Judgment day

An overconfident attempt at West End Tavern’s ‘Winginator Challenge’


When Adam Richman inhaled 180 oysters in one sitting at Acme Oyster House in New Orleans, I thought he was a superhero. 

Admittedly, it didn’t take much to impress my naive, pre-teenage self. Most kids my age found televised refuge in Courage the Cowardly Dog, iCarly or MadTV (if you had cool parents). My Saturday-morning fix was Man vs. Food, a hugely popular cable program that followed Richman across the country in search of our land’s most daunting food challenges. 

I remember some of Richman’s victories fondly, like the abhorrent 72-ounce steak at The Big Texan in Amarillo, or the borderline illegal spicy phaal at Brick Lane Curry House in New York City. His failures, however, made just as much of a mark: The tastefully named “Fire in Your Hole” competition at Munchies 420 Cafe in Sarasota, Florida, and the “Winginator” Challenge (formerly known as the Wing King Challenge), the latter of which I stumbled upon on YouTube this past month. In the clip, a tin bucket piled high with wings is kicking Richman’s ass. Halfway through, a man in a Colorado Buffaloes shirt enters the shot to offer Richman staged moral support, a pep talk that would prove futile — Richman fell 14 wings short. The key detail, however, was the man in the Buffs shirt. 

The Winginator challenge takes place here in Boulder at West End Tavern, right under my nose, and I hadn’t realized it until this summer. Upon discovering this news, a 13-year-old, prepubescent voice called out to me: Tackle what Richman couldn’t. I was going to conquer Boulder’s premier food challenge. 

The Whole Bird

Buffalo chicken wings are on my Mount Rushmore of food, carved between chicken makhani, a Chicago-style hotdog and Vietnamese pho. When they’re done right, chicken wings are tough to beat. No one knows this to be true quite like West End Tavern’s executive chef Ronnie Oldham. Sitting across from me in the heat of Boulder’s late-July sun on West End Tavern’s rustic rooftop patio, Oldham is calm and collected: He’s lived the heat of top-tier kitchens for 26 years, from New Orleans to Seattle, from pastry to pizza. 

Oldham’s travels were a masterclass in culinary art. Regional specialties vary greatly, but food waste does not, and at Balzac Wine Bar in Milwaukee, he put his operating theory to the test. Each Sunday for 96 weeks, Oldham and his kitchen crew offered between 30 and 100 diners a free meal curated from leftovers that had built up during the week. “No-waste happy hour” became Oldham’s weekly opportunity to test his culinary skills and reduce his kitchen’s carbon footprint in the process.

And the industry noticed. 

“Chef Ronnie Oldham will change the way you look at leftovers forever at Milwaukee’s Balzac,” said industry staple FSR Magazine in 2017. 

When Oldham headed west to his new home on Pearl Street, his sustainable sensibilities followed. 

“When you bring in fresh, local ingredients in bulk, there is going to be an element of waste,” says Oldham. “Corn cobs and parsley stems and onion peels and carrots and pork ends become the stock for our white chicken chili.”

Credit: West End Tavern

Oldham waxes poetic about his process. It pushes him to remain creative. “Zero waste” is so intertwined into the fabric of West End Tavern’s menu that Oldham doesn’t need a weekly event: It’s just what they do. It keeps him and his team on their toes, and cuts back on food costs, because when you’re buying the high-quality meat Oldham demands in his kitchen, using every inch of an angus prime brisket is a no-brainer. (Fun fact: Oldham has a three-page manual on brisket that covers everything from trimming technique to repurposing leftovers into sausages and patties.) 

Quality and process, the yin and yang of Oldham’s kitchen, hold true even for the humble chicken wing. 

“First of all, the size has to be big enough — I don’t like baby wings, and I don’t like big ol’ honkin’ wings, and never frozen,” he says. “A wing suffers completely if it’s frozen, it’s terrible. Honestly, the only thing we buy frozen is our ice cream.”

The process is as classic as it is particular, with some definitive twists: “We lower our fryer [temperature] so as to confit [the wings] a little bit, low and slow. Then we let them rest so they can absorb all their own juice and cool off.”

The finale is a second fry in a fresh batch of oil to warm the wings through and create a perfect outer crisp. Oldham then tosses the chicken in a buffalo sauce made of unsalted butter, Worcestershire sauce and Frank’s Red Hot. If this doesn’t make your mouth water, it’s entirely possible you don’t have taste buds. 

But 50 wings in 30 minutes? 

“I think I could do it,” Oldham says, “Yeah, I could do the whole thing. It’s been a long time since I’ve eaten that many wings, but back in the day I could knock ’em down.” 

Meal Prep

In March of 2021, my friends and I planned and executed a friendly competition at the Hooters in Westminster. It was “Wing Wednesday,” when $20 (plus tax) got you as many wings as you wanted. Like any other reasonable foursome of 20-somethings, we wanted to see who could eat the most in a single sitting. In front of numerous families enjoying their meals, we sat inciting poultry carnage, and I emerged victorious, consuming 40-odd wings and a comically large stein of ice cold Coors Light. 

Since that night, my self-confidence in any wing-related challenge has been sky high, so I was relaxed in the week leading up to my Winginator Challenge. Not wanting to go in totally blind, however, I studied the experts. There’s perhaps no better maestro than Randy Santel, a professional eater who holds the record for the most worldwide food challenge wins (1,186 across all 50 states and 39 countries). 

Courtesy: West End Tavern

Pen and paper at the ready, I watched Santel’s YouTube video “How To Train For a Food Challenge or Eating Contest.” To start, Santel recommends “maxing out” with a large portion 18 to 22 hours before your competition. His food choice? Four pounds of steamed vegetables drenched in Frank’s Red Hot. He obliterates the vittles in four minutes. 

Having just moved into a new apartment, I find my fridge/freezer contains: four Upslope beers, a six-pack of cherry dilly bars, a gallon jug of distilled water and some hot sauce. I mull over the options and decide to look for other tips from the Santel bible. I find that on the day of the contest he recommends a “colon cleanse,” which, for me, would happen at work.

I close my laptop. I think I’m as prepared as I’m going to be. 

The Wing King

West End Tavern founder Dave Query’s recollection of the Winginator Challenge centers around one anomalistic man: longtime general manager Mike Lawinski.

“While Mike had some ‘David Koresch’ overtones, he was a phenomenal marketer,” Query says. Nothing was “too goofy” for the former Young Life camp counselor. He turned West End Tavern’s rooftop into a can’t-miss circus of exciting events.

“Mike started a robust live music program on the rooftop, and hermit crab races,” Query says. “He launched our bourbon program, as well as our more aggressive and interesting beer tap line-up, with celebratory tappings that had lines down the block at 10 a.m. on Tuesday.” 

Lawinski’s sharp eye for unconventional marketing tactics found its opus when he began noticing the same group of regulars coming in to see who could eat more of West End’s delicious chicken wings. It was then Lawinski birthed what we now know as the Winginator Challenge. It didn’t take long for the contest to become a hit.

“We had it advertised in a box on the top of the menu,” Query says. “Almost daily, someone would try and do it.” Winners got their pictures on the stairwell wall, a nod to Jax Fish House’s “Wall of Fish Fame” next door. Query remembers fondly the day Adam Richman squared up on the patio for his attempt.

“While Richman was failing the challenge, a dude quietly sitting in the corner did 50 in like 24 minutes,” Query says. That man was immortalized on the wall. I planned on joining him. 

The Wall

At 4 p.m. on Friday, the day of the challenge, I’m scheduled to meet my fried foe in two hours. The night before I ate some Cheerios, a banana and a glass of water. I’m starving. 

I’ve asked six friends to provide moral support, because the only thing crazier than mauling 50 wings in front of strangers is doing so at a table by yourself. When I enter West End Tavern, the bartender recognizes me from my conversation with Oldham a few days prior. 

“They’re ready for you upstairs,” she says, like a high-stakes poker game awaits my buy-in. Upon reaching the top, a cluster of employees usher my friends and I to a long table in the back corner. As I turn to take my seat, one employee explains to me how he attempted the challenge a while back. 

“Make sure you get plain wings,” he says. “I had to stop because the vinegar from the buffalo sauce sat in my stomach.” 

Our waitress tells me she’s excited to watch me try the challenge, as she’s never served someone attempting it. When we arrived, the patio was empty, but by the time the battalion of employees march my order out to me (25 plain, 25 buffalo, piled high on two enormous wooden cutting boards), there isn’t a table open. 

Chicken wings at West End Tavern: 25 plain, 25 buffalo. Photo by Carter Ferryman.

Accompanying my ridiculous meal are bowls of ranch and blue cheese dressing. Bowls, not cups.

When the timer starts, I lunge for wing number one like a rodeo bull, and in the next three-or-so minutes, I fly through 12 wings — a blistering, idiotic pace, in hindsight. The next eight go down a little slower, as I realize that time is very much on my side, but the fatal error has already been self-inflicted. After wing 20, I hit a wall. I come to terms with the hard truth: There’s no chance I’m eating another 30 of these. I went too fast, and as a result, the thought of chewing wing 21 makes me nauseous. Looking at the remaining wings makes me nauseous. The buzz of the neon signs on the wall make me nauseous. I imagine my adolescent self watching me on TV from my family living room in Chicago. He yells  at me: This is embarrassing — not even halfway? 

Somehow I take down five more wings. I’ll be disqualified for “ejecting,” as the Winginator rules sheet calls vomiting, so I do what any reasonable human would do in this situation: I begin swallowing pieces of chicken with my cup of water like pills. I take down six wings with this technique, but at 26, I signal to my server that I’m throwing in the towel, just over halfway, with 14 minutes to spare. 

I ask for the remaining 24 wings to be boxed up, as if I plan on eating them in four days when I’m hungry again. When my server delivers the check, she brings a bag of prizes typically awarded to those who complete the challenge, most notably a koozie that reads, “I ate 50 wings in 30 minutes at West End Tavern, and all I got was this awesome koozie.” It’s a reminder of my failure, but a nice gesture nonetheless, and as I walk out of West End Tavern, I can’t help but think of my next attempt. One of the Winginator directives is “one attempt per year.” Next summer I’ll find redemption on the West End patio. 


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