Oh, darn. The taste of python or iguana slathered in one of the products made by Croix Valley Foods sauce guy Damon Holter will never cross my lips.
The maker of sauces, rubs and Bloody Mary seasonings is host of “Fired Up Food,” an Outside Television Network show that likes to show you adventurous activities that help build up an appetite. “I’ve done rock climbing, sailing in a regatta, fly fishing, sky diving,” said Holter, a grillmaster of varied talents including including photographer, accomplished harmonica musician and award-winning wildlife painter (and he’s colorblind).
I drove to Hudson, Wis., to interview Holter. He prepared, over hardwood lump charcoal, a spicy chicken quesadilla burger with cheese, grilled red and orange bell peppers and onions for me in his backyard which sits on the water.
“This recipe is a play on a different recipe I created for the World Food Championships in Las Vegas last year. I was competing in a sandwich category,” said Holter. “This is very indicative of the menu items I do; taking something that’s familiar, chicken quesadillas, and finding a different application for it. That’s really the kind of cooking that I love to do.”
The ground, skinless chicken thighs also make the easy transition into meatballs that are popular with the blended family of three boys and three girls Holter is raising with his wife.
As disinterested as I was in chicken thighs, until I ate this burger, there’s no chance of me dining on the python and iguana Holter had in his freezer, which I forgot to shoot for my startribune.com/video. Beyond the credit I captured commentary from is youngest child, who has earned a reputation for publicly embarrassing dad.
Q: Would Depends have come in handy when you were parachuting out of that plane?
A: They may have. [Laughter] I’d never sky-dived before. The scariest thing was that first initial fall coming out of the plane. I’m strapped to someone, it was a tandem deal. My life was in his hands and I trusted him. He’s done it a million times. It was 1, 2, 3, we’re going. They just basically pushed me out and we tumbled a couple of times in the air. I put my arms out as instructed. That whole 123 mph free fall, it was like I couldn’t breathe. They expect that. You have to remember to breathe. The wind is rushing past your face. It was hard to catch a breath but once my parachute opened then we’re just zipping along, waiting to come down. It was relaxing. Nothing scary about it anymore. It was pretty cool. I really enjoyed it.
Q: What’s the most difficult adjustment, incorporating TV cameras into cooking?
A: All of the pauses and redos and, “We’ve got to get the camera angle on that one.” When I’m cooking, I cook. I chop things. Now I’ve got to transfer my stuff over to the grill but now they want me to take it off and put it right back over here, ’cause we’ve got to get a different camera angle. Then we take it and shoot it again. All of that waiting is really the biggest adjustment.
Q: What was the last thing you burned?
A: [Laugh] The last thing I burned was two years ago. I was filming “American Grilled” on Travel Channel. You get all these mystery ingredients and you have to cook something fun. The second round, one of those ingredients was pizza dough. We were down in Chicago and everything was supposed to be iconic for the area. We were given pizza dough with some smoked kielbasa and some cheese from the farmers market. I see all these ingredients and say, “I’m going to make a stromboli.” Very quintessential for the Italian part of Chicago. I make this gorgeous stromboli and stuff it with cheese and kielbasa, even make a really nice dipping sauce to go along with it. I put these things together and I roll them up and put them on a grill screen, and they are looking really good. I am basting them with an egg wash. They are nice and golden brown on the top and for whatever reason, I decided to lower that grate and close the lid and turn around and 30 seconds later I’m smelling this nasty burnt mess, which were the bottoms of my strombolis. It was really difficult to recover from that, I tell you. I had to scrape them with a knife to get that burnt char off there.
Q: There’s so much going on at a competition it must be hard to focus on what you are supposed to be doing, which is cooking.
A: Absolutely. And it’s all timed. You only have so much time to do it. We were given maybe half an hour. You’re trying to get the dough cooked properly, so it [isn’t] raw and you’re running around, against the clock. It was very difficult.
Q: Do you remember the first dish you made as a child?
A: [Deep sigh] I cooked a lot with my mother when I was little. I learned most of my cooking from her. I can’t recall, although I recall when I was probably around 10, my parents would go off to work during the summer and I was at home with my older brothers. I was reading cookbooks. I’d find a recipe and I was saying, “Can you pick this up from the store?” So they’d buy all the ingredients for me and I would cook dinner for the whole family. I’d make the whole meal, plus a dessert. I can’t recall if any of them were all that good or not. I sure enjoyed doing it.
Q: They ate it, right?
A: Absolutely. [Laughter] It must have been OK.
Q: What do you like to paint?
A: I like to paint fish a lot. Fish are kind of my forté when it comes to painting. Fish, ducks, deer. Lots of different things.
Q: So fish are the easiest thing for you to paint?
A: Yeah. I think I know them the best. Because I do a lot of fishing. I am the most comfortable with those.
Q: What do photography, wildlife painting and music have common?
A: It’s all a matter of being a creative release. I think the same thing is true with the food as well. Making different dishes and combining things that haven’t been combined before, and I think that’s what I love about it
Q: What’s a kitchen utensil you think is essential?
A: A pair of tongs. Having a good knife and whatnot, that’s very commonplace, but I love tongs, just for grabbing anything. Toss raw stuff in a pan. Use it to stir up noodles. I’m never without a pair tongs.
Q: Is there a kitchen utensil you think needs to be created?
Q: I’m thinking of the Damon Holter Kitchen Products line.
A: Like Ron Popeil and infomercials? You need one of these! I haven’t. I think there are a lot of really cool gadgets out there. If I were to put my name on something it would be a line of grilling utensils. High-quality ones, not garbage ones with plastic handles. Nice, good high-quality steel.
Q: Have you ever used chocolate or whipped cream in a room outside the kitchen?
A: Unless we are talking about grilling outdoors and making food out here I think I would probably plead the Fifth on that one. [Laughter] That’s a hell of a question. You’re funny.
Q: What’s the most exotic meat you’ve prepared?
A: Oh, I have grilled and smoked and probably sautéed, kangaroo, alpaca, python, bulls’ testicles, pigs uterus, camel kidneys and camel meat. I have an iguana in my freezer right now. Crazy stuff.
Q: Does it all taste like chicken?
A: No, it does not. The iguana isn’t too far off from chicken. Rabbit tastes the most like chicken. Outside of that they’re all distinct.
Q: What’s the biggest fish you’ve ever caught?
A: A 75-pound paddlefish that I caught out in the Yellowstone River in Montana.
Q: Did you mount it or cook it?
A: I cooked it. I have a couple of mounted paddlefish but not that one. Cooked it right over the campfire. It was pretty good.
Q: How many meals can you get out of that?
A: Lots. It’s all white meat. Looks like a walleye fillet on steroids. It’s just huge. It tastes a lot like a saltwater fish would. Like grouper or halibut, some deepwater ocean fish.
Q: Has anybody ever lied to you and said that monkfish taste like lobster?
A: I’ve heard that. It does not. Monkfish is monkfish. Lobster is lobster. [Laughter] Let’s be real.
Q: Is there any food that you find disgusting to prepare?
A: I haven’t yet. Nope, although when I had the camel kidneys I thought to myself, “I’m not sure I wanna do this.” It’s one of those things where you almost scrap it.
Q: What’d you do with the camel kidneys?
A: I smoked them on a smoker.
Q: I’m not much of an organ meats eater.
A: They weren’t very good. I’ll tell you that. Pigs’ hearts. Phenomenal. Delicious. I would eat pigs’ hearts almost any day of the week but the kidneys, not so much.
Interviews are edited. To contact C.J. try email@example.com and to see her watch FOX 9’s “Buzz.”