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Man vs. poutine

By Matt Lindner, For RedEye

1:50 PM CDT, July 23, 2012

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A triple cheeseburger, a birthday cake shake, and two full servings of poutine walk into a restaurant--and proceed to totally ruin your life. The end.

What started off as the send-up to a cheap joke quickly turned into my worst nightmare Thursday night at Bad Happy Poutine, at 939 N. Orleans. RedEye dispatched me to the four-month-old Near North Side restaurant under simple orders: Take the restaurant's Triple Double Challenge, which involves consuming all of the above items in under 30 minutes, write about it and try not to die in the process.

"I ask everybody on camera before we do it what is your name and what makes you this crazy," Bad Happy chef/owner Tom Kern told me.

Hi, my name is Matt and I'm doing this because this is my job.

I should've known better when Kern told me he'd never in a million years attempt what I was about to.

"I said what would be totally impossible for anyone to eat and I was like OK, a triple burger, two full poutines and a milkshake with one half hour to do it," Kern said. "It seems fair enough to do."

But ...

"I would never try it," he added.

Succeed and I would win a free meal, a T-shirt and a spot on their wall of fame. Fail and not only would I be expected to pay for my meal, but I'd also have to sign a sticker that would go up on their wall acknowledging that I failed this challenge for all the world to see. It all seemed so easy on the surface. Then he told me the success rate--only four of the 24 people who attempted said challenge succeeded.

Um ...

"There's been a lot of people, especially in the very beginning, where we bring out this gigantic tray and they're like--what did I do?' " he said.

Those were my thoughts exactly when Kern dropped the tray in front of me. I figured this would be a piece of cake (pun intended) since I barely ate a thing all day and am hardly a small person.

The clock started, I dug in, and any semblance of table manners I had previously acquired went flying out the window. I was grabbing anything and everything in sight, shoveling stuff into my mouth like a madman possessed, determined to buck the statistical trend that suggested I didn't stand a chance against my formidable foe. Photographer Lenny Gilmore stood in front of me, alternating between taking pictures and laughing at the spectacle.

"Take everything apart and mush it back together," Kern advised me before everything went down. "Spread everything out and go for it and drink the shake last."

I heeded his advice and six minutes in, I was cruising. I crushed more than half the burger and ¼ of the fries. My stomach felt good and victory suddenly didn't seem so far away. This is cake, I thought, and yes the pun is very much intended there.

Then suddenly, inexplicably, I started feeling drunk.

Nobody spiked my burger or my milkshake. I'll never be able to explain what happened to anyone who hasn't attempted the challenge themselves, but right around six minutes, I started feeling drunk. Maybe it was the sheer volume of grease that I had just forced down my throat or maybe my brain had activated the fight-or-flight response that instinctually kicks in when you find yourself in a dangerous situation, but whatever it was, I had begun losing control of my mental faculties.

Time began to stand still. The more I ate, the slower the seconds ticked by, much to Kern's delight.

"Basically I love watching people do dumb stuff," he told me, and despite the fact that I have two college degrees, what I was doing at this moment in time was definitely "dumb stuff."

Much like marathoners hit a wall, so too do people taking part in eating competitions. Mine happened right around the 15-minute mark, with one full serving of poutine and half of the final burger patty remaining on my plate. I began wiggling my hips, taking sips of water, literally anything to coax the food lower into my intestines.

Nothing worked.

Much to the small crowd's dismay, I was only able to coax a few small bites of the carnage that was left on my plate in the waning minutes of the challenge. Kern himself wasn't surprised. After all, he said it's usually the skinny guys who dominate this competition.

"Doing food challenge research, it was mostly the skinny people that can do it because they don't have that layer of extra stuff that I do and so they can expand their stomach further," he said.

And with my stomach expanded as far as it was going to go, I signed my sticker acknowledging defeat and stuck it to the wall. Kern and his wife graciously covered my tab despite my defeat.

After all, their challenge isn't for the faint of heart--literally.

"Almost every person who comes in says 'yeah, I'm doing it,' and I say 'well let me show you a video of someone else doing it and then make that decision,'" Kern said. "It doesn't do me any good to promote it or try to deny it for anybody, but I want people to know what they're getting into."

Matt Lindner is a RedEye special contributor.