A Passion For Heat

From performing daredevil stunts to creating condiments with kick, Mick Kipp has embraced the fiery life

October 18, 2006|By Scott Carlson | Scott Carlson,[Special to The Sun]

In November of 1996, a scarred and bankrupt Mick Kipp found himself in his kitchen in Baltimore making hot sauce as an inexpensive Christmas gift that he could bottle for his family and friends.

He had just come through a four-year battle against cancer. The disease had more or less killed his blossoming career as a stuntman and left him with tens of thousands of dollars in hospital bills.

As he threw serrano peppers, onions, lemon juice and vinegar into a pot, he had no idea he also was cooking up a whole new line of work.

At the end of the night he had bottled the sauce and dipped the caps in melted wax, made from his 2-year-old daughter's broken crayons. He made labels and called the sauce "Cuyahoga Fire," for the polluted river in his hometown of Cleveland that famously burned in 1969.

"I thought [making hot sauce] was going to be a one-time shot, or maybe a hobby," Kipp says. "But people called me after Christmas and said, 'This is great.' "

Today, Cuyahoga Fire is one of about 10 spicy condiments put out by the Whiskey Island Pirate Shop, and Kipp himself might be better known around town as "Mick T. Pirate."

He usually can be seen on Saturdays at the Waverly farmers' market, wearing kilts, pants or bandannas in bright jalapeno patterns and pushing his tangy Red Hot Hon Sauce or his 'Mazin Crab Salsa on passers-by.

Next month, at a fiery-foods festival in Remington, he'll attempt the ultimate marketing stunt: He'll resurrect a trick from his stuntman days and set himself on fire dressed as a chile pepper.

His condiments, on the shelves of boutique stores in Hampden and elsewhere, have stacked up local awards. Lately Whiskey Island has earned notoriety outside of Charm City.

Last year, Kipp, 44, won second- and third-place prizes at Chile Pepper magazine's 10th annual Fiery Foods Challenge. And this year, he took home a handful of Scovies -- the hot-foods equivalent of a Tony or Oscar -- including a first prize for his pineapple-and-cardamom Island Salsa.

The question now for Kipp is: Where does he go from here?

"The business supports itself, but I struggle," he says. He runs a catering business and does some bartending on the side to make ends meet.

Some people dream about taking a favorite hot-sauce or family recipe, bottling it and making millions. It's never that easy. Lots of people just break even in the condiment business, says Dave DeWitt, the editor of Fiery Foods & BBQ magazine, which sponsors the Scovies.

"The people who are successful have been around for years, and some breakthrough" -- a combination of luck, aggressive marketing and tenacity -- "pushes them over the edge and makes them profitable."

"Unfortunately," DeWitt says, "a lot of people don't make it."

But Kipp has faced long odds before, when he pursued a career as a movie stuntman.

He was a goof-off and a wrestler in high school in Cleveland. When someone pushed him down a flight of stairs at school, he rolled through the fall as he would on the mat, and didn't get hurt. "I got to the bottom and thought, 'Maybe somebody would pay me to do this,' " he says.

He moved to California to do grunt work on film sets, traveled to Atlanta to study with an established stuntman, then started his own stunt business in Cleveland. In 1986, he saw that the film industry was heating up in Baltimore, so he moved here.

He found that Baltimore was a great base of operations for work that took him everywhere -- to San Francisco for a spot on MTV, to Nashville for a country-music video, to Minneapolis to work at the Guthrie Theatre.

A dream life

Among his most unusual jobs were re-creations of accidents for plaintiffs in high-stakes civil lawsuits. The first job mimicked a fatal accident in which an elderly man had been thrown from a golf cart. For about three years he lived his dream as a full-time stuntman.

His life changed drastically in 1991 when a girlfriend lovingly wrapped an arm around him and felt a bump on his neck. His treatment for Hodgkin's disease was a grueling series of chemotherapy sessions and operations. The cancer returned twice before Kipp seemed to beat it, although he still goes to the doctor regularly and monitors his weight, knowing the tumors could return any time.

The battle left him broke and drained. "I knew that my physical days of stunt work were over," he says. "I couldn't just fall down a flight of stairs and walk away from it anymore. Every little thing hurt."

Since he was a kid, when he admired his grandmother's Lebanese cooking, he has had a passion for food. To stay on his feet financially in his early stunt days and after his illness, he worked at restaurants -- particularly at the Wild Mushroom in Canton, where he says he learned some of the finer techniques of food preparation. He considered culinary school, but decided that he was better off learning the way he had in stunts -- just by doing.

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