Patrick Bertoletti first experienced the world of the competitive consuming of mass quantities of food because of his sister.
Compared to what he would devour in his career as a competitive eater, Bertoletti only had to eat three slices of deep dish pizza in 10 minutes at Bacci Pizzeria. The challenge his sibling brought him to, which happened in 2004, served as an introduction to competitive eating.
“After that first one, I swore it off because I was so ill," said the 27-year-old who grew up in Palos Heights. "But two weeks later, I entered another one.”
After years of training and competitions, Bertoletti is now ranked second in the world, as determined by the international association that governs competitive eating contests. He also holds Guinness World Records for eating 13.5 ounces of ice cream in 30 seconds and three Mars bars in one minute.
Bertoletti has enjoyed quite a bit of recognition for his achievements. He's even appeared television, including the CBS Early Show and twice on Regis and Kelly.
But even as he stands among the elite of his particular game, Bertoletti is taking some time off from regular competitions. His last was in October. The down time is welcome, Bertoletti said, and he is looking to put his background in the culinary arts to more use.
From Palos to Pizza
Bertoletti grew up on Harold Avenue in Palos Heights. His parents, Louis & Deborah, still live in town. It's there that his tendency to eat more than the usual started to develop. The youngest of five, Bertoletti always tried to devour more than usual at the dinner table. He remembers several times as a kid intentionally overeating. One day, he finished his lunch and then downed 12 extra hotdogs.
“I don’t know if I was looking for attention but I was looking for a way to separate myself from the others in my family," Bertoletti said.
Life in the Palos area for Bertoletti wasn't always about food, of course. He was active on teams in little league and Palos AYSO. He was in Boy Scout Troop 699 and earned the rank of Eagle Scout after turning 18. For school, he went to the Beverly-based Morgan Park Academy.
A more professional introduction to food would come after he left Palos for college.
Bertoletti enrolled in Chicago's Kendall College, which offers programs in hospitality management and the culinary arts. He eventually graduated with a bachelor's degree in culinary arts. This education exposed Bertoletti, who now lives in Chicago, to more foods than he had ever known.
"Because I was eating all these different things in culinary school, I probably gained 30 pounds my freshman year," he said. (Bertoletti keeps in a healthy shape, despite his profession. Many of the top competitors buck the stereotypical picture of a big eater. According to him, Japanese competitors were the first to introduce the image of a svelte champion. "You don’t have to be obese to be a competitive eater," he said.
After the initial pizza challenge that opened up the door to competitive eating, Bertoletti's next competition involved corned beef and cabbage. It would take 2 to 3 years of physical and mental training and tough competition to raise the ranks.
Chasing the Eating Dragon
"Sometimes, I get into that mindset," Bertoletti said. "It’s euphoric."
Bertoletti says he is always "chasing the eating dragon"—a feeling he has felt in only about 20 out of nearly 300 eating contests. He likens it to the "zone" feeling that professional athletes sometimes get. A big component of competitive eating is mental training—the unitiated need to learn how to switch off the part of their brain that tells them to stop eating.
Even with his intense training, Bertoletti's appreciation for what he's eating has developed over time.
"I definitely appreciate smaller plates and tastes. I prefer quality over quantity, now.”
Bertoletti works at a Chicago-based catering company and is starting up a a food truck business with another competitive eater. Even as he pursues finer tastes, the draw of competition and the chance of, again, reaching that zone might prove to be too much to ignore for Bertoletti
“I know I’ll probably end up doing more contests.”
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