Last year, Thrillist named two Kansas City women to its list of 12 of the Most Important Women in BBQ: Carolyn Wells, the founder and executive director of the Kansas City Barbeque Society, and Karen Adler, known for her skill at the grill and her prowess as an author and publisher of barbecue cookbooks.
But women working as professional pitmasters in Kansas City have been a rarity. There was, of course, “Amazing” Grace Harris at the Grand Emporium.
Then things start to get murky.
“I think it’s a combination of a whole lot of things (that have kept women out),” says Danielle Bennett, a Canadian-born pitmaster who calls herself Diva Q. She estimates that fewer than 5 percent of pitmasters nationwide in restaurants and on the competition circuit are women. “Some of us have been able to shatter (the ceiling) because we don’t give a rat’s ass what anyone thinks, if I may put it bluntly.”
Bennett, who had a show on the Travel Channel for three years and released her first cookbook earlier this year, had the good fortune to find a tough-as-nails mentor in Kansas City’s Karen Putman. Putman, a professional chef, won more than 400 barbecue awards competing in her off hours under the team name Flower of the Flames. When Putman died in 2011, her sister Ronna Fatino Keck entrusted Putnam’s prized chef’s knife to Bennett.
“When you think about all the barbecue restaurants in Kansas City, all the owners are male,” says Keck, also a professional chef who worked at Joe’s KC for four years and continues to compete with the Flower of the Flames team. “These days there are a lot more women going into the chef profession, but not the pitmaster position.”
Factors for the gender gap include what Bennett refers to as the “caveman mentality,” the intimidation factor of live fire, a lack of familiarity with what she calls “generational” barbecue (or kids who grew up with it as part of a family legacy) and few role models throughout an industry that has until recently tended to ignore the economic power of the female demographic.
Plus, when you strip it to its barest requirements, barbecue is hot, hard and heavy work: “You can’t be a delicate flower if you’re lifting 100 pounds of pork butt,” Bennett says.
“As for most American men, the cooking of meat outdoors over fire constitutes one of my most exalted domestic duties,” Michael Pollan writes in his anthropologically laced treatise “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.” “And like most American men, I do a fine job of mystifying what is at bottom a very simple process, such a fine job, in fact, that my wife, Judith, is by now convinced that grilling a steak over a fire is as daunting a procedure as changing the timing belt on the car.”
Or maybe, it was posited to Pollan, “women play dumb around the whole subject of fire, in order to make sure that men do at least some of the cooking.”
Either way, Jones Bar-B-Q in Kansas City, Kan., might be the only local barbecue owned and operated by female pitmasters — sisters Deborah and Mary Jones.
“Barbecue is kind of a guy thing,” says Izora Thompson, Deborah’s 22-year-old daughter. “My friends say, ‘Your mom and aunt cook like dudes.’ ”
Indeed, they are “the two strongest women in my life,” she adds.
Thankfully, for the rest of us their dogged dedication to the art and craft of barbecue may be changing ideas about gender roles.
“I’m not a male chauvinist, but I thought women couldn’t do it,” says one customer who would not to give his name because he works with other barbecue joints.
Then he smiles and adds. “But (Deborah) nails it! I’ve followed her to every location. It’s a great product — not a good product — and it’s served with love.”
Jill Wendholt Silva is The Star’s James Beard award-winning food editor, lead restaurant critic and blog curator. Reach her on Twitter at @kcstarfood or @chowtownkc.