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Half inventor, half entrepreneur, Mike Darst's calm, even demeanor couldn't hide his passion for peppers, especially hot peppers.
In the kitchen of his Waddy farmhouse, Darst tapped some of his Devil Dust onto a plate. This four-pepper seasoning was developed over the course of nearly 20 years.
"It took me two years to get the perfect flecks," he said.
If the flecks were too big, they could get stuck in your teeth and burn, like the red pepper flakes that go on a pizza. If the mixture was ground to a fine powder, it could be really dangerous if it blew into someone's face.
After all, the warning on the label isn't just cute advertising. The orange flecks in Devil Dust are dried habanero peppers.
"The habanero pepper is one of the most awesome flavors," Darst said. "But the habanero is about the hottest pepper out there. It's about a fourth of what's in there, so it's pretty warm."
Still, it's not as hot as Darst's original Devil Dust. He toned it down once he made the decision to go commercial. He's a purist chef, and this recipe is all his own and is only the four peppers. No salt. No preservatives.
His love of peppers began with the jalapenos, which is one of the four in Devil Dust.
"I kind of graduated from jalapenos to hotter things and started looking for ways to mix different flavors," Darst said. "I started growing my own peppers and tried to figure out how to use them year-round."
He froze his peppers. He canned them. But the heat he loved diminished in time. So Darst experimented and dehydrated the peppers, then froze them. Eventually, he started crushing them in a coffee grinder, playing with consistency and protecting his face with a bandanna.
He played with different peppers and different amounts of different peppers. He shared with his family and friends and found he hardly could keep up with the demand as his circle of pepper heads grew. They encouraged him to go into business.
"About 2004, I bought some bottles and had some labels made and started putting it in bottles. When I did that, sales just started really picking up," Darst said. "I thought, well, maybe they have a point here."
So Darst's wife, Kelley, came up with the name Waddy Spice Traders for the business. Darst had to let go of the manufacturing end of his product to get FDA clearance. He found a blender and bottler.
Devil Dust is available now through 25 venues, including Whole Foods. Darst has shipped coast-to-coast and beyond through Web sales.
"People like it so much, and they're so proud of it, they want to sell it for me," he said. "That's a big compliment."
One reason people like the product is its versatility. Darst said it adds to any meal of the day, at any time of the cooking process.
"You can put it in your marinades and rubs," he said. "They [people] say that their food that they normally make tastes better because it brings out the flavor in their food. I think that it's because it fires up their taste buds."
Darst is pleased that Devil Dust carries the Kentucky Proud label. Ultimately, he said he'd like to have farmers in the area grow his peppers.
And the dreamer in him hopes to market more products he's developed, like a special beef jerky.
"We don't want it to run away from us," he said.
So with the first 750 pounds of Devil Dust finding its way to new shelves and onto new plates, Darst is biding his time before run number two.
In addition to the habaneros and jalapenos, the spice blend includes cayenne, the distinct brown flecks. The bright red flecks? That's the "Devil secret spice," Darst said.
"It's basic," he said. "If you use a little, that's fine. If you want more heat, you can get it to your level. I advise people to start slow. There's no heroes with Devil Dust."