed gusto. The good-natured chowhound claims he'll eat practically anything for a win, but he fears the crumbly texture of meatloaf. Hot dog buns are also a challenge because they must be partially dissolved in water to avoid causing choking. "I can say I've never had an excellent meal while competitive eating," Butler says. "The food is high-quality. But after all the eaters are introduced and it's been sitting in the wind for 20 minutes, it's very dry."
After consecutive wins for taco and wing eating, Butler was recruited into Major League Eating (MLE), an organization that oversees professional eating contests around the globe. "I think it's more of a sport than NASCAR," he says. "It takes a certain amount of physical exertion and it's painful when you're eating." As an MLE member, Butler earns free travel to nationwide contests, where he faces noted grub guzzlers including Miki Sudo, Tim "Eater X" Janus and Juliet Lee.
It's not as cutthroat a world as it seems. Pro eaters generally embrace the Nietzschean concept that your greatest enemy is yourself. "You try not to take it personal. It's a competition, but at the end of the day we're going to shake hands and have fun," Butler says. Contests are also highly regulated. If a contestant experiences a "reversal of fortune" and vomits, he's out. There's also no stealing your neighbor's water or spitting on his hot dog buns, though verbal sparring is encouraged.
Following the World Tamale Eating Championships, Butler posted a public Facebook comment razzing fellow contestant Miki Sudo about his castoff tortilla shreds landing in her water cup: "I tried to gross her out so she would throw up." Butler prides himself on never having personally tossed his cookies (or any other food item) after a contest. Asked about the aforementioned social media post, he likens competitive eating to boxing, where contenders trade barbs in the ring.
Tempe-based amateur eater Gus Beisel has a love-hate relationship with The Beast Man. Biesel lost two wing-eating bouts – Wingstock and Native New Yorker's Battle of the Bone – to Butler, later eking out a pizza contest win with just one extra bite of bread. "[Butler] went pro about a week later. Personally, I believe it was so he could get away from me," Beisel jokes. But he's still awed by The Beast Man's esophageal efforts. "You don't really have an idea what it's like until you see it in person and you feel the massive destruction that just took place," Beisel says.
Butler's interest in food goes beyond eating. He grew up in a house filled with delicious food scents. His father would cook soul food, while his mother and sister baked sweets. These early experiences translated into a passion for cooking that could've easily led to culinary school. "What killed my motivation was working at McDonalds when I was 17," Butler says. "I love cooking, but I don't know if I'd love to be in the kitchen 14 hours a day." So Butler focused on crafting Asian- and Mexican-influenced soul food dishes at home.
By 2012, he was ready to share his talent with the world – or at least the judges at Fry's Chili Cook-off at the Arizona State Fair. He won with autumn-spiced pumpkin chili. "When I sit down and eat a meal, I love tasting different textures and flavors. I don't want anything on the plate to taste the same," he says. Butler channeled this M.O. at a casting call for the Fox channel's MasterChef program last October.
Never one to underperform, he prepared a half-dozen complex dishes, including oxtails in plum sauce and pomegranate bok choy salad. "OK, maybe I overdid it a little," Butler admits. But the move paid off. He was one of 100 home cooks selected to move to the program's next level – a California audition to whittle contestants down to the final 20 featured on the show.
For now, Butler is focused on launching a personal chef business and preparing for a New Orleans king cake battle in February. He hopes to break Patrick Bertoletti's 2013 record of 12 cakes in ten minutes. "Right now my passion for food is at its highest level," he says.
Battles of the Bulge
With seven top-four placements in 2013 alone, Butler's career stats are impressive. The million-calorie question: How do his wins translate on the thighs? We approximated the math on a few of The Beast Man's gorges and were stunned by the staggering nutritional numbers. (Keep in mind the average daily requirement for a 30-year-old male Butler's size is around 2,500 calories.)
Battle of the Bone 5 Finals: First Place
3.32 pounds of hot wings (106.25 wings)
16,681 calories and 573.75 grams of fat
El Palacio: First Place
Flancer's: Second Place
17.9 slices of pizza
Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest qualifier (MLE debut): First Place
31.5 hot dogs, 9,135 calories and 22,365 mg of sodium
Day-Lee Foods World Gyoza Eating Championship: Fourth Place
Western Days Festival World Tamale Eating Championship: Fourth Place