Elite Spotlight: Blue Smoke Blaire (@bluesmokeblaire)
Erica B. Roby keeps all the plates spinning at home, at the office, and on the road. Between raising her family, running her law practice, and filming her own digital series showcasing the BBQ community, she sat down with Dalstrong to chat about passing some hard tests, her journey to BBQ mastery, and what she’d have for her last meal.
You have a pretty unique resume for a pitmaster, can you tell us about your background?
Yes, my background is a bunch of strange events and occurrences. I started out as an attorney and I’m still doing that technically, but I started out as a criminal defense lawyer in Florida when I was 24 and I always said I wanted to do a murder trial. I thought once I’ve done a murder trial, then I’ll have done everything I need to do in criminal defense and can switch to a different kind of law.
Well I got that chance in about year two or three, one of the other attorney’s called me in to act as second seat for him in a murder trial, and it was really last minute. I got my Angela Landsbury on and really dug into it. The case went on for three days and I researched a ton of case law that I knew other people wouldn’t know about. On the day of the trial, my partner asked if I wanted to do the opening statement. We got in the courtroom and before I knew it, it was jury deliberation time. I knew our client was innocent, he was a member of a gang and had done a lot of bad things, but he was innocent of this and if he went down for this he would go away for multiple life sentences. I saw the jury foreman come out, and he read out “not guilty on every count.” They took the handcuffs off our client, off this young boy, and I knew right then and there, I had done everything I needed to do. I did something good. All the hard work of law school was worth it, and I keep in contact with him. He went to college, he has a family now, so I am really glad it went well for him.
And after criminal law?
I opened my own firm and did insurance litigation for years, but I started to get bored. I moved to Tampa because my husband at the time got a job there, and I didn’t know anybody. I was alone a lot of the time and even more bored, so I started learning about wine. I heard what a sommelier is and that it’s the hardest exam on the planet so I was like “sign me up!”
A friend told me about a school in California that taught people to become sommeliers, and something about it just felt right, you know? My marriage was in the tank, I had nothing tying me to Tampa, and my good friend told me if I didn’t follow this instinct and go to school in California she would drag me out there herself. I told my husband I was going, dyed my hair Beyonce blonde — never doing that again! — and started studying and working in Napa Valley.
So from LSATS to sommelier exams, you’ve proven you can handle being tested. Then what?
I was just so grateful and happy, just loving life and getting into more culinary interests because that was my scene. I applied for a job at the Marriott in San Diego to be their wine director. I thought I would live it up as a single lady in the city, but I met my husband in the first week. When I was pregnant with my son I was talking to my dad, and he said he was retiring and wanted to pursue some of his bucket list goals, part of which included opening a restaurant.
The more we talked, the more I realized we needed to learn, so I started doing my thing, researching and learning about BBQ. I signed up for a bunch of competitions before I really knew what it was all about. I came up with Blue Smoke because of the Dolly Parton song and hadn’t said it out loud until Harry Soo asked what my competition name was. I got those same goosebumps I had when I went to wine school — I just knew it was right.
But then COVID hit and all the competitions got canceled and I was like “what am I going to do now?” So I got on Instagram and started cooking and meeting new people there and really fell in love with the community. It became a total obsession.
Tell me a bit about your experience in the BBQ community.
It’s all about support. Everybody really truly wants to help you and be a part of your journey. It’s not an exclusive club. It’s a community.
I started competing for real deep down in Kentucky, and I was all by myself. Everyone was coming over and being so nice because I was in way over my head. They gave advice, offered help, one older guy, Bill from Indiana, came over and actually spent the whole night helping me out. He was so great, and thanks to him I turned in all my food on time. I came in dead last, but at least I competed!
And how did you get from there to BBQ Brawl?
One day I got a DM from a casting director saying they were making a show about BBQ and did I want to be in it. I thought it was a scam so I basically dismissed it, but then someone told me it was legit, so I filled out everything to sign up, and didn’t hear anything for a year.
Then in January 2021, I get a phone call from the Food Network. They told me “here’s your ticket, pack your bags, you’re going to Austin, Texas, for the next month or so.” Then they sent a follow up email with the name of the show, and I saw BBQ Brawl with Bobby Flay and Michael Symon, and I just about fainted. And that was before I walked into the hotel in Austin and saw Rodney Scott and Megan Day!
I called my dad to say I was nervous and he just said, “Don’t be your own enemy, go out there and show them what you’ve got.” So I did. As I was going through the competition I learned a lot about how to improve, I realized I had to present in a way that worked for television, not like how I would present at home. I had to take it to the next level.
I remember my dad told me I was there representing Ohio, women, women of color, people who change careers late in the game to pursue their passions, people who haven’t made that move yet but who need the push. That pumped me up. I went back in with a battle cry. I decided to cook what I grew up with, I was showing myself, my culture, my family up there on the screen. And that’s what got me through to the finish, was that genuine, honest self.
When they announced that I had won, I couldn’t believe it. I thought I was imagining it. I had my Dalstrong knives with me all through that show because I had been using them ever since I started in BBQ, because that’s what the community told me to buy.
After that show ended, I was looking for what’s next, and I decided I wanted to help other people tell their stories. So I got in my RV, drove all down through the South and went to restaurants, explained my idea, and asked for an interview. Before I knew it, I had people calling and writing asking to get interviewed. We just wrapped up season two, and we have a full list of people waiting to be filmed for next season. It’s been so great and such a good way to pay it back.
What are the highs and lows for you, what do you love to cook and what not so much?
I love cooking briskets, I love the Texas lunch box where you have all your proteins. I hate baking, if you ask me to bake something … nah, girl! Anything that requires you to strictly adhere to a recipe? That’s a no-go for me.
How do you spend your time when you’re not grilling?
Right up in my office, doing law work. That’s how I pay the bills to buy the grills.
If you could cook for anyone, past or present, who would it be?
There is a female race car driver, Toni Breidinger, she’s the first Arab-American female race car driver, and I would love to cook for her. I would be so honored, she’s so amazing. I can only imagine what she goes through in her industry and she comes out flawless every time. She’s a really cool lady.
When you’re looking at partnerships, what do you look for?
I treat my partnerships like relationships. I have to actually like the product. I have to like the people behind it, and I have to stand for what they stand for. If that’s not there, I won’t do it. And it has to be approachable for people, too. I grew up broke, I didn’t know I was broke because everyone around me was broke, so I want to promote something that is reachable. If 10-year-old Erica’s family couldn’t afford it, it’s not accessible. Especially in the BBQ community, we really use our tools so it has to be something that can stand the wear and tear. It has to be something with good customer service, too.
Who are your cooking heroes?
I collect old cookbooks and stuff so there are a lot from the 1800s and the 1900s that I look back to for inspiration, and right now for BBQ it's Rodney Scott. And not just because I met him, but because I went and got his cookbook, as well, and he’s really truthful in his recipes and that is so important. He’s so kind and humble too, I message him and talk to him online — him and Michael Symon, he’s from Ohio, too, so I’m always messing with him. We were just ripping each other about the Bengals. Those two — not only are they so humble, but they make recipes that you can actually do yourself. They are great chefs, and they manage to break it down so other people can replicate it. They’re my boys.
In BBQ Brawl, we won a challenge, and he lit a fire for us the way he does, with the pig fat, and afterwards I dug through the embers and pulled out one of the embers that had cooled down. I keep it on my nightstand, because originally I thought “when I get eliminated, I’m going to show him this and I let him know, this is a symbol of how far someone can go. Two years ago I was in my mom’s basement in my underwear watching him on TV and today here I am in front of him…” but I never got to show it to him because I never got eliminated. He’s so nice. He truly represents BBQ love. He wants you to succeed.
What’s your best kitchen or grilling hack?
If you’re trimming brisket, you have to have cold meat. If it warms up the fat starts melting and it’s dang near impossible to slice through it. That turns a lot of people off of brisket, but it can be nearly frozen and you can still trim it. It’s a really simple hack once you know it.
What is the one dish that everyone seems to screw up?
I think flan and anything else that you have to set is really risky. People don’t have the time or the patience or I don’t know what, but it messes with people.
Is there a spice or a dish that you secretly hate?
Star Anise. I love the smell of it, but not that licorice taste. It reminds me of when you were a kid and everyone took all the good candy and you were left with that bad taste.
What is the kitchen tool you can’t live without?
Definitely my knives, the first one I got was the Dalstrong slicer. That thing has gotten me through battle. It is literally the best knife ever. It gives you so much surface area and I find you can use it for anything. That, and a rolling pin. I use that to roll out my spices and bring that flavor out.
What would your last meal be?
I’m doing a full on, cajun crawfish broil. I mean everything, all the fixings, all the sides, put on the table, I’m getting my big girl on. And butter for days.
What’s next for you?
We’re going back out on the competition circuit. Memphis in May is coming up so I’m waiting to see if I have a spot. Pretty sure I do, and I actually want to place this year. The second season of my show is coming out so we’re in post-production right now and I’m so excited for that, I really can’t wait for that to drop so I can show everyone what we were doing and give justice to all these great pitmasters.
Erica’s new digital series, “The Pit Stop w/ Blue Smoke Blaire” has been nominated for Best BBQ Series. Join her as she travels the country exploring the best barbecue around. Find Erica on her website https://bluesmokeblaire.com/ and at @bluesmokeblaire on Instagram.