Danielle "Diva Q" Bennett Dishes On Her Show BBQ Crawl And What Makes For Great Brisket - Exclusive Interview

The words "life is too short for bad BBQ," is a mantra that Danielle "Diva Q" Bennett lives by. And for years, Bennett has made it her mission to inspire others with that motto and to share her passion for the art of cooking delicious barbecue.

A World Champion Pitmaster, Bennett hosted her own Travel Channel show, "BBQ Crawl" for three seasons as she traveled the U.S. to try the nation's best BBQ. She's earned World Championship titles for pork and bacon and served as a judge for countless barbecue competitions. She's also a cookbook author and Traeger Grills Pro, teaching others how to master cooking great barbecue right in their own backyard. With all of that under her belt, perfecting her craft since 2006, it's fair to say that Bennett knows a thing or two about good barbecue. But what are the main components of delicious barbecue? What are some of the misconceptions in the barbecue world that need to be cleared up? In an exclusive interview with Mashed, Bennett shares all about cooking Thanksgiving dinner on a Traeger, breaking down gender stereotypes in barbecue, and where to find some of the best barbecue around the country.

Diva Q on how she got her start in BBQ

How did you get your start in the barbecue world?

So in 2006, end of 2005, I judged a barbecue contest, the Canadian National Opens. After a 10-year career as an HR Operations Manager, I've got double degrees in business, a three-year degree in business marketing, and I also have another two-year degree in operations hr management, and I was actually staying home at the time for a couple years while my children were very young, and I was bored out of my tree. And I've always been a really intense home cook, took classes, never got my papers, should have probably written those final exams, but loved being a very intense home cook.

I was one of those from scratch kind of people. I still am till this day. A friend of mine called me up and said, "Hey you know what, there's this national barbecue contest here. And they need intelligent judges that have backgrounds in food. And they're only looking for accredited judges." So, you actually had to write an essay to be chosen as a judge. And I explained, you're right I'm not a papered chef, but here is Liaison College, and I've taken all these courses. I had written hundreds of recipes at that point, even just for home life. And I got accepted, which was really shocking.

One of the fortuitous things that happened at that contest was that I was actually able to be, through absolute fluke, an onsite judge, not just a blind box judge, which was like all the stars, seriously, all the stars aligned. So I did onsite judging, plus blind box judging, which are two very different captivations of barbecue judging. And throughout the three days that we were there, back and forth, back and forth, I kept thinking to myself, "I've had some really outstanding barbecue that was like, 'oh my god jaw-dropping good.'" I've had some okay barbecue. And I've had barbecue that I wouldn't serve a dog. And all I kept thinking is, "I'm pretty sure I can do this." 

Three days later, I bought my first smoker. So I had a Traeger Little Texas, I had a Weber Smokey Mountain 18.5 inch, and then I progressively collected 65 more barbecues over the next couple years. And so that went on for quite a few years, I got a lot of attention, and then I started winning. In Ontario, we don't exactly have a big barbecue culture, and one of the things I determined at that point is that I am an absolute insatiable learner. I love to learn more than anything in the world. And one of the key things was that I thought, if I'm going to learn about barbecue, well you know what, I've got to do some traveling. So, I traveled to South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri, Kansas, Texas. I traveled to Tennessee. I traveled anywhere that I thought barbecue was being served. And I started eating and writing about barbecue. That combined with all the winnings that I was having, I showed up at contest in Pennsylvania in the Allegheny Mountains. I borrowed my dad's landscape cart and packed up all the smokers. I got there, and I was the only Canadian there. I was also the only female pitmaster there. And hearing this group of 50 guys who were not the nicest people to me in all honesty, and they were talking down to me. Like what is this woman from Canada doing here? Why waste our time? Well, it worked out that it was one of the best contests and probably one of the best memories of my life. Because I won the whole damn thing. They changed their tune after that.

So all of these things combined basically set me on this course of all these TV people and producers then going, "okay she doesn't look like anybody else." I'm not a size two, I'm a plus size woman from Canada. I've got a mouth on me and I'm not afraid to use it. I'm strong. I'm fair. I love giving back to my community. And what happened was that all of a sudden, all these TV shows wanted me on there, because I didn't look like anybody else, because I was totally different from everybody else. And I didn't fit into any box I guess. So, it's been 16 years, and everything kind of extrapolated from those moments.

The biggest misconceptions in barbecue, according to Danielle Bennett

What's one of the biggest misconceptions you find when it comes to barbecue?

I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that you don't need to stay up all night with your meat to make exceptionally great barbecue. I think that's one of the things we have it in our minds, unfortunately, is this caveman mentality. One of the great things is that Traegers are enabling us to make so many people backyard rock stars, truly. Because you don't have to stay up all night, because things are definitely dialed in to make exceptional barbecue. I put on a $300 piece of meat last night on that grill. I didn't stay up all night and babysit it. I went and watched some Netflix and went to bed. So, one of the misconceptions is that you have to stay up all night, that you have to feed the fire.

I think that misconception is really getting torn down by Traeger. I mean torn to shreds. Because one of the greatest opportunities that I've had over the course of my career that I've had with Traeger Grills as one of their pitmasters is the fact that I've gotten to teach all over the world. And one of the best moments I think when it comes to teaching ... I was teaching in Texas, and I had some cynical SOBs sitting there in my class, let me tell you. And I don't mean to be rude, but let me tell you, there were some big old Texas boys who were literally scoffing at the idea that this pellet grill could make any good barbecue whatsoever. Because listen, I had offsets, I understand, I understand reverse flow gravity. I understand that entire mystique about feeding the fire, feeding the flames, staying up, drinking bourbon all night. I get it. I totally get it. However, I taught the whole class, it was a brisket class, and every one of those guys came and shook my hand afterwards. And they said, "We had no idea you could do this on a pellet grill." I'm like, "welcome to my world." That's a big misconception. Also, that females can't be rockstar, kick*** pitmasters. I think that's the other one I've pretty much proven wrong too.

That's something that you showcase a lot too, that women can master the grill or they can use a smoker. Why is it important for you to break down that barrier?

One of the things is, I don't actually want to be known as a female pitmaster.

You don't want that divide.

This is why I literally, to my own loss of monetary gains, I have refused in 16 years, I have never once participated and I will not, in a female-only barbecue contest. I am standing on my morals. I'm standing on my principles. I will not negotiate on this ever. Because there's no physicality there. There's pictures out there of me lifting up two 80-pound hogs. I got this. But there really isn't anything out there that says you have to be a man to do this. And so, my whole thing is that I actually don't want to be known as a female pitmaster. And people are like, what do you mean? You obviously, you have ovaries and other parts, like, what does this mean to you?

I don't want a doctor to be known as a female doctor. I'm not feminist. I'm just a commonsense kind of person who says, "Wait a second, just call me a kick*** barbecue'er." Call me an accomplished, learned pitmaster. Call me those things, and don't attach to label to it.

One of the key things that I love hearing, I truly do, is that when a young woman or an older lady or a female, in general, will say, "I saw you on TV and I read your book." And they see I've done all this kickass stuff on my own. I don't have a staff, I hire as needed. This is 100% my own business. I don't share this business with anybody. And the wonderful thing about that is that they see you and they understand it's okay. So, it's this finite balance between those two, to understand that I am definitely an icon in the industry of barbecue. Absolutely an icon in the industry of barbecue as being a recognizable strong ass female who doesn't take s*** from anybody. And that's my attitude on everything. You can be strong, you can still be feminine and you can still be a female kickass pitmaster, who's just a good pitmaster.

Diva Q dishes on the must-have components of good barbecue

What are the components of good barbecue? What are you looking for when you judge a competition?

Smoke, wood-fired flavor, absolutely. Bark, which is of course the pellicle, all those components on the outside, the sugars caramelizing on the outside. So, there's taste, tenderness, appearance. Those are the three criteria.

Taste, of course, you've got to have that balance of beautiful, clean wood fire and smoke, and it's got to be all-natural. So you don't want any chemically kind of taste profiles in there. You actually also don't want it to taste like you're biting into a log. Sometimes, I think back to some of my first early projects, and those Facebook memories come back and I'm like, "oh girl, that was so bad, you just did not know it at that point." So there has to be this wonderful, clean balance of great smoke, great flavor, without those acrid bitter tones. There should be no chemical after taste, so no lighter fluid whatsoever. That's your taste.

Appearance. It should look succulent. It should look juicy. It should have that beautiful, and I mean it is one of the most glorious colors in the world, and I call it barbecue sexy. It is that rich red mahogany outer crust. And on a brisket it's a little bit darker than on pork ribs. I'm telling you ... you just start salivating when you see that. That's your appearance.

Once again, taste, tenderness, appearance, all of those things combined together. And if you use sauce, sauce is just an accompaniment. It is not the predominant flavor. There is a saying in my industry, you buy the meat, not the sauce. And that's a really big thing. A lot of restaurants unfortunately have trained people to love sauce. This is a sauce-loving nation, completely. And the thing is that I think we need to move back towards to, hey, get the meat right first. Because sauce can hide a lot of barbecue sins.

Why you should be cooking Thanksgiving dinner on a Traeger, according Danielle Bennett

You're a huge fan of cooking a turkey on a Traeger. Why do you prefer that method?

Well, that's pretty easy. It's all about the taste, all about the tenderness, all about the appearance, all about the juiciness. Here's the thing. So you've got a gazillion methods out there for cooking a turkey, right? You could do a deep-fried turkey. You could do a roast turkey. You could do, I don't know, a sous-vide turkey and then throw it on a grill. All methods actually work for cooking. You could go to a gas grill and you could cook a turkey. No problem ... The problem is with all of those methods, they don't give you flavor, right? So one of the key things for me is maximizing every meal you have. Maximizing the flavor, maximizing the tenderness, giving you the results you want consistently.

So we're referencing back to the thing about the fact that we turn people into backyard rock stars all the time. That's exactly what we do. I love doing that. I'm telling you, we're talking thousands of people all over the world, turning them into backyard rock stars. You start out with this kickass grill. It's consistent. We've got 100% all-natural wood pellets. Not a sales line, this is actually what they are. You've got I think we might be up to 16 different flavors now. You can match the wood to your own personal preference. If you wanted a harder wood, you'd go to mesquite. If you want a lighter wood, you would go to alder and then everything else is in between. So, you've got a great method in which to cook. It's all indirect, so you're not babysitting it.

... But above all, it's always got to come back to taste for me. Ease of use is great, convenience is great. But if it doesn't taste amazing consistently? And the skin, oh my God. When you spatchcock a turkey and you put it on the Traeger, even if you did a whole roast turkey, the fat has to render out of that skin. And that to me is a spectacular moment of turkey happiness. That is gobble goodness. Because truly, yes we love us some turkey, but if you don't get that lovely, gorgeous glistening turkey skin, it's game over for me. I don't like eating turkey off of anything else, at all.

Is it possible to cook a whole Thanksgiving dinner along with your turkey on the Traeger?

Absolutely. I've done it many times. For example, last week I was doing a couple of days, different things. I cooked my stuffing on the grill. I cooked my pie on the grill. I cooked my broccoli cheddar, Paula Deen-induced, butter coma casserole on the grill. Because we all know that this is not a low-fat day, I'm just saying. Yesterday on my Instagram, I put on one of the things I'm actually going to be serving next week as an appetizer, which is homemade sausage rolls, done on the Traeger. I also made my crackers, which is like an everything but the bagel kind of cracker. I did a hot smoked crab dip on the Traeger. ... I did my glazed maple carrots with bacon on the grill. We did the sweet potato souffle on there.

So yeah, your entire meal, not a problem. And you know the best part? I'm here in Florida, I'm sitting in my backyard right now. And one of the things is that even if you were in the house, one of the great things that enable you to do is you actually get to talk to your family. ... So all of those things combined allow you the freedom because it's all indirect and it's not drying out your food to go and spend time with your family and do things you really want to do.

The most surprising things you can cook on a Traeger

What is one of the most surprising things that you found you can either cook or bake on a Traeger, or both?

The best choux pastry and hollow loaves. I have 21 Traegers here around my house. I have 18 here and then I've got three on the trailer. I've got all these Traegers and I play 24/7 on them. Meat is easy. For me, meat's a cakewalk. It really is. And I don't mean that to be stuck up or arrogant, it's just that I've done meat for a really long time. So, one of the things that I love to do is, exactly that, I like to push boundaries. What can I do next?

So what I'll do is, I'll think, what's the hardest thing to get right in an oven? French macarons, did them. Oh my God. Amazing. Did the choux pastry. Being from Canada, what do you make out of choux pastry? You make, of course, the bûche de Noel, and then you make the croquembouche. So, I did an entire one of those for Christmas one year and everything was done on the Traeger, including the smoked whipped cream and the smoked caramel whisky sauce that I drizzled over the whole thing.

Then of course, even though it's not set up to put a pan on there, I'll get a deep dish pan and I'll actually run the temperature hot enough in the Traeger to deep fry and pan fry things. So I push envelopes all the time. That's why my Instagram is scattered ... it goes in 50 million directions because I'm always playing. And it's everything from the delicate stuff, like a Pavlova, very delicate little meringues, to lighter things like phyllo pastry wrapped spinach puffs. The thing is, is that because of the versatility and because there's no direct flame, we come back to that often. What happens is that at any time you use any butter-based pastry, how that oxygen and, the smoke, of course, that's within the chamber, travels around the Traeger makes it the most amazing unit to bake in. The water expands in the butter when it's nice and cold, and you get the flakiest layers ever.

Tomorrow, I've got to make 24 Butter Tarts, totally Canadian, for Thanksgiving next week, and I'm going to make them all on the Traeger. I can't replicate that on anything else. And you get this little kiss of smoke and it's not overwhelming. It's like this little hug it gets. And so for me, that's just elevating your food game again. I just keep pushing it all the time. I love trying new stuff. I've done everything from four-foot-long, bacon-wrapped alligators to the smallest little, most delicate meringues and everything in between.

And this is another thing where I always think that it's my job to expand people's horizons. One of the things I do very regularly on the grill is focaccia, it's one of the best things ever. And I like the softer focaccia. Christmas season is coming. Next month I literally will have eight grills going baking biscotti, snickerdoodles, and my English shortbread. I will do them all on the grills because that's what I do. I love baking on the Traegers.

Diva Q's secret to perfectly cooked bacon

What is the secret to perfectly cooked bacon?

Do it on a Traeger. I buy the 10-pound box from Sam's Club regularly, and it is called an 18/24 count bacon, so it's the thinnest bacon you can get. And I love it for wrapping things. I also buy the thick-cut bacon. And one of the things I love about cooking bacon on a Traeger is, it's all indirect, so I don't have any splatter in my kitchen, which is just a wonderful, no mess, no cleanup kind of way of doing it.

Secondly, when you do Traeger bacon, what happens is that because the heat is not aggressive, because that heat is much more gentle when you don't have that direct heat there, one of the great things about it is that it doesn't shrink up. It keeps its shape very nicely. 

And sometimes if I get in a little bit of a food rut for lunch, and I'll eat a bacon grilled chicken Caesar. And I do the smoked Caesar salad dressing that I love from my cookbook. And I'll it do every day for four days. So I know that I need, however many pieces of bacon or I'm going to do a project or whatever. And so I'll do a batch cook of that on Sunday night or whatever, and then I'll have it for the week. Your bacon is nice and flat, it's really easy to portion out. You can get it a little fluffier, a little crispier, whatever you want. But cooking it on the Traeger is the way to go, hands down my favorite way to cook bacon ever in the history of bacon. And I just happen to be a world champion of bacon.

The one ingredient Danielle Bennett could never live without and where she takes her leftovers

What is one ingredient that you could never live without?

Salt. That's easy, salt, hands down. I can live without a lot of stuff, but not salt. I mean, salt is everything. Salt as a topping, as a whatever, for me it's salt because it doesn't matter what meat, vegetable, whatever it is, if you want to cure something, you need salt. If you want to pickle something, you need salt. If you want to burst some flavor profiles, I want salt. Salt to me is the baseline for everything. It's the base of all barbecue rubs typically. It's the base of all cures. It's the base of when I'm making jerky ... It'd be salt.

You cook for a lot of classes and events and prep things ahead of time for recipes. What do you do with all of that leftover food?

This is truly one of the highlights of my life. One of the best things about working with Traeger as my biggest partnership, is that Traeger has always encouraged us to give back to our communities. I work on HSN for Traeger as well. And throughout the year, we are sent different grills for different segments. So one of the things that I've been able to do is work with Traeger and every one of those extra grills has gone to a fire department or a local culinary school.

All of the meats that I prep, whether we're doing content or Traeger Kitchen Lives or all the classes, we give that back to our local first responders. So that's police, fire, and also our women's and children's shelters. This is a personal mantra of mine. I do it. I take it over there personally, typically. I'll drive it over or one of the team will drive it over. But that is very key to me, to give back. One of the things is that I'm in this privileged position to cook all this wonderful meat, all this wonderful produce, all these wonderful things, and giving back to my community is an absolute driving force in my life.

The best meals Diva Q had on BBQ Crawl

What was one of the best meals that you had on your Travel Channel show, "BBQ Crawl"?

Oh that's just not right.

I know, like choosing a favorite child right?

That's exactly what I was going to say. I've had so many good meals, so many good meals. And that would be from places like La Barbecue and Mueller Barbecue and Black's Barbecue and Southside Barbecue or Little Miss Barbecue. I could keep going. An incredible place in California where we ate in the gentleman's backyard and we did barbacoa under the ground. We had amazing mutton in Kentucky. I stood there in a pit in Tennessee with Helen Brown, and got my eyes almost bugged out because there was so much smoke and had these incredible succulent pork sandwiches. I literally could keep going, there were so many great moments. 

We were in Memphis, eating one of the best turkey legs of my life. Cozy Corner eating Cornish game hens and smoked bologna. I couldn't do it ... There were too many amazing moments. There were too many moments where I would give anything to go back and repeat. And many of those people, so many of those people after all of these years have now stayed in touch. It's amazing, the friendships you forge. And a lot of them were friends with me before. Barbecue once again, it just brings people together through wood fire goodness.

And that's another reason why I've been with Traeger for so long because one of the key things for me is that if a company doesn't align with my own personal goals, I'm one of those people. I have to have that kind of alignment of personal goals. And so when it comes to my own relationships with all these great barbecue owners, that feeling you get when you eat barbecue, that bringing people together, it's really important to me. It's so important to me because, I've always said this in every interview, and I'm going to repeat it for you now, because I truly believe it. One of the things about barbecue is that it doesn't just feed you. It doesn't just feed your body. Barbecue feeds your soul because it brings people together. And that's one of the best things about being with companies that do that as well. That is so important. It's a core integrity thing for me. You got to be with the people that have the same alignment for you.

The chef that Danielle Bennett would love to have cook her dinner

What is one chef that you would want to have them cook you dinner?

I think I would say Jacques Pepin. I like the way he speaks to people. I like how he cooks at home, and he is not pretentious. I'm not a big fan of pretentious food. I can make pretentious food. I have every tool to make it here, but I don't like pretentious food. So, Jacques Pepin.

And then I would also say, I'm going to turn it. It wouldn't be a chef. It'd be my grandma. You know why? Because she was the driving force in me learning so many culinary things in my life. Her husband was from Quebec, she was from out west and they lived in Quebec for a while, and then they went to Ontario. And one of the things about my grandmother is that I learned how to make so many dishes that are very elevated culinary dishes. My grandmother never knew the terms for them. She didn't know what fond was in a pan. She didn't know what glace was. She didn't know any of these incredible terms over the years, but she taught me those techniques because that's what we always did. She taught me how to make a stock properly. She taught me how to make bread. She taught me how to make bread pudding. I could go on and on about all of the techniques that she taught me, but it was nothing to do with culinary school and everything to do with passed-down knowledge from her family.

So yeah, in all honesty, Jacques Pepin, because he's just cool as s***. And I think he's amazing. And it would be my grandmother because she was the culinary inspiration for everything that I do now. And this is why I understood a lot of techniques when I went to Liaison College for all those classes and all those courses. I was like, wait a second, I already know that. Okay. So that's what the term is for that.

And then, I like the science behind food a lot. I like understanding the molecular structure of things. So, I think people like, Milk Street, America's Test Kitchen. Any of those people from there I'd be all in for eating with them too, because I like knowing the science. I like to know what happens on the cell structure of the meat that I'm cooking or the vegetable, or the water molecules in pastry.

... And that also gives me an appreciation for how amazing the Traeger is, because I understand a lot of the science of what's going on with that smoke. ... I don't think I could put it down to one but that was about the best I could do.

Learn more about cooking your Thanksgiving dinner with Traeger's Thanksgiving guide. For more recipes and ideas from Danielle "Diva Q" Bennett follow her on Instagram.