First Ladies of Barbecue
By Lisa Readie Mayer
Danielle Bennett-Dimovski, known in competitive barbecue circles as Diva Q, has a tattoo on the inside of one wrist that reads “Sisters in Smoke.” The saying is also inked on the wrists of several other female pitmasters, linking the women in a sorority whose bonds are forged in fire, smoke and spice rub.
This sisterhood is testament to the fact that girl power is alive and well in this largely male-dominated industry. For years, women have quietly made their mark in barbecue competitions, restaurants, cookbooks, manufacturing, retail and other barbecue-related businesses – or, in some cases, in all of the above.
Dimovski, Canada’s highest-ranked competitive barbecuer, is one of the newer members of this underground society and has racked up a long list of credentials in a relatively short time. In addition to being an award-winning pitmaster, she has been a competition judge, appeared on two seasons of Destination America’s “BBQ Pitmasters,” and starts her second year as host of the show “BBQ Crawl” airing on the Travel & Escape network in Canada and the Travel network in the U.S. She makes regular appearances on television and radio shows, blogs and teaches classes.
“I live, eat and breathe barbecue,” says Dimovski. The self-proclaimed larger-than-life-personality says one of the things she enjoys most about the industry is that, “Barbecue people – particularly women – are always willing to help.”
Dimovski credits the late Karen Putman, one of the first female pitmasters and anchor of the team “Flower of the Flames,” with being especially supportive of her early career.
“When I was getting started, I’d send her long emails filled with questions, and she always took the time to answer and offer guidance. She, and other women like her, helped me get where I am today.”
Putman may have been one of the early female pioneers in the barbecue industry, but she is hardly the only one. A group of exceptional and, as some would describe themselves, saucy, gals blazed the trail for the latest group of women to make their living in the business of barbecue. Here’s a look at some of them:
|Carolyn Wells||Karen Adler|
|Cheryl Jamison||Candy Weaver|
|Lee Ann Whippen||Elizabeth Karmel|
In the early 1980s, Carolyn Wells, her husband Gary and another couple entered the American Royal competition with two borrowed grills and the team name, “Master Basters.”
“We were very sophomoric,” Wells chuckles, and very lucky. They won the only category they entered – ribs. With few other barbecue contests in the Kansas City area at that time, the couples decided they would create a club for barbecuers. Officially incorporated in 1986, the charter group included 30 members, a one-page manifesto of member rules and $12 annual dues.
Today the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) has over 15,000 members worldwide, has certified thousands of judges and sanctions about 450 contests annually. The group supports charity organizations such as Operation BBQ Relief and Cookers Care, offers scholarship grants to member children and grandchildren and is expanding rapidly internationally.
As executive director, Wells is the glue that holds the organization together. She oversees the sanctioning of events, marketing, membership, judging, public relations and tie-in opportunities with other companies and organizations. She has been called the “Queen Mother of ’Que,” and she is proud of the many KCBS members who have gone on to start barbecue restaurants and catering operations, cooking and competition schools, written books and been featured on television.
She credits the late Donna Myers, public relations and marketing consultant to the barbecue industry, and Dr. Rich Davis, creator of KC Masterpiece barbecue sauce, for influencing her career.
“They were both very inclusive and open to networking,” she says. “Both got the big picture early on and saw the opportunity for growth.”
Despite the strides women have made, Wells says the industry is still a very “Testosterone-laden sport.” She says while women are members on 80 percent of the competition teams, they are mostly relegated to support positions; a very small percentage of teams are run by women. But for those game to try, Wells says the playing field is level.
“Competition barbecue has blind judging, so gender doesn’t matter. You have an equal opportunity to win or get your pants beat off.
“This is a great community and culture,” she says. “Barbecue is quintessential Americana and all about food, family, fun and friends. I’m happy to have had a small role in furthering it along.”
|(L to R): Karen Adler and Judith Fertig.|
A new bride with a hunter husband, a freezer full of wild game and fish, and very few recipes for preparing them, Karen Adler taught herself to be an accomplished cook. The cookbook sales rep with a small publishing company of her own – Pig Out Publications – became a charter member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS). She was a judge for the group’s first Spring Training contest in 1986, and by the following year she was competing herself on an award-winning team.
In 1988, Adler partnered with KCBS to publish its successful cookbook, “The Passion of Barbeque,” one of the first books on the subject. Pig Out Publications then went on to publish a number of other regional barbecue books before she decided to write her own, “Hooked on Fish on the Grill.”
The book led to a collaboration with Judith Fertig (they call themselves “The BBQ Queens”) on about 15 more grilling and barbecuing titles, including their latest “The Gardener & the Grill,” and the soon-to-be-released “Patio Pizzeria.”
Pig Out Publications continues to specialize in grilling and barbecuing books, currently wholesaling over 200 titles to the trade in North America. Adler has been a contest judge and barbecue instructor, appeared on numerous national and regional television programs, and holds prestigious M.B. (Master of Barbeque) and Ph.B. (Doctor of Barbeque Philosophy) degrees and Order of the Magic Mop honors from KCBS.
As for being a woman in this business, Adler credits her chutzpah and marketing background for her success. “I didn’t worry that it wouldn’t work, and never looked back,” she says. Yet Adler believes the glass ceiling – or what her co-author Fertig calls the “smoke ceiling” – exists, pointing out that most current barbecue-related television programs and cookbooks feature or are written by men.
“But,” she points out, “the difference is they focus on meat. As women, we show people how to do so much more on the grill, including salads, smoked cheeses and plank-grilled fish. Our technique books are moving away from men’s typical meat-centric mentality of barbecue.”
Cheryl Jamison’s barbecue epiphany came as a teenager when her family would stop at barbecue restaurants during southern road trips. “It was such extraordinary flavor – the smoke mixed with the tang of vinegar and bold spices to cut the richness of the pork,” she says. “It was a revelation to me and more ingrained in my memory than my first kiss.”
As an adult, she left a position in arts management to pursue a passion for travel with her husband Bill. “One of the best parts of traveling is experiencing the native foods of an area,” Jamison says. The two combined both interests in their first book, “The Rancho de Chimayo Cookbook,” with recipes from the famous restaurant in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Their second book, “Texas Home Cooking,” featured a chapter on grilling and low-and-slow barbecuing. The Jamisons spent so much time researching the topic for this brief chapter that they decided to turn it into its own book, “Smoke n Spice.” Released in 1993, it was critically acclaimed, and among the first barbecue cookbooks to win a coveted James Beard Award.
The recognition, along with an element of playfulness that made barbecuing seem fun and approachable, propelled the concept of low-and-slow cooking within the culinary community and backyard barbecuers alike.
“I think we just happened to hit at the right time when new barbecue equipment was available and people were becoming interested in American cooking,” says Jamison. “People tell us all the time how influential the book was to them, and we are very grateful and humbled by that.”
It continues to be a top-seller.
Two decades and numerous barbecue cookbooks, media appearances, recipes and articles later, Jamison’s career is still evolving. She developed an Outdoor Room design business with an interior designer friend; that business has slowed recently due to consumer cost-cutting during the recent recession, and a growing availability of free Outdoor Room design resources. The husband-and-wife team continues to work on new barbecue-related projects.
“We hope our legacy is that we have educated people about the difference between grilling and barbecuing, and made it easy for them to learn these techniques,” she says. “You don’t need to be a chef or a macho dude to be a success at the grill.”
Candy Weaver was working in computer systems in a Dallas high-rise office when she got the call that her mother had passed away. She traded her “stockings and high heels” to take over her mother’s role in the family wood-pellet business in Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
“When I started May 1, 1999,” she recalls, “my brother dropped a file on my desk saying, ‘Here; you’re in charge of barbecue.’”
Nearly 15 years later, Weaver has grown the BBQr’s Delight cooking wood pellet division considerably. In addition to oak pellet grill fuel in 20-lb. bags, the company offers 14 varieties of wood pellets packed in one-lb. bags, which can be used on any type of grill to add flavor to food. Weaver has also written a cookbook on grilling and barbecuing with wood pellets.
She credits the late barbecue marketing guru Donna Myers with the idea to get into competitions as a way to promote the company. Initially, Weaver just supplied wood pellet sample packs for contestant goody bags, before trying her hand at competing. She entered one local contest’s “backyard” novice category and won for best sauce. Intrigued, she took the KCBS judging class and volunteered to cook on other teams to learn more.
“I mostly did the grunt work and cleaned the trailers, but I learned a lot,” she says.
Her first contest as the BBQr’s Delight team landed Weaver in the top 10 overall and first place in brisket. “I fell in love with it,” she recalls. With Grand Champion prize money earned in 2009, she bought an RV, which she drives to competitions by herself with a 1,400-lb. pit in tow. Last year she competed in 13 contests – usually working solo – and judged 14 others.
She just wrapped up her stint as the first female president of the KCBS, and will serve on its board another two years. Weaver, who admits she probably has as many cookers in her backyard as she had high-heeled shoes during her previous career, is proud that she has furthered awareness of wood-pellet fuel and grills. “I’m seeing a lot of interest by women, who are otherwise intimidated by gas,” she says.
What intimidates Weaver about this male-dominated industry? Not much. “I was raised with brothers, so I can out-bubba a bubba,” she says. “I love what I do and have a passion for it. If it makes you happy, it’s not work.”
Lee Ann Whippen
|Lee Ann Whippen.|
Lee Ann Whippen’s goal was to attend flight school at Purdue University and become a pilot. When that didn’t pan out, a part-time college job in the hospitality industry led to her becoming director of catering at a chain hotel. Meanwhile, as Whippen was planning banquets and weddings, her dad was getting involved in competitive barbecuing.
He encouraged Whippen to get her KCBS judging certification and coaxed her into competing with him in a local contest.
When the duo won Grand Champion – an amazing feat for a first-time competitor – it entitled them to compete in the American Royal barbecue contest, where they won first place in the pork category.
“I was bit by the bug,” recalls Whippen. She continued to compete as a hobby, eventually buying a pit trailer for competitions and catering. She opened Wood Chicks BBQ in Chesapeake, Virginia, in 2004, a restaurant and take-out joint that attracted the attention of celebrity chef Bobby Flay, who invited Whippen to participate in a barbecue “throwdown” on his Food Network show.
“That really put us on the map,” she says. “We became a destination of sorts.” Whippen opened a second venue two years later before eventually consolidating both into one larger, full-service restaurant with bar and stage for country bands.
In 2010 she became pitmaster/partner of a new barbecue restaurant in Chicago called Chicago Q, with an upscale menu (competition-style ribs, Wagyu beef brisket, 60 specialty bourbons, ryes and whiskeys), elegant southern-style décor and valet parking. The $5.5 million operation is “definitely not a joint,” jokes Whippen, “but it’s not so pretentious that you can’t pick up the ribs with your fingers.”
Whippen’s name recognition, as well as her business, has been helped by appearances on three seasons of the television show “BBQ Pitmasters.” She has also returned to competition, this time with her 23-year-old daughter, rebranding the team to promote her Chicago Q restaurant. Their recent entry in the World Food Competition earned a second place finish out of 70 teams from around the world.
“I was so excited,” she says, “especially that my daughter is now bitten by the barbecue bug.”
Whippen, who has a branded line of barbecue sauces and dry rubs and plans to launch a line of barbecue tools targeted to females, advises women that, although this field is tough, if you stay strong and don’t get intimidated, you can beat the boys at their game and earn their respect.
A native North Carolinian living in the big city, Elizabeth Karmel realized if she wanted to enjoy her favorite southern meal – pulled pork – she would have to learn to make it herself. Fortuitously, around the same time she began working in marketing and public relations with Weber-Stephen Products Company as her client, and fell in love with grilling and barbecuing. She credits Weber’s chief marketing officer Mike Kempster as the biggest influence on her grilling life, teaching her not just to prepare food over flame, but about the business of barbecue.
In 2002 she launched Girls at the Grill, a website resource with recipes, how-to instructions, advice and more dedicated to teaching women about grilling and entertaining outdoors. Two years later Karmel introduced “Grill Friends,” a line of barbecue tools and accessories with a “woman-focused, problem-solving approach” – for instance, an angled basting brush that protects hands from the hot grill.
A stint teaching barbecuing and grilling classes at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City led to her first restaurant, Hill Country, in New York City with partner Marc Glosserman, featuring Karmel as executive chef and an acclaimed menu of Texas-style barbecue fare.
Since then Karmel has opened Hill Country Chicken in NYC, specializing in fried chicken and homemade pie, and Hill Country Market in Washington, D.C., featuring barbecue specialties. She plans to open two more restaurants in Brooklyn, New York, this year.
Karmel has written three award-winning barbecue cookbooks, made countless media appearances, contributes recipes and articles to numerous magazines and occasionally judges barbecue competitions.
“I didn’t have a business plan for this career,” she explains. “It all happened organically as I followed my interests and passion. For me, gender was never an issue; in fact, I feel like it was an advantage. Initially, the guys probably shared more information with me than they would have if I was a guy, because they never expected I’d do anything with it. My advice to women is: Come on in, the water’s fine. But don’t get into the barbecue business because it’s a hot trend. If you’re passionate about it, everything will fall into place.”
|Photo Courtesy: 2014© Angie Mosier.
Melissa Cookston is the winningest woman in competition barbecue today, having earned three Whole Hog Champion titles, two Grand Champion titles and one second place finish in the prestigious Memphis in May World Championship BBQ Contest.
In 2011 she opened her first restaurant, Memphis BBQ Co., in Horn Lake, Mississippi, followed by a second location in Fayetteville, North Carolina. A third restaurant is slated to open outside Atlanta this spring.
Cookston was just named a permanent judge on Destination America’s “BBQ Pitmasters” series for the 2014 season, and she has a cookbook, “Smokin’ in the Boys Room,” due out this year.
Cookston has said of women in competition barbecue, “You’re going to have to win twice as much to get half as much respect.” That statement could be true of women in all aspects of the barbecue industry. But it’s especially true of the late Donna Myers, who, as a public relations and marketing consultant, worked tirelessly to promote barbecuing and grilling, as well as many of the companies involved in the industry throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe. No list of influential women in barbecue would be complete without her.
For more than 30 years, Myers worked with magazine and newspaper editors, television producers, bloggers and others in the media to educate consumers about barbecue equipment, techniques and recipes, and to spread the message that barbecuing is all about great food, fun and family time.
She first served on behalf of the Charcoal Briquet Institute, which evolved into the Barbecue Industry Association, and eventually merged with other groups to become the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association. She assisted dozens of individual companies, as well, from the biggest names in the business to start-ups with a cool little product and a big dream.
As anyone who knew her – or saw her in action behind one of the 30 grills in her backyard – would attest, barbecue was Myers’ calling. Many women on this list have spoken of her influence in their lives and careers, crediting her support, marketing savvy and friendship for propelling them to where they are today.
She, like all these women barbecuers, gave the boys a run for their money.
This is by no means a complete list of all the women who are making an impact in the world of barbecue. If you know of other women who should be recognized for their contributions to the industry, please let us know so we can feature them in a future article. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.