Meet Erica Blaire Roby
"A lot of people scratch their heads when they hear my story, but those who know me just chuckle and give an understanding nod. Even though I’ve been in some of the most classy establishments as a lawyer and a sommelier… the inner me is — and has always been — a gritty, bare-knuckle brawler who’s not afraid to get her hands and dress dirty!”
Recipes From Erica Blaire Roby
Born to Grill™ With Erica Blaire Roby
Through the years, one thing has been constant for me and my dad: barbecue. My earliest memories as a young girl involve sitting by his side next to his grill, where we’d talk about my daily melodramatic grade school crises or my dad giving me life lessons over the pit. To this day, we still bond over the pit, and it’s why, after becoming a lawyer, then transitioning into a sommelier… I finally made the leap of faith into the BBQ world.
I’m still a lawyer in my day-to-day: it’s how I pay the bills to buy the grills! But this journey from law to wine school to BBQ was really about curiosity and challenging myself. It was my curiosity about everything and always pushing myself out of my comfort zone; doing things differently, and ultimately proving to myself that I can do anything I put my sights on, which led me down this path.
Fast forward to today and here we are — I’m pursuing an even bigger dream to open a BBQ restaurant with my dad, still competing on the BBQ circuit, and somewhere along the way, I was named Master of ‘Cue for winning Season 2 of Food Network’s “BBQ Brawl.” To say it's been a journey is an understatement. A lot of people scratch their heads when they hear my story, but those who know me just chuckle and give an understanding nod. Even though I’ve been in some of the most classy establishments as a lawyer and a sommelier… the inner me is — and has always been — a gritty, bare-knuckle brawler who’s not afraid to get her hands and dress dirty!
Q & A With Erica Blaire Roby
How did Blue Smoke Blaire get started?
I started talking to my dad when I was living in San Diego and on maternity leave after I had my son. My dad was talking about the things he wanted to do, and one of them was starting a BBQ restaurant. I said, “If you’re gonna do this, then let’s do it as a family.” We started going over how it would work, and I realized I needed to learn how to BBQ every protein, in case we hire people who quit, and it’s just me and my dad on the ones and twos on the restaurant BBQ grill.
In between taking care of my newborn and rejoining the workforce, I started watching BBQ shows, which led me to researching competition BBQ. I signed up for competitions because I figured it would be the best way for people to tell me what my food tasted like and if it was good enough to have in a restaurant. But to sign up, I had to have a team name, so I started looking through what was out there. Me and my husband got on Instagram trying to figure out a name that goes with “Roby.” We had some very atrocious ones that we’re very embarrassed about and laugh about to this day. One of them was “Rib Rub Roby.” We wrote it down and he said, “Oh no, you can’t go by that.” [Laughs.] So then we looked up BBQ terms and saw “blue smoke.” With a name like Blaire, I thought “Blue Smoke Blaire.” There’s also a Dolly Parton song called “Blue Smoke,” so that helps. We registered it, and I signed up for my first competition as Blue Smoke Blaire!
Up until this point, I had never said my BBQ name out loud, then I went to Harry Soo’s house for a BBQ cooking class. He asked if anybody there competed, but I was too scared to speak up and didn’t raise my hand. The guy next to me whispered and said, “You do, so raise your hand!” At that very moment, Harry Soo asked what my team name was, and I said it for the first time out loud into the universe. I felt like something was happening; I felt this energy and I knew I had just breathed life into Blue Smoke Blaire.
What can you tell us about the team? Are you still on the circuit?
I’m still on the circuit with an all-female team. It’s my mom, and then I bring in other female BBQ people who are interested. It’s funny, the first competition I went to, I was all by myself in LeBurn, Kentucky. I rented an Enterprise or U-Haul truck, loaded everything up, and drove down from Ohio. People were looking at me like I had 6 heads, asking if I was a judge, if I was lost, or here to help. And I was like, “No, I have my own team!” Everybody kept looking at me like, “Just park right here and put your stuff right there so we can keep our eye on you.” [Laughs.] After 30 minutes, though, I had all these people coming over helping me, setting up my tent and everything. Nobody knew who I was, but when they found out I was by myself, they said, “You’re crazy, but we’ll help. If you need runners, someone to take boxes to the judges, whatever you need, we’re a community and you’re welcome here. We’ve got your back.” Never once have I ever felt like anyone discriminated against me or didn’t take me seriously. Everybody has been so good to me.
My best BBQ friend is a 53-year old man from Indiana named Bill Maegerlein , a grand champion a gazillion times over for Thunderhog BBQ. We have absolutely nothing in common, but we’re literally best friends. We’ve talked for hours on end about BBQ and life, and that wouldn’t have ever happened, our paths would’ve never crossed, if not for BBQ. I really think BBQ is the last frontier of hospitality. My dad has always said that BBQ is a universal welcome mat that brings people together. I’ve had so much fun competing on the circuit. Being a lawyer and a sommelier, those scenes are not always that friendly. It can be very adversarial, always trying to be better than everyone else. It’s a welcome change to be in a place where people cheer for each other’s successes.
You only just got started in BBQ, so how did you find yourself cooking for Bobby Flay’s team on TV? That seems like it all happened so fast.
There has to be divine intervention. In the natural world, this shouldn’t have happened. [Laughs.] I’m always trying to figure that out. I think that maybe BBQ was ready for the next generation, and so many amazing women grillers and smokers are coming up. Social media is giving us a platform where we’re starting to be noticed. It’s the work of these women and the women that came before me and getting us recognized now.
So, how did Food Network find you?
Food Network actually slid into my DMs, casting for this show. At first, I thought it was fake, so I took a screenshot and sent it to my Instagram pit master group asking if it was real or fake. The DM asked me to interview over Skype, but who uses Skype anymore? I thought they might be trying to get my credit card information. But one of my friends said, “No, they are real. I worked with them for a real show, so write them back now.” So, I did!
My first day on set meeting everybody, I was blown away by the cameras, the people everywhere. I saw Bobby and Michael (Symon) and Eddie (Jackson) and was like, [gasp]. “Oh my God, they’re breathing the same air as me; they’re not just on my TV in the basement.” But they put me at ease because they’re so chill. My goals were pretty simple: make sure I don’t go home first, don’t have a meltdown, and don’t do anything super embarrassing. Oh, and make sure my hair is on point! Your family in New Orleans will talk about you if you’re up there looking rough. [Laughs.]
Being on Bobby’s team had to be intimidating.
I wouldn’t even make eye contact with Bobby because I was so nervous. I thought, “He’ll see the fear in my eyes!” So I just hung back for the first half of the show. I barely said anything, trying to be a houseplant in a corner. [Laughs.] I was moving on, it was fun, and then I started getting confident. By midseason, I was like, “I’m supposed to be here. People just like me are coming from different careers or want to make a career change because they know there’s a song in their heart to sing somewhere else. You've come so far by faith and leaping and taking chances. Don’t be a wallflower anymore; stand up and roar like a lion. Cook what you know, and do you.”
In the beginning, I was just trying to be a team player, but a lot of times that would get me in trouble. Everybody else was doing them, and I’m over there trying to get the team spirit award. [Laughs.] I quickly realized I had to do my thing or I’d get kicked off. Inside I knew what to do: cook from my culture, my family, what I know; start doing that instead of trying to do things not natural to myself. The first day on set, Bobby told me, “Do you wanna know how I do well on these shows? I only cook what I know.” And that was like Mr. Miyagi from “The Karate Kid'' — when the whistle blew to start cooking, I heard Bobby in my head saying, “Cook what you know.” I started cooking with memories and stories in mind. I remembered cooking with my mom, times when Aunt Edna was boiling a pot of grease and everyone in the family was running around, things like that. I felt ancestral warmth coursing through my veins and guiding my hands at each challenge. I started feeling true confidence in my skill set.
What was it like to one day just show up on set of a huge production like a Food Network show?
I thought, “Is this really happening?” I mean, I go from being in the basement with my mom, dad, baby, and husband for Sunday dinners watching Food Network, watching Discovery, and seeing these people on TV to actually being on TV. You never wonder how the people got on these shows; they’re just there. When I actually got on TV myself, it was like, “Whoa. You’re not in Dayton, Ohio, anymore.” It’s huge and very intimidating, an eat-or-be-eaten world that could go either way. It’s such a big machine with so many moving parts: people running around, there’s always something moving, cameras within inches of your face. It's extremely efficient and professional.
Then there’s winning the whole thing — how do you keep a secret like that for months?
Because I’m a lawyer, I know how to keep secrets! [Laughs.] I knew it was serious and that I had to, but it was so hard to sit and watch with my parents and uncles and aunts on Zoom all talking crap. “Oh, you’re going home tonight!” And I’m just sitting there dying. I would go do fake laundry, fold clothes or something, because I thought they were gonna bait me and I was gonna slip. I had friends in the pit masters’ group on Instagram who were taking bets on which episode I’d get kicked off! For a second I was like, “I gotta cash in on this!” But I was taking notes and determining who I’d still be friends with after the finale. [Laughs.]
People would try to be slick, asking things like, “How long were you down there filming?” to try to get a sense of how far I made it. The only people close to guessing were my mom and dad. They knew I was gone for a really long time — because they were babysitting my kid! I told them I stayed back because I had to do interviews and resets, but they didn't buy it.
What was it like when the finale aired and you finally didn’t have to keep that secret anymore?
It was awesome! I watched it with my mom and dad. This is pretty funny: a few episodes before the finale, my final teammate, Taylor, got cut, leaving me by myself. I cried on the show because I was by myself; I knew it was like open-season dodgeball and that people would be gunning for me to get me off the show. Well, when that aired, my dad was making fun of me for crying on TV! He was ruthless! He’d say, “Oh, that’s an ugly cry.”
But then the finale came — I’m mad I didn’t record it — and I saw him getting emotional as we were sitting there waiting for the judges to come back. He was really quiet, swallowing hard, sitting on the edge of his seat. When I was crowned champ, I looked over and he was crying. I said, “Look who’s crying now!” [Laughs.] He was happy-bawling, looking over at me and saying, “I can’t believe it.” My mom was so happy, too. My son, who’s a toddler now, looked at me and said, “OK, can we watch Mickey Mouse now? Power Rangers?” It was time for cartoons! [Laughs.]
A day later, it had sunk in for everybody. My dad actually came back into my office and said, “You know, technically I’m the Master of ‘Cue because I taught you everything you know. Where’s that banner at? It’s gonna go up in my office.” [Laughs.] He’s been telling everybody at his veterans’ bowling league that he’s Master of ‘Cue. And my husband was like, “You’ve taken my man card. All I ask is that you don’t buy an F-350; it’s all I have left!” He’s retired from the Navy, and all his Navy buddies have been ribbing him, too. [Laughs.]
What does being Master of ‘Cue mean to you?
It means you can do anything you put your mind to. This title symbolizes dogged determination, perseverance, and the reward for believing in yourself and advocating for yourself, that you can be anything you want. It’s about investing in yourself and your belief you can do anything and are capable of anything. It’s a testament to bravery and stick-to-itiveness and taking a risk and a chance — not being scared to put yourself out there and potentially fail.
Your digital series for Food Network included some really interesting things like salt blocks, bamboo steaming, and banana leaves. Between that and the authentic international spin on some of your “BBQ Brawl” dishes, where does your inspiration come from?
A lot of it came from traveling and my parents. They were both in the Air Force and were in Asia a lot, stationed in Korea and the Philippines. They brought a lot back from that part of the world, and that’s how I grew up. It was an understanding of those cuisines, and then traveling myself. I lived in Hawaii when I was in high school, so I was exposed to a lot of cuisines: Japanese, Filipino, Indonesian, and Korean.
It has to do with my family heritage, too. We are a very big mixed bag. It’s always been cool because my dad is from New Orleans, and his mom’s family line is from Cuba, so we’ve always had that flair and that style of cooking. Combined with the New Orleans influence, my mom’s side is from the South but with a very large amount of North African heritage, so I had that affinity too. Being able to pull from that, I have all these cultures I can cook from. I’ve never shied away from any of it. We’ve always been a family of fearless eaters! [Laughs.]
What’s your earliest BBQ memory?
It has to be the first time my dad let me touch the grill. It was a pretty big event for me. I was so excited — well, actually terrified. Dad was grilling steaks and also repairing our deck at the time. I was outside with him like usual, and he called over to me and said, “Hey, flip the steaks for me” because he was stuck working on the deck. I was maybe 9 or 10. At that age, the grill looks monstrous, and that’s for the adults anyway. But I knew he needed me because he was stuck on the deck.
So I marched over there with all my courage, lifted the lid, felt the heat, grabbed the tongs, and said, “You’re gonna do this, girl. Everybody’s depending on you!” You’d have thought I was George Washington crossing the Delaware River, all 3-foot-9 of me walking around big and tall. [Laughs.] I flipped those steaks, heard the sizzle, and it was game over. You couldn’t get me away from the grill after that. That night as everyone was eating, I was looking around the table and watching to see what people thought of the food. Nobody really cared, but it was a big deal for me.
Are there any lessons from your other professions that have helped you in the BBQ world?
Definitely! Being a sommelier, I’m relying on my senses like taste and smell to be able to describe a wine that somebody can’t try before they buy. I have to know that it goes perfectly with their meal. I relied on that a lot during “BBQ Brawl” and in competitions when making a rub and trying to get a sauce right. I use those senses and think, “What will this be like after it’s cooked?”
Then my nerves of steel came from being a trial attorney. At 24, I was a criminal defense attorney in Miami. People’s lives are on the line, and I’m the only line of defense. Being able to get through to somebody, to get the truth and get them to trust you, that was invaluable. I’m also used to walking into a courtroom and the entire room is stacked against you. Everyone wants to see you fail — it’s literally their job. I learned not to take it personally and to come out swinging on everybody. Doing something like that since 24 has given me so much confidence. It’s why I go and take risks and take chances and drive into the middle of Kentucky to go compete by myself. [Laughs.] I can handle it.
Do you have advice for anyone trying to get started in the BBQ scene?
Take a BBQ class. They’re usually only one day, so you get the basics down or at least get familiar with it. Get on social media, Instagram, and start surrounding yourself with BBQ people; the groups there are super helpful. Take ego out of it — be OK with criticisms, or you won’t make it. Practice, and don’t take shortcuts. Start out and sit by an offset smoker for 12 hours through the night. Learn how it works and try everything.