Interview: Nicole Davenport
I visited Sugar & Smoke restaurant in Fredericksburg in early 2012. That’s the first time I was introduced to Nicole Davenport. The menu was long, with only a few items of true barbecue. When I asked for a sample of everything smoked, I think she was excited just to find someone interested enough in her barbecue to want a tray full.
I wrote about it in my book, but Sugar & Smoke was closed even before it was published. During the book tour I made a stop in Los Angeles to cook with Adam Perry Lang, and right there in his barbecue trailer was Nicole Davenport. She was far removed from her time in Fredericksburg, but was excited to learn that her former barbecue joint was mentioned favorably in the book.
Last week, we met over Thai food in Dallas while she was in Dallas scouting out a possible new barbecue venture. She wouldn’t let on if she’d settled on doing her next project in the D/FW area, but I’m looking forward to visiting wherever she lands. We spoke about the challenge of being a female barbecue cook in what is considered by some to be a man’s world. Davenport’s got plenty of opinions on the subject, and some good insight to share.
Daniel Vaughn: Why do you think women are so underrepresented in barbecue?
Nicole Davenport: I think about this a lot because I teach a lot of professional women in grilling classes. I think it’s considered a guy’s area at home, so they never really get out there to do it. Secondly, it’s hot and smoky. It’s also long hours, so some home makers don’t have the time to do it. I also think for some women, the grill scares the crap out of them.
DV: You’re saying that as someone who teaches women-only grilling classes.
ND: Absolutely. I have a class in two weeks. They’re thrilled out of their minds, but the idea of fire is intimidating. When smoke gets in their eyes, and the mascara starts to run, they’re like “I’m out!”
DV: That’s the key to cooking barbecue? No mascara.
ND: That’s right. No mascara.
DV: There’s got to be more to it than mascara.
ND: I’m being funny, but the other side of it is the perception is that you’re butch if you’re cooking in this man’s world. I think the women pitmasters you find are a little bit gritty. They need to make a living. They’re a little bit hungry, because it’s hard ass work. There’s nothing pretty about it.
DV: Do you think it’s harder to be taken seriously in barbecue because you’re a woman?
ND: Yes. Hell yes. Let me tell you what happens. [Event organizers] always call me second. I’m going to Hico [to the Texas Steak Cookoff] in a couple weeks. Some guy backed out, so they needed me to come in and do it. This happens all the time. Sometimes I look at it like “I just kicked this guy’s ass a few weeks ago [in a competition], but I’m on the B Team?”
DV: From an outsider’s perspective, when they see you cooking with a group of men, do they assume you’re an assistant of some sort?
ND: This happened last week in Charleston [at the Charleston Food & Wine Festival]. Tommy Houston who doesn’t know me from Adam said “hey, I need you to get down there and get my cell phone.” I told him “get it your damn self. I’m busy slicing this brisket over here.” There are all these areas where women like to push, but it’s in the kitchen I notice…It’s like I’ll come into a kitchen and they’ll assume I’m there to do the desserts. I’ll be watching this guy just slaughter the most beautiful steaks on the grill, but you can’t say anything.
DV: It’s like me watching my father-in-law on the grill. I just bite my tongue.
ND: Sometime you have to sit back and just be quiet. Paul Schatte of Head Country BBQ told me I was the thorn in the rose of barbecue.
DV: Was that a compliment?
ND: Yes it was.
DV: Do you feel like you have to be many times better than a man to get the same recognition in barbecue?
ND: Absolutely. If a guy sits around saying he was in five contests and won one of them, he’s going to get the accolades even if he got his ass kicked in the other four. Even when I won the World Championship Steak Cook-off, all the guys came up to the judges and said “Y’all need to recheck this. You screwed up the score.” I just sat back and watched.
DV: Are the competitions a more even playing field because of blind judging?
ND: I love it. The less they now about you and your team the better. Slide in late to set up your tent. I usually use the name Freida, because the less they know the less preconceived notions they have about you.
DV: Is Freida your given name?
ND: I’m the fifth Freida in my family, and it stops here.
DV: Are there other women in barbecue that you look up to?
ND: Look at Carolyn Wells that runs the Kansas City Barbeque Society. This woman has singlehandedly helped get barbecue competitions started nationwide. I don’t know if a lot of people give her recognition because it has just been credited to KCBS as a whole.
DV: Did you feel that way when you were running a restaurant, that it was hard to get that recognition or credit?
DV: What were the other challenges there in Fredericksburg?
ND: That restaurant was hard. I was so restricted by the historical society that I couldn’t put in a real pit there. With what I had to work with, I did the best I could.
DV: When I visited it seemed like half the people there didn’t quite realize there was barbecue on the menu. They were there for the pastries and desserts.
ND: They didn’t get it.
DV: How long did it last?
ND: Nine and a half months.
DV: How did you initially get that opportunity?
ND: I was cooking at a charity event, and somebody thought I made the best beef rib they’d ever had.
DV: Were you a partner in Sugar & Smoke?
ND: I was a forty percent owner. There were so many egos involved in that business. They rescued an old bakery that was going under. They saw the potential to have two Texas women [Nicole and Rebecca Rather] cooking savory and sweet. I think they expected to make millions, but you’ll never be successful in a restaurant coming at it like that. That’s why I love Jamie Geer’s restaurant. It’s so simple, and his prices are so low. He’s still making plenty being open just 11-3. He’s like the Bruce Springsteen of barbecue.
DV: What happened with Blanco BBQ in San Antonio? Were you just consulting there?
ND: No. I started out as a partner there. A commercial real estate guy had this killer location. I think it’s important to find somebody you can partner with to build an idea from the ground up, but it was messy from the start.
DV: You removed yourself from that situation voluntarily. Why was that?
ND: We just couldn’t agree on the direction of the place.
DV: Would it have been different if you weren’t a woman?
ND: I think so. People devalue what you can deliver. I wish investors would pursue women in the same way they pursue men. It’s not an even playing field. With men it’s about the product, the meat. If a woman’s baking it’s okay. I think people have come after me because I was a package deal. I could cook meat and bake.
DV: Do you think it would just be easier to open a food truck on your own? Something where you don’t have to worry about business partners or investors?
ND: Yes. My partner never got Sugar & Smoke. He never understood how cool it was to do farm-to-table barbecue.
DV: In addition to having your own place for a while, you’ve also worked with some very big names in barbecue. Can you name a few?
ND: I worked in LA with Adam Perry Lang. I spent six years working with Chris Lilly. I spent tons of time with Johnny Trigg. I spent months hanging out with Myron Mixon, who is and a—hole.
DV: Is that on the record?
ND: Yep. He’s an a—hole.
DV: You starred with him in The Kings of Kuwait, but you’re the only woman featured in the film. What was that experience like?
ND: First, it’s the Kings of Kuwait, not the Kings and Queens…Whenever this film comes out women come up to me to say how proud they were to see me cooking with all those men.
DV: How were you accepted as a female barbecue cook in the military environment?
ND: Let’s just say you can reach a man through his stomach, but it doesn’t always translate into respect.
DV: You’ve been on a few barbecue competition shows. What was that experience like?
ND: I was on Chopped. The next day I got a thousand emails. They all read like, “I’m your man. I’m divorced and I’ve got two kids. Let me hit you up.” I had to hire two people to filter through the emails.
DV: Did you win?
ND: No. There wasn’t a single woman in the finals. There were three women on the show, and I was the Texas cowgirl. There was a hot blond too, but the show was looking to fill certain roles.
DV: Did you respond to any of the emails?
ND: Some of them. I saved about half of them because some were so funny. There was a guy from Jamaica, and after a while I asked him what kind of grill he had. He wrote back “I don’t cook. I just wanted to interact with you.”
DV: That’s creepy.
ND: One thing I do when I’m going to cook with a bunch of guys is put on bug spray. Anything that has to do with femininity, I just kill it. I put on baggy pants, a sports bra, hat down, sunglasses on, lower my voice. You have to temper who you really are, but I want to be able to focus on barbecue. It makes me feel more comfortable, and I think other men are more comfortable cooking with me that way. I need to show them I’m as interested in the meat and how to cook as anyone else in this field. I just love it.
DV: What’s next for you?
ND: There are two or three ideas that I’m working on. I want to go back to something really simple.
DV: A food truck in Midland?
ND: Not that simple. I’m going for the classic barbecue joint. I love what Aaron Franklin and Jamie Geer are doing. They aren’t creating something for an audience.
DV: Where are you originally from?
ND: I’m a fourth generation ranching girl from out near Midland, Texas. It’s so old and so deep I’ve had to go to therapy for it. That’s old country. If your people settled that land, that’s heavy. All those traditions, good and bad, got passed down. We ate off the ranch. We didn’t know what farm-to-table was. Mom would say “it’s time to make dinner. Go out and pick some spinach for a salad.”
DV: Is that where you learned to make barbecue?
ND: Yes, but I couldn’t wait to get the hell off the ranch and out of Texas. I’m true blue Texan, and at this age I’m coming back to that. My parents are in their seventies raising goats, sheep and cattle. Adam Perry Lang made a good point to me this summer. He told me to get in touch with that. Not many chefs come from that background. I really want to do something Texan that’s old Texan, not just trying to make it look old. People appreciate that sort of history these days. When I do it this time, I’ll do it without my name out front.
DV: It sounds antithetical for someone who went on television and got a certain amount of notoriety from that to say they don’t want to use that for a new venture. I assumed you would want to bank on that.
ND: You do and you don’t. I did the show so folks could see that women do this. I don’t need to welcome those assumptions into a restaurant. This time I’m looking at why I’m doing it. I wanna go to a joint. I wanna go where the boards creak. I wanna go to a place where if you don’t want to get barbecue sauce on your Louis Vuitton, then get the hell out.