While the stereotype in this country is that most household meals are prepared by women, the world of competitive and professional barbecue pitmasters (and barbecue in general) is definitely dominated by men. I think it’s safe to say that most backyard grills are also tended to by men (btw…who came up with the term “manning the grill?”).
But a 2014 TMBBQ interview quotes Ernestine Edmond, owner of Mama E’s in Fort Worth, TX, as saying, “…As a child coming up we were always in the kitchen with mama. Today it seems like barbecue is a man’s sport, you know? But women taught them how to cook it though.”
Food for thought, Mama E. Over the past 15 years or so, women have been breaking into the boys’ “pit” club and earning the respect of judges, colleagues, customers…and fans.
In an effort to recognize and salute the women making a growing impact in the field—as well as to inspire other females who might like to take their love of barbecue from a hobby into a career—I have compiled a list of women who have been successful competitors, run their own barbecue businesses, and even taken the big step into the food tv arena and instructing the masses. This is by no means a complete list, as I know there are so many others tending to the fires and enduring the long and physical process of barbecue, and this is not in any particular order. They are all amazing in their accomplishments.
Queens of Q:
Melissa Cookston | Mississippi
She may be called the “winningest woman in barbecue” but she also clarifies that she beats all the guys as well. Over the past 16 years she’s earned at least 10 World and Grand Championships (team Yazoo’s Delta Q) as well as many other impressive titles and trophies from big-time competitions; is a BBQ judge; author of Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room; restaurateur (co-owns multiple locations of Memphis Barbecue Co. with her husband) and probably one of the most recognized and respected people—male or female—in barbecue.
Danielle Bennett Dimovski | Ontario, Canada
Multiple-award-winning competitor (Team DivaQ) and judge, host and guest on various Canadian and American tv shows (including “BBQ Pitmasters” both as judge and competitor); provides private catering and barbecue education; Charbroil blogger and essentially lover of all things cooked low and slow. Danielle’s attitude is best represented by her motto “Life is too short for bad BBQ!” Her passion for BBQ is evident—this media-savvy woman seems to be everywhere. Season 3 of her show “BBQ Crawl” started July 1 on Travel Channel and she appears on “Chopped GrillMasters” July 14 on Food Network.
Elizabeth Karmel | Illinois and New York
Chef, author, entrepreneur and media personality with an alias of “Grill Girl.” Karmel is a North Carolina native who has built a career as an expert on barbecue, grilling and southern food. Most recent accomplishment is the launch of CarolinaCuetoGo.com, an “online barbecue shack” offering North Carolina whole-hog barbecue; was the creator and executive chef of award-winning Hill Country Barbecue Market (multiple locations) and Brooklyn’s Hill Country Chicken; has written three cookbooks (including Girls at the Grill); launched the 10-year-old, groundbreaking Girls at the Grill website; is a media pro, often appearing on “Chopped,” “Iron Chef” and a variety of other television programs as well as in national magazines—some of which include Bon Appetit, Better Homes & Gardens and Saveur.
Lee Ann Whippen | Illinois
Competitor for almost two decades (team Wood Chick’s BBQ), earning Grand Champion at the Safeway National BBQ Battle in 2012, second place overall at the 2013 World Food Competition in Las Vegas and multiple state BBQ Grand Championships and Awards; “BBQ Pitmasters” appearances—as far back as season 1 in 2009—and an episode of “Bobby Flay’s Throwdown” (where her pulled pork was voted above Flay’s); restaurateur & caterer (Wood Chick’s BBQ in Chesapeake, VA, then Whippen migrated to the windy city where she is currently the chef/partner of Chicago Q); is a certified judge; and has appeared in a variety of tv, radio and print pieces.
Lynnae Oxley | Oregon
Avid competitor (team Sugar’s Championship Barbecue) with more than 15 Grand and Reserve Grand Championships (including three perfect scores), as well as many other impressive awards, since 2007; restaurateur (Sugar’s Championship Barbecue) where she also offers catering and barbecue classes; more than 30 years as a chef and executive chef; “BBQ Pitmasters” appearances and overall a dedication to spread her knowledge of barbecue…especially to women.
Nicole Davenport | Texas
Born and bred Texan, raised as a fourth-generation rancher. Competitor (team Sugar & Smoke) with several wins under her belt including World Championship Steak Cookoff; appearances on “BBQ PitMasters” and “Chopped Grill Masters;” respected chef—one of five pitmasters (the only female) on the USO’s “The Kings of BBQ: Barbecue Kuwait” event in 2010 that cooked for 5,000 troops; and currently involved in an organic farm-to-table food truck and catering company called Freida’s Sweets and Meats. In a promo for “Chopped Grill Masters,” she states she is “fighting for all the women out there who don’t get a chance to grill because their husbands are hogging” it.
Amy Mills | Illinois
When your dad is BBQ legend Mike Mills, it’s pretty safe to assume you’ve got barbecue running through your veins, too. While her professional background was journalism and marketing, she now heads up PR, marketing and special projects for dad’s three 17th Street Bar & Grill restaurants in southern Illinois; runs a barbecue consultation firm OnCue (offering barbecue education worldwide to businesses and individuals); co-authored the book Peace, Love and Barbecue with her dad—which was nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award and received the National Barbecue Association Award of Excellence.
Jennifer Duncan | Arizona
More than 20 years of experience as a bonafide pitmaster; co-owns mobile catering company Whiskey Ranch BBQ with husband Tommy*, which also offers barbecue education classes. One of the few husband/wife teams to compete against each other at the national level (loser wears pink…often that is Tommy, in boa, tiara, etc); appearances on “BBQ PitMasters” (team Smoked to the Bone) as well as on “Chopped: Grill Masters.”
*Worth noting: Every catering job the Duncans get, they incorporate a charity. The charity provides volunteers to handle serving and clean-up in exchange for a significant donation to the charity for the assistance.
Dionn Lanton | Georgia
Relative newcomer to competition (team Holy Smokes BBQ), but already making an impact with eight Grand Championship titles and a 2011 Team of the Year award; season 4 appearance on “BBQ PitMasters” (2012)—they won first place in Pork Picnic & Country-Style Ribs; co-owns Holy Smokes BBQ catering business with husband Gary—they provided dinner for the 2012 Masters Championship in Augusta, GA.
Additional Female Barbecue Mentors
For even more “PitMavens” and inspiration, go to Thrillist, where they just published their list of the “12 Most Important Women in BBQ”—some of which are mentioned above. These impressive women include (in the order they appear on Thrillist): Carolyn Wells, Helen Turner, Brooke Orrison Lewis, Linda Orrison, Karen Adler, Tootsie Tomanetz, Tiffani Faison, LeAnn Mueller and Alison Clem.