If you follow competitive eating in our region, you may already know the name Matt Holowicki. Most days, the 46-year-old Plymouth resident and father of two works full time as a nurse doing hospice care. But he’s often a contestant (and winner) at metro Detroit eating competitions, usually accompanied by his family, including his wife and daughters, aged 13 and 19. He’s a good-natured fellow and an easy conversationalist, especially on the topic of his status as an “eater.” We spoke with him the day after his record-breaking win in Hamtramck’s Paczki Day paczki-eating contest, from which he retired this year. He confessed to us, “I don’t want to think about paczki until next year.”
Metro Times: How many did you wind up eating?
Matt Holowicki: Twenty-three, a new record for the cup. And a good time to announce my retirement from that particular contest. Eight years in a row is more than enough and I always knew that the paczki contest is probably the worst contest I do in regards to my health.
MT: Why is the paczki-eating contest less healthy than other eating contests?
Holowicki: Well, any eating contest is not healthy. Your body’s not designed to digest that amount of food. But last year I was diagnosed as a late-onset type-1 diabetic. I’ve been very fortunate. Since diagnosis I’ve kept my sugars very tight. In fact, I’m kind of militant about my blood sugars because I don’t want the health issues. And every contest I’ve done, afterwards, my sugar is up a little, but the paczki-eating contest just has the potential to put your sugar through the roof. It’s nothing but carbs, sugar, and fat, you know. And it’s a long contest. Fifteen minutes is a long time in competitive eating. You get three minutes, you get five, you get 10. Fifteen is really taking it to the max. After 15 minutes, your body is telling you, “You’re full, stop eating.” You’re fighting every instinct your body has: “Stop eating. You’re full. Don’t do it. Oh my god!” That feeling that you’re going to regurgitate. You have to fight through it and force it back down. And I tell people you might be up there competing against other people at the table, but it’s really you fighting against your body and your own instincts to stop.
MT: It must work, because I found your name all over the “Eat Feats” site for the Detroit region.
Holowicki: Yeah I’ve been doing this since probably 2005. My mom told me about Pierogi Fest in Indiana. I did a little research on it and it’s kind of neat. It’s just a weekend of celebrating pierogi; how Polish is that? So on the way home from visiting my sister in Chicago, we figured we’ll stop on that Sunday and just check out Pierogi Fest. And they had a pierogi-eating contest — and that was the beginning of the end. I entered, and I won, and then we ended up going back, I think, three or four years in a row to do it. I mean, we liked the festival itself, but we kind of went back to do the eating contest. In 2007, somebody told me there’s a pierogi-eating contest in Hamtramck. And that was my first win in Hamtramck, and they said, “Wow, you really did good. You should come try packzki.” And I thought, “Hmmm — pierogi to paczki. That’s kind of a big jump. That’s like going from apricots to grapefruits.” But again, Polish heritage won out. In 2008, I went in and won the cup for the first time, and at that point I think I was hooked. I wanted that cup. I’ve been doing this for almost 10 years now and I think Eat Feats is probably one of my biggest sources for where contests are. If something’s interesting, a lot of times other eaters will call and say, “Hey, are you going to this contest?”
MT: Well you’ve been in a pie-eating contest in Fenton sponsored by French Laundry, You ate 17 hot dogs in 8 minutes at a hot dog-eating contest at Fishbone’s.
Holowicki: I did 17 coneys this past summer at American Coney Island.
MT: It seems like you usually go for a cash prize. Do you accept those challenges for, like, a T-shirt if you finish a burger?
Holowicki: You know, I used to, and I think now since diagnosis, probably less. Years ago, yeah, I would go to Max and Erma’s if they had the “eat three garbage burgers and get a free T-shirt,” we’d do it just as a joke. I’ve gotten away from that. Now with the diagnosis it’s different. I just tell people, “If you’re going to put your body through the turmoil that you do after some of these challenges, you should be getting something for it.” It’s not always cash. It might be the gift cards to someplace. I think the one competition that I’ve done over the years that has never had a cash prize until last year was the Packzi Cup. In fact, last year was the first year they actually had a cash prize and I didn’t even know about it until they showed up.
MT: Speaking of the paczki-eating contest, do you get to pick your own flavors?
Holowicki: No, it’s pick of the draw and we have a running joke. One of my very dear friends who couldn’t be there yesterday, she knows my least favorite packzi, for the competition. I actually like ’em — of course I haven’t sat and savored a packzi in almost nine years. I like all packzi, but custard, during the competition, is a hard one because it’s a heavier filling, and I had one particular year where I think I did like 15 or 16 of them or more. I would say the majority of them were custard. Whoever was pulling them out of the box just kept going to the custard box and throwing them on my plate. And she said, “Every time you bit into one, just the look on your face was just like … It was just funny, man. ‘Cause you’d bite and you’d have another custard. I’d turn to your wife and go, ‘Another custard,’ and she’d go, ‘Yep.’” A few years back I did mention to the gentleman who was in charge at the post, “David, you know, I’ve been doing this contest now for five, six years and I don’t get to sit and enjoy packzi like I used to. I haven’t had a prune packzi in almost five years. Do you think next year you could get some prune packzi in the mix? It’d be kind of nice, you know? As the champ I’m asking.” And he said, “Sure, Matt.” We’ll make sure we get some prunes in there.”
MT: That’s good for your digestion right?
Holowicki: Well, I figured it might help with the back end, you know? [laughs] Even as a kid, it was one of my favorite packzi. And I said, “I haven’t had one in so long so I’d kind of like to at least, in passing, get one.” The day of the contest they were calling us up to the table and I went to a guy as he’s getting ready to set the plate and he goes, “So Dave said you wanted all prune?” And I said, “Oh my god, no! I think there’s been some miscommunication. I don’t want all prune. That could be bad. I just want some prune in there, please.” But, you know, I think the hardest is the plain one.
MT: I’m thinking there’s more friction.
Holowicki: It’s like eating a sponge. At least the filling helps a little. It gives you some moisture or something.
MT: I always thought the big guy with the handkerchief around his head, you know, the biker-looking dude is going to sit down and eat everything, and actually it seems like there is no specific body type.
Holowicki: No. There isn’t.
MT: It’s really about what’s inside, right?
Holowicki: I think many people have that idea that the big guy’s going to win. Big guys that can eat. But there’s some little guys that can eat. Four years ago, I did the inaugural pierogi-eating contest for Srodek out at the Polish-American club in Sterling Heights. I won the first year. Well, the next year, I went back and promptly got my rear end handed to me by a 100-pound young woman who I later found out was a professional eater out of New Mexico. Didn’t know she was a professional until a few days after the contest ’cause some pictures were out and I’m like, “She looks so familiar.” And then I started looking and I’m like, “Oh, That’s why. That’s Stephanie Torres. She’s a professional eater. But, yeah, 100 pounds soaking wet — she just demolished me. It was humbling to say the least. Even before that, I kind of knew it’s not always the biggest guy. Before the contest, I’ll spend a lot of time getting myself kind of mentally prepared, but I will kind of look at the other competitors to get an idea — and I don’t always look for size. I kind of look for that determination in their face, you know? That look in their eyes that they’re serious and they’re going for it. I had my father in law at contests and he’ll say, “Oh. Watch out for that big guy.” And I’m like, “I’m not worried about that big guy.” He’s like, “You’ve got to be kidding me. That guy’s six inches taller than you and weighs …” I said, “Dad, I’m not worried about him. He doesn’t have fire in his eyes, you know? He’s here because his friend told him, ‘Dude, you can eat a lot. You should go do this contest.’” I said, “He’s just got that look about him. In fact, I’ll guarantee you that he’s not going to be in the top five. But that guy over there. The little guy. Watch him. He’s got the fire in his eyes.” And sure as hell, that’ll be the guy that’s right behind me or two behind me. He says, “How did you know that?” I said, “‘Cause he’s got that look.” If you’ve ever seen Takeru Kobayashi, he’s a pro, but I mean, that guy’s what? He’s like a buck thirty? If that. He’s all muscle and he is a very physical guy. He did five hot dogs, fully dressed coneys, in less than 30 seconds. It’s like watching an anaconda. There are a lot of eaters that are not big. Sonja Thomas she’s a tiny lady. Pat Bertoletti, who just recently left major league eating, he’s a tall guy, but he’s a tall, skinny guy. So, yeah, size is not always the factor. It’s how bad they want it.