Eating was always a big feature of James Webb’s household growing up. More than mere sustenance, food was a love language, with each meal an event. And it wasn’t your typical Aussie fare, either. “I was that ethnic kid in school who always had a gourmet lunch,” he says. “People had ham sandwiches and vegetables. I had chicken schnitzel and things like that.”
Surrounded by his Croatian family, each meal would involve food piled high in the middle of the table. And if you didn’t eat fast, you didn’t eat. “If you were talking, everyone’s gonna take the food and you’ll miss out,” he explains. “So everyone in my house was like: Fill up your plate!”
It’s perhaps little surprise then that Webb grew up to be Australia’s most accomplished competitive eater, dubbed by Major League Eating as the “undisputed Champion of the Southern Hemisphere”. But it all started with a roadtrip to Hunter Valley. His partner wanted to do a wine tour and as Webb doesn’t drink he agreed to go on the basis that they would also do a food tour, sampling all the best culinary creations along the way.
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“You can bribe me to do anything if you feed me,” he laughs.
On the way to the wineries, the plan was to visit the chocolate factory then the fudge factory, followed by some cheese tasting. But first up was a visit to a local pub.
“They had a photo on the wall of this burger. I thought it was Photoshopped, it was so huge! I made a joke saying, Can I eat that burger?”
Turns out, it was part of a food challenge: pay $80 and if you finish it – which no one had successfully managed to do – you get your money back and win a jackpot that increases each time the challenge is attempted. After signing a waiver and with the rest of the pub now watching on with anticipation, the owner hit the stop watch and Webb started making his way through the mountain of burger and fries.
“I finished the whole thing in 27 minutes,” he says. He even had time for desert: two servings of cheesecake topped with extra whipped cream. To the astonishment of those watching on, Webb took his prize money and went on his way – presumably to the chocolate factory. It was what happened next that changed the course of his life.
“The next morning, my mum called me and was like, What’s going on? You’re on the news!”
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The owner of the pub had filmed the whole thing and sent it to the local paper which in turn got the attention of radio hosts Fitzy and Wippa. After seeing Webb’s display of mastication (which, for the uninitiated, means chewing by the way), the pair invited Webb into the studio to attempt a dumpling eating contest: first to 100 dumplings wins. With Webb making light work of Fitzy and Wippa, they decided to open the airwaves to listeners to see if they had any advice to share. It caught the attention of a private Facebook group dedicated to Australia’s small but growing community of competitive eaters. With his burger story going viral, Webb was practically famous. “You’ve got a gift,” they told him.
Which brings us to today. Three years and a whole lot of burgers since that fateful pub visit, we’re sat at Sneakies Kitchen in Homebush, known for its burgers, pizzas and pasta. Except what Webb has in front of him isn’t on the menu. As part of his training as a competitive eater, Webb’s about to attempt a ‘pizza burger’, consisting of four beef patties, two fried chicken fillets, salad and two pizzas. Tripods are set up to film so Webb’s hundreds of thousands of fans on social media can see him perform.
The owner of Sneakies, Baz, hits the stop watch and Webb hunches over the plate piled high in front of him. Without looking up or, it seems, even taking a breath, Webb inhales the pizza one enormous bite after the other. He doesn’t so much chew as he does forcefully gulp down each bite before moving quickly onto the next. Finishing the entire thing in two minutes, four seconds, a whole five minutes better than the previous best, Webb calmly takes a sip of water and stops the recordings.
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This is a typical day for Webb now. Having quit his job in sales, he takes part in sanctioned competitive eating events for prize money, food challenges like this one that he mainly uses as ‘training’, as well as social media management for food venues and other brands. His schedule revolves around preparing for the competitive eating season both here in Australia and in the States, where the prize money and fame is at its peak. With 30-40 sanctioned events across America, the season culminates at the iconic Nathan’s Hotdog Eating Contest on July 4th in Coney Island, Brooklyn. It’s the holy grail for all competitive eaters like Webb, and has long been dominated by the biggest name in the sport, Joey Chestnut. (“He’s a legend and the nicest guy you’ll meet,” says Webb who competed at Nathan’s for the first time last year.)
“My plan is to go over in June and compete all the way into July,” says Webb. “I want to qualify for Nathan’s, so I need to practise. In America they’re the best eaters in the world so to compete over there, you’ve gotta be conditioned. For half of them, it’s their full-time job. So I need to train. I do my food challenges, my contests and on my off days, I’ll make sure I’m eating at least one like stretch meal a day. ”
Sorry… stretch meal?
“I’m trying to keep expanding my stomach as big as I can so I can eat more,” he says. “There’s different techniques for stretching your stomach. Some guys chug water because they don’t want the calories. To me that’s disgusting. I prefer to eat. I would rather be bloated from food than gluggy like a hot water bottle. I love food. It’s fun for me to go to a buffet and sit there for two hours. I actually enjoy that.”
When he isn’t setting up camp at a local buffet or taking part in a contest, Webb heads to Woolies and fills his trolley full with whatever is on special. “Chicken, sausages, bread, rice, pasta… whatever. I love Tim Tams so when they go for $2 each, I’ll pack up the trolley. Because I know I’m gonna eat it, whether it’s today or tomorrow, the next day… I’m gonna eat it.”
In total, Webb can consume up to 10kg, or 15,000 calories, of food per day. In order to do so, he says there’s a series of rules you need to stick by. First off, a technique called “bite push”.
“You’re trying to eliminate chewing. So you’re essentially biting and then swallowing. You bite and then you use the next bite to push it down your throat. It takes time and practice,” he laughs.
Next, take into account your posture, says Webb.
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“A lot of eating competitions are done standing up. When you’re hunched over, your stomach is compacted. If you open up, you can move the food around and it kind of pushes it down. That’s why I use Coke Zero. The carbonation helps you burp and push the food down.”
Finally, and perhaps most importantly: temperature.
“The food comes out piping hot,” says Webb. “Now you don’t wanna burn your mouth cause then you’re screwed. But if you let it go too cold, things become hard to eat. Cold cheese, hard to eat. Cold fried chicken, hard to eat. So with today’s pizza burger for example, I smashed the fried chicken side first. It comes out hotter, but it cools down quicker. So the first few bites will hurt but then the hardest part is done.”
When it comes to hot dogs and competing at Nathan’s, Webb explains to Men’s Health the tried and tested technique that enables competitors to eat up to 70 hot dogs in just 10 minutes.
“The technique is you separate the hotdog from the bun and you put the hotdog in your mouth. As you’re huffing down the hotdog, you put the bun in the water, squeeze it like a sponge, and you use the wet bun like a drink to push it down. If you eat the hotdog hole, you are too slow. You can’t get ’em down quick enough.”
Mmmm. Hot dogs in water and fried chicken hot enough to burn your mouth. Not exactly our idea of a perfect dinner party. Is it actually any fun?
“Yes!” says Webb emphatically. “I love what I do. People say, oh, you can’t taste the food and stuff. You can, you learn and you adapt. And it’s all relative. We all eat at a speed that you’re normally accustomed to. Look, the food is one side of it. I love food. I love pizza. I love burgers. That’s not a question. But the fact that I can promote a venue and help someone like Baz out, that’s what it’s about. Before I worked with Sneakies on social media, I came here to eat. I genuinely love this place and I want other people to see this place. So the fact that I can broadcast it across my 960,000 plus followers, that makes me happy.”
So far, it seems to be working. Not only has Webb grown a huge social media following and travelled the world, he’s become something of a celebrity. He recently travelled to Turkey for a series of challenges and was being mobbed in the streets by fans.
“I couldn’t even get a cab at 2AM without being stopped for a photo. That was crazy. What an experience.”
It’s a lifestyle that involves discipline, though. Part of what makes Webb so intriguing is his physique; he’s hardly the stout figure you might expect of someone who shoves burgers down his throat for a living. The man is shredded. And we’re not talking about an impressive gun show, we’re talking veins popping out of his calves and pectorals the size of melons.
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“I live and breathe the gym,” he says. “I wake up in the morning at 5AM and I cannot wait to hit the gym. To be fair, eating like a dick has motivated me more. I promised myself, if you ever want to eat like an idiot, you gotta train otherwise you’re gonna have problems. I don’t wanna become this sloppy slob that just eats burgers or pizzas all day. No, I want to be fit. I love feeling fit. I love feeling good. So for me it’s fun balancing the two lifestyles.”
So where to from here? He’s conquered Australia’s competitive eating circuit and now aims to do the same in the United States. How far can he take this?
“Look, becoming the next Joey Chestnut would be class. But that’s only one avenue. I want to have multiple avenues. I’m really working on my YouTube right now. Whether I end up with a TV show like Man Vs Food, or maybe a radio show, I don’t know. I love to talk. I love marketing. I love people. So however I can use my platform to give attention to something, that’s what I will do. In the past year I’ve been on the radio, I’ve been on TV, I’ve held charity events, I’ve been invited to kids’ birthday parties.”
“So honestly at this point wherever the road takes me is cool.”
Update: Webb’s hard work pays off
Webb’s punishing training regimen has paid dividends. Returning to the competitive eating stage at the 2023 Nathan’s hot dog eating contest, Webb Cemented his place in the competitive eating history books through a combination of sheer determination and his bizarre, tried and true hot dog submersion technique. James snapped up 3rd place in this year’s contest,
in front of around 35,000 fans who had gathered at Coney Island to witness the iconic Fourth of July tradition.
Webb, the only Australian participant, outdid himself at the event. Devouring 47 hotdogs, Webb crushed his previous total of 41 and shared the podium with legendary eating champ Joey ‘Jaws’ Chestnut.
Taking to Instagram only hours after the competition, Webb made his elation with the result known. “Yesterday, I came third, but it feels like I came first. The reaction has been insane… Nathan’s is the pinnacle, and I truly loved every minute of this year’s experience,” he said. A sign of things to come, Webb promised fans he’s not satisfied yet. “Onto the next and onto hitting 50.”
Webb’s dominant eating was on full display once again in the November LA Donuts Contest. This particular contest challenges all competitive Australian eaters in an oddly specific undertaking—to be the first to finish eating a dozen glazed LA ‘OG’ Donuts, naturally. Despite the day’s sweltering heat and the typical chaos of the competition table, Webb polished off his dozen glazed doughnuts in just two and a half minutes—don’t try that at home—ultimately taking out the title with ease. “I really wanted to finish this year with a win, it was great to have all of Sydney’s ranked eaters participating and, of course, some new eaters at the table,” Webb said.
Webb is currently ranked fifth in the Major League Eating ranks, a phenomenal achievement, but we wouldn’t be surprised if the Aussie climbed even higher.