Tyson Willis owes his adventurous sense of grilling to his wife. Before she entered the scene, the rebar salesman from Fargo, North Dakota, was making ramen noodles and bratwurst for him and his boys. Then his wife, who worked at an upscale restaurant, exposed him to a world of fresh flavors. “I was never ever going to eat goat cheese in my entire life before her,” Willis says. “My palate has expanded exponentially over the past ten years.”
What’s one of your extreme experiments in flavors?
There’s a local eatery, JL Beers, that makes fresh-ground peanut butter. They put it on a burger with a little bit of jelly on top and call it the Not Just A Nutter Burger. It’s a fantastic burger, and I thought, what if you put the peanut butter inside the burger?
Did it work?
In that first burger I made, the peanut butter was just everywhere. It started the grill on fire. I put it on the plate, and the peanut butter was gushing out, and it was so hot, like molten lava. My beard got covered in hot peanut butter. But it was still kinda fun.
How could such a fiasco be fun?
I think because of the whole circumstance behind it. I looked at it as a failure, and it was a big mess. But it was fun to me, because I was trying something new.
Did you give up on the peanut butter burger then?
I don’t get discouraged by my failures—which I’ve had a few—because I think there’s ways to make it work. I thought, what can I use that would not turn into lava.
Was there a solution?
You know those Reese’s chocolate eggs you get in the spring? You put one of those in the middle of the patty. That peanut butter doesn’t melt.
An Easter egg inside a burger?
There’s more to it. I take my hamburger and mix in Miners Mix XXX-Garlic Seasoning—I’ve fallen in love with that. The Reese’s egg is put inside the patty. Then I take jalapenos and sauté them and mix them in with a raspberry jam. I put that on top.
That sounds gross.
I can’t explain it. You get a little bit of heat and a little bit from the sweetness of the jelly, and the peanut butter flavor in the middle with the garlic going on, and you’re like, what the heck am I eating? Something’s happening in my mouth, and it’s just fantastic.
Does anyone but you like it?
I had no idea how that burger was going to turn out. That thing is so good. I’ve had more people ask me for that recipe than any other.
Have you had an experiment that wasn’t worth trying again?
I made a coffee chocolate rub brisket one time that my dog wouldn’t eat. I think it was a little too much coffee, and the chocolate kind of got burnt. It tasted like a burnt shoe. It was terrible. I decided I’ll leave that one to a little bit more skilled hands. Thirty dollars right into the garbage can. Sometimes learning is expensive.
How does experimenting happen for you?
I just look back to things I’ve tried before and what would complement that, offset that. What two things are going to set each other off, that would start a little war in my mouth or a beautiful ebb and flow. Sometimes it works, and sometimes a war gets fought and nobody’s a winner.
What was a straightforward winner?
I’ve got all kinds of peppers growing in my garden right now. You take a banana pepper and mix it with some brown sugar, and you put that as a rub for pork and put it in the smoker. That sweetness and that spiciness is the most surprising.
And a flavor war with no winners?
I tried to put Carolina Reaper pepper powder in a barbecue sauce. It’s the hottest pepper known to man. It’s ridiculous. You can use a teaspoon in a whole vat of chili and that works just fine. I added it to barbecue sauce, and it was the most miserable experience I ever had. I told my son, I think this changed me on a molecular level. It did something to my genes.
Do you take your grilling experiments tailgating?
Both my wife and I are grads of NDSU [North Dakota State University]. It’s an awesome tailgate. I’ve been a fan for years, and now my son, Zach, is on the team. He’s an offensive lineman. So we do get to nearly every tailgate, but we usually don’t cook. It’s pretty difficult to get a spot, so we park and walk around. And we never leave hungry!
What’s the joy in experimenting for you?
Food used to be about just eating. Now it’s an experience. Pairing food with beer, trying new flavors together, and trying them with friends. I love seeing their faces when they try something they never would have. Watching them bite into something the way I did the first time and possibly inspiring them to try something new. That is fun!