The Most Influential Women in Southern Barbecue Now
Barbecue has long been portrayed as a guy thing—one of the manliest of manly pursuits. Whether it’s cooking whole hogs on an open pit or smoking ribs on a backyard grill, it involves primal, dirty, and dangerous things: fire, soot, sharp implements, and mounds of meat.
But plenty of women are drawn to that fire and smoke, too, and they’re increasingly shaping the future of barbecue. They’re opening restaurants, launching mail-order businesses, and bringing home trophies (and prize checks) from big-time competitions. By teaching and mentoring aspiring cooks, they’re helping to groom the next generation of entrepreneurs.
And these women are right back there in the soot and smoke of the pit house too. They’re stoking the fires, shoveling coals, and tending the meat as it cooks. “The entire industry of barbecue is starting to shift,” says Diva Q’s Danielle Bennett, who competes on the professional circuit and teaches cooking classes. Amy Mills of 17th Street Barbecue agrees. “The men do overshadow,” she admits. “I’m kind of saying that as a fact. But a lot of things wouldn’t be happening in the barbecue scene without the influences of some pretty amazing women.” Here are nine who are making their marks on the South’s culture.
Women On Fire
Meet nine ladies, from pitmasters and cooks to entrepreneurs and teachers, lighting a new spark in Southern barbecue culture
17th Street Barbecue
One half of the father-daughter team that runs the 17th Street Barbecue empire, Amy Mills is the organizing force behind the scenes. A self-described “barbecue heiress,” she is the daughter of Mike Mills, a legend of the competition circuit with eight world championship titles to his name. She helped turn that reputation into two cookbooks, a chain of restaurants, and a catering-and-events operation.
Perhaps her biggest influence so far has been through her company OnCue Consulting, which offers workshops that have helped over 1,000 seasoned restaurateurs and aspiring barbecue entrepreneurs from 48 states and 16 countries get into the game and improve their existing operations. “There’s this romantic view of barbecue—the fire and the pit, the whole mystique,” she says. “But if you really want to talk about the business of barbecue, there’s so much more to running a restaurant.”
From menu design and managing food costs to branding and social media, she has plenty of experience and knows her way around a barbecue cooker too. “You have to be able to do it all,” she advises.
Ultimately, what she finds most rewarding is helping expand the barbecue community while keeping long-running traditions alive. “I’m thrilled to be taking on a family legacy,” she says. “It’s such
an honor to be part of that.”
"I don’t need a lot of money,” Danielle Bennett says. “I need a lot of life.” And she’s found plenty of it in the world of barbecue. It all started when she was recruited as a substitute judge at the 2007 Canadian Open BBQ Championships in Barrie, Ontario. Instantly hooked, she soon had her own team called Diva Q, traveling across North America and stopping off at every old-school barbecue joint along the way.
Though she grew up in Canada, her family had a vacation home in Florida, where she now resides. “I’d classify myself as one of the most Southern Canadian people you’ll ever meet,” she admits.
In 2013, Bennett landed her own Travel Channel show, BBQ Crawl. For three seasons, she introduced viewers to the diversity of the modern restaurant scene. “We showcased real places and told real stories, and it was never scripted,” she says. “I like the integrity of that.”
Bennett has a passion for sharing the techniques and traditions of barbecue cooking. She teaches more than 50 classes a year for corporate clients like Traeger, a manufacturer of pellet grills. Such events let her connect with thousands of students—most are not aspiring pros but backyard barbecuers looking to up their games. The majority
of her students are still men, but that’s starting to change. Bennett says, “Three years ago, in a 50-student class,
I would be lucky to get one or two women. Now, my classes will have five, six, or even 10 women.” If Diva Q has her way, those numbers will continue to grow.
Deborah Jones and Mary Jones
Kansas City, KS
Kansas City natives Deborah and Mary Jones learned to cook barbecue from their father, an electrician who moonlighted as the pitmaster at a restaurant called Hezekiah’s. Their older brother Daniel eventually bought the business and renamed it Jones Bar-B-Q. The sisters helped out as a sideline to their day jobs (Deborah worked at the post office and Mary as a nurse), and then they took over the place after their brother passed away.
The Joneses stepped away from the restaurant business for a few years, but they couldn’t resist the draw of the pit. In 2015, they rented a small brick building (which used to be a taco stand) in front of a strip mall on Kaw Drive and set up a black metal upright smoker with a tall smokestack outside. It’s a two-woman operation these days, with Deborah lighting the oak and hickory fire at 2 a.m. and Mary prepping the meat for the day.
They serve old-school Kansas City-style barbecue—sausage, rib tips, burnt ends, and beef cooked over real wood with no fancy rubs or flourishes—and they’ve steadily been winning over new fans and gaining lots of media attention. The building recently got a face-lift—a new coat of black paint for the brick walls, a sign with sleek white lettering on the roof, and a big walled patio added out front where customers can dine on picnic tables with white umbrellas.
Helen Turner is the namesake of Helen’s Bar-B-Q, and she runs it all. That means tending the fire of oak and hickory logs, shoveling coals under shoulders and ribs on an open cinder block pit, and serving customers through the order window that separates the kitchen from the small dining room. If she wants to take a vacation, the restaurant closes up. This is truly a one-woman show.
It all began after her children started school, when she took a part-time job working for a man who ran a small barbecue operation in Brownsville, about 60 miles northeast of Memphis. A few months afterward, he decided to retire and asked her if she wanted to take over. Some 23 years later, she’s still at it.
She makes the sauces, coleslaw, potato salad, and beans from scratch. She pulls a pork shoulder off the warming pit and chops it to order, piling it high on a bun and dousing it with a spicy red sauce. Turner says that she loves the work itself—as smoky and tough as it may be—and she’s also devoted to her loyal customers. Her old-fashioned wood-cooked barbecue keeps them coming back for more.
Laura Loomis didn’t even know what a brisket was when she took a job as a cashier at Two Bros. BBQ Market in 2013. But one day, she stepped in to help when one of the pit hands quit, and soon she was working in the pit house fulltime. “I just kind of started doing it and fell in love with it,” she says.
She threw her passion into the work, and when the previous pitmaster resigned, owner Jason Dady promoted Loomis to the position, making her one of the youngest pitmasters in Texas. Not all of the men working the pits were thrilled to have a woman in charge, Loomis admits. “In the beginning, it was an issue,” she says, “because I went from being their equal to their superior, and obviously I wanted to change things.”
And she did make changes, delving into barbecue cookbooks, watching online videos, and then introducing more consistent procedures—like a system of resting the meat using Yeti coolers. As pitmaster, Loomis is in charge of a lot—supervising the kitchen staff, placing all of the orders, managing food costs—and last year, she helped Dady open a second restaurant, Alamo BBQ Co., where she cooks once a week. At the end of the day, it’s tending the fires in the big offset pits at Two Bros. that remains her passion.
Loomis knows that a lot of women in the restaurant industry are leery of working in pit houses, where the hours are long and the conditions hot and dirty, but she hopes that will change. “Maybe others will see me and say, ‘If she can do it, I can do it too.’ ”
Burnt Finger BBQ
Lee’s Summit, MO
"We’re living the barbecue dream,” says Megan Day of Burnt Finger BBQ. Her journey into professional barbecue started with an explosion—the Bacon Explosion, to be precise. Created by her husband, Jason, it’s 2 pounds of Italian sausage wrapped in a lattice of bacon and smoked on a barbecue pit.
The recipe went viral back in 2009, after Jason posted it on his amateur competition team’s blog, which encouraged the husband-and-wife duo to turn their hobby into a business. Day gave up her full-time corporate job for a career in ’cue, running the marketing at first and then taking on more of the cooking.
Burnt Finger BBQ started winning a slew of competitions, and the couple began selling their own line of Kansas City-
style sauces and rubs. In 2017, she was invited to compete on the Food Network’s Chopped Grill Masters, which pitted barbecue cooks against restaurant chefs. She won her initial showdown and earned a slot in the finale. “I took down all the pitmasters, but those two trained chefs got me,” she says.
The Chopped episodes aired in August 2017, and her life has been crazy ever since. She’s been cooking for the Today show on Rockefeller Plaza, teaching seminars, and also competing at Memphis in May and the American Royal World Series of Barbecue with her young son and daughter in tow.
“Our real focus now is how we can get more barbecue to the people who want it,” she says. That means promoting a full line of Burnt Finger frozen products, which includes baby back ribs; roasted chicken drumsticks; and—of course—their Bacon Explosion, the smoky, fat-laden monstrosity that helped start it all.
Memphis Barbecue Company
Horn Lake, MS
Melissa Cookston likes to stay busy. A native of the Mississippi Delta, she started cooking barbecue while dating her future husband, Pete, during college. “He made the mistake of taking me to a barbecue contest,” Cookston says. “It totally appealed to my competition-junkie self.”
Soon, they were circuit regulars, cooking on “Betsy,” a drafty homemade pit crafted from an old propane tank. In 2007, they quit corporate restaurant jobs to focus on competitions full time—a period Cookston recalls as “very scary with a lot of tuna fish sandwiches…. If we didn’t win the contest, we didn’t eat.” Seven world championships followed, earning Cookston the title of the “Winningest Woman in Barbecue.”
In 2011, the couple opened Memphis Barbecue Company just south of the Bluff City in Horn Lake, Mississippi, and quickly added a location in Dunwoody, Georgia. Along the way, she wrote two books: Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room (2014) and Smokin’ Hot in the South (2016).
As much as she loves chatting with customers in the dining room, Cookston inevitably finds herself pulled to the kitchen. “There’s just something about being in the back when you’re really busy and having your hands in everything,” she says.
These days, Cookston is up at 4 a.m. every day writing a third book. And she’s raising her own hogs too. She dove into the research and formulated the diet so they have the optimal amount of fat in all the right places to ensure the best cooking on the pit. That’s going whole hog indeed.
Now in her eighties, Tootsie Tomanetz is a Texas legend. In the 1960s, she would lend a hand to her husband, White Tomanetz, who was a butcher at City Meat Market in Giddings. One day, when a pit hand didn’t show up, Tootsie stepped in. Soon, she was cooking six days a week. When the owner opened a branch of the market in Lexington, he asked her to run the operations—including its burn barrels and barbecue pits—and later sold it to the Tomanetzes.
The couple put their market up for sale in 1996, but in 2003, a longtime customer convinced Tootsie to cook at Snow’s BBQ, the Saturday-only restaurant he was opening in Lexington. During the week, Tootsie still works for the local school district’s maintenance department in Giddings. Come Saturday, she wakes up at 2 a.m. to drive over to Lexington and get the meat on the pits.
Most modern Central Texas barbecue is slow-cooked on offset smokers over indirect heat. At Snow’s Tootsie cooks it the same old-school way she did at City Meat Market: over direct heat on waist-high metal pits with flat, raisable lids. She carries shovelfuls of glowing coals from the firebox to each pit and scatters them beneath the cooking meat. She mops the ribs, pork shoulder steaks, and half chickens with a vinegar-and-Worcestershire blend, turning the meat and moving it to hotter or cooler parts of the pit.
She’ll emerge from the pit area to mingle with guests and is often seen scrubbing a big pot or two at the outdoor sink. After all, there’s still work to be done.