Whether he’s grilling up a kraken from the oceans of Croatia or baking bread in the scorching desert sand, David Olson is all about pushing the limits and trying new things. Over the course of his career, he’s learned all kinds of recipes, techniques, and tips for cooking on a live fire, but perhaps the most important thing he’s learned is the willingness to fail if it means he’ll learn something more along the way. David told us all about where he’s been, where he’s going, the best and worst things about live fire cooking, and why he calls Michigan beer city.
You do all kinds of world travel, television, media and more through "Live Fire Republic." Can you tell us how you got here? What does that career path look like?
It’s certainly been a journey over the last 15-20 years. I have always had a passion for outdoor cooking, for live fire cooking, for travel, and for adventure. I started by writing a blog called a Bachelor and his Grill about 15 years ago, and after about six months I had a fair following. One of the original followers of that blog was the CMO for a very large organization (not to be named here) and through that connection I was able to travel, make television appearances, and cook with some of the best chefs in the world. It’s been tens of thousands of hours honing a craft and learning and bettering myself to get to this point where I can share all of this with people.
Brews & BBQs are a match made in heaven, right? Tell us about beer. What should we look for to go with our summer cooks?
Home for me is right here in beer city USA. A lot of places might argue they own beer, but I’ll tell you it’s owned in Michigan, this is beer city USA. We have something like 55 breweries in our downtown core.
Beer and BBQ are a timeless partner, like peanut butter and jelly. Think about the way that you can use beer and create pairings and flavors that are inspired by starting with really good grains. Think about the barrels used to age beer. You can use those barrels to integrate flavor through smoking. You can put maple in those barrels and use that maple in your sauces or rubs and so forth. You can also use beers for more traditional purposes, sauces, marinades, injections and that sort of thing.
What is your favorite beer?
I grew up right around the corner from a brewery here called Bell’s Brewery, so to me the original craft beer was Oberon, by Bell’s brewery. Larry Bell is a brilliant guy in the world of craft beer and has built a phenomenal business. Probably four of my top favorite beers are Bell’s beers, and for summer my top choice has to be their Lager of the Lakes. It’s light, crispy, a bit sweet. Perfect.
If you could cook for anyone, past or present, who would it be?
Probably my grandpa. I think there’s nobody I would rather cook for. I haven’t seen him in 20 years, but I think he would be pretty proud of what I’m doing now, and we all have ups and downs in our lives and I think sometimes it would be really nice to have a chat with him. What better way than over a cold drink and a warm plate of BBQ.
Who are your cooking heroes?
There are so many people who do this so well. People who were inspirational include my mom and dad, both great home cooks. A very good friend of mine is Steven Raichlen, we’ve done television together, cooked together on a multitude of occasions and in numerous places. I think he’s brilliant, he’s a phenomenal author, a very good person, a tremendous friend, and someone who has achieved a level the rest of us probably aspire to.
When you’re looking at partnerships, what do you look for?
The thing that I look for the most is honesty. That is honesty in the product, the sense of trust in the people you work with, the honesty to share a product with people who trust what I say and do. When I look for a great partner, like Dalstrong, I really like to get a sense for the people and know that they are honest and wholesome and that the product is good. I have to trust that I can vouch for a product that I truly believe in.
What is the hardest dish to make on a live fire — what does everyone seem to mess up?
Paella. I respect so deeply those that do it well, because anyone can cook a steak or a burger, but there are some things that just require more than a strong social media following to really do well over a live fire. For everything to come together well in a paella is virtually impossible, but there are people who have perfected it. When you taste it, you know the difference between my paella (which sucks) and theirs (which is phenomenal).
Tell us a bit about your experience in the live fire/BBQ community.
Live fire cooking is a completely variable environment. You have to deal with changing temperatures, both of the flame and the environment, as well as wind and weather, taste, there’s so much going on that is outside of your control and that you have to adapt to and work with. It’s a very pure art form.
This journey has been as much about learning and failure and a willingness to continue to learn and to fail. The vast majority of the traveling experiences I’ve had over the last 15 years or so have taken me to the far corners of the world to meet people and learn from them. It’s been all about learning and having the willingness to just fail in order to learn as much as I can.
Is there a spice or a dish that you secretly hate?
There are several! First of all, I hate raw red onion. I hate it. You’ll see me use raw onion, but there are only two reasons for that: first, the aesthetic. It’s beautiful, it really does pop. I know some people love raw onion but it is not my thing. The only other reason you will see me eat raw onion is because it’s my secret cry for help and I’m in grave danger and need you to call someone. That’s my secret call sign.
The other one is fennel — not fresh fennel, which I actually really like for its nice licorice-y flavor and as a garnish. I mean fennel as a dry spice. That flavor just never goes away. You could brush your teeth with lava and still taste fennel.
What is your favorite thing to cook?
My favorite thing to cook is the thing I’ve never cooked before. I really like the idea of trying new things, and I will try just about anything, just about once. In Croatia last month we caught a huge octopus. I remember baking bread in the sand of the Sahara desert. Anywhere that we go, whether it’s a fresh new produce or a protein I’ve never tried, or a tactic that’s new to me, I really want to spread the wings and do new things in new ways with new people.
Do you have a favorite Dalstrong?
I probably have about a dozen from the Shogun series, and they are so beautiful. They have a classic handle that feels really great and that stunning Damascus. They are intensely sharp and heavy-duty. They are a combination of a really beautifully designed, innovative knife that is such a workhorse in the kitchen.
I have some of the Frost Fire, the Gladiator, the Omega ones are super, super cool. I have a tuna sword that I just used on some salmon and it was like taking a bazooka to a knife fight with that salmon. But my favorite is probably my Firestorm Alpha chef’s knife. It is light, the handle of wood and resin looks so much like fire and the overall effect with the Damascus blade is just so beautiful. And it does what I need it to do, and having reliable tools like that makes all the difference in a cook.
The cookware is so beautiful, I was a bit intimidated to start cooking with it. I was almost tempted to put it on display in a China cabinet, but I am really excited to start cooking with it. I also have the teak Colossal board, and that name is no joke, that thing is huge. What I love about that is that it really holds up to the large cuts and large numbers of people we’re cooking for at our events.
How do you spend your time when you’re not grilling?
We have five kids, they were all out picking strawberries this morning and they just got home, so there’s a gaggle of kids watching me give this interview right now. The reason I have to cook so much is because there are so many mouths to feed around here. I try to spend as much time with them as possible.
What would your last meal be?
Wow, this is a really hard one for me. I honestly don’t really know what to say, but what comes to mind is mom’s lasagna. I know other people might think theirs is better, someone’s Italian grandma is probably a strong contender but I just don’t think anyone’s lasagna could possibly compare. Mom’s lasagna is the best.
What’s next for you?
We have a brand new website launching soon, I’m so stoked about it. I think today the very best content we’re doing is on YouTube and I’m really excited about how we’re integrating Dalstrong into that culinary journey that we’re on now. For 15 years I’ve traveled the globe and had these incredible experiences and now we’re getting to share that with people. I’ve invested in a film company, and we’re taking people behind the scenes to some of the most beautiful and breathtaking locations in the world. We’ll be doing amazing cooks all over live fire with some of the most inspirational culinarians and I’m really excited about it. It’s the best wholesome honest content that we’re doing.
Follow Live Fire Republic
Find some of that groundbreaking live fire content on David’s social media channels by following @livefirerepublic on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok. And remember, if you see him eating raw red onion, it’s a desperate plea for help.