PHOTOS: Matthew Gaulin
Ashley Nadeau goes hog wild on the competitive grilling circuit.
You could call 10-year-old Ashley Nadeau lots of things.
Sweetheart of swine. Grilling goddess. Swine-o-mite.
But the cheerful, fun-loving girl already has a handle she loves. “I’m Uncle Kenny’s BBQ Diva,” she says, grinning ear to ear.
That’s the name Ashley registers under when she competes in local, regional and national barbecue competitions. The tag fits. Uncle Kenny is the name of her dad’s BBQ restaurant, where Ashley sometimes takes orders, busses tables, sells merchandise and perfects her grill skills.
In her world, Barbie takes a backseat to Barbie-cue.
Inside Clermont-based Uncle Kenny’s BBQ, numerous trophies tell the story of a successful girl who smokes competitors and twice earned the title of grand champion in the kid’s division.
Ashley excitedly points to her trophy from the World Series of BBQ—American Royal, held in Kansas City last October. This particular trophy is extra special because the competition represents the Super Bowl of pork—a tribute to all that is sweet, sticky and delicious. The little BBQ diva went up against the crème de la crème of barbecue competitors throughout the U.S.
“She finished in 24th place in the 10 and under age division,” says her father, Kenny Nadeau, who competes in the same competitions as Ashley.
Ashley waves her finger and sets the record straight. “No! That’s wrong! I finished in 24th place out of 85 competitors. That includes both the 10-and-under age division and the 11-16 age division!”
It’s a Saturday afternoon and the green-eyed, brown-haired pixie sporting blue jean shorts, a black “Uncle Kenny’s BBQ” t-shirt and tennis shoes is working at a frantic pace inside the restaurant’s kitchen. Ashley remains unfazed while fish, burgers and chicken wings sizzle on two grills. She seamlessly moves from one task to another—flipping burgers on a grill, placing toothpicks inside mahi mahi and using a gentle stroke of an artist to spread a chili and honey sauce on wings.
“Look, the wings are all nice and shiny.”
She wouldn’t have it any other way. After all, this is a special occasion. She is anxiously awaiting the grand opening of “Ashley’s Superstore,” the newest addition to Uncle Kenny’s BBQ and a one-stop shop for barbecue accessories.
“Yes I’m excited that the store has my name in it,” she says, shaking her head up and down. “When I tell my friends about the store I have to say it in an exciting manner because some don’t believe me.”
Being excited is nothing new for the fourth-grade student at Real Life Christian Academy. Simply put, she has never met a stranger. Just ask customers at Uncle Kenny’s BBQ, where Ashley spends most Saturdays taking orders, serving food, working the cash register and cleaning dishes.
“The first time I met her she came right up to me and sat on my lap,” says Mark Lyons, who frequently drives from Auburndale with his wife Marilyn to dine at Uncle Kenny’s BBQ. “She’s mature for her age and knows how to interact with adults. She’s the hostess with the mostess.”
Ashley knows some customers by name. Most all customers know her name.
“Some customers will call on weekends just to see if Ashley is working,” Kenny says. “She’s well-known around here.”
Co-workers appreciate her cheerful personality as well.
“Ashley is a ball of energy and always in a good mood,” says Chris Nuss, a cook at Uncle Kenny’s BBQ. “She’s perky, polite and knows how to work the room. And she’s always willing to help Kenny and I when it comes to cooking.”
Ashley is equally popular on the barbecue competition circuit. Some of the food industry’s biggest stars have been attracted by the sight of a sweet, cute girl cooking a sizzling rack of ribs on a large smoker. Among them is the Food Network’s Guy Fieri.
“Guy happened to be at the World Series of BBQ,” Ashley says. “Some of the men and boys wanted to have their photograph taken with him, but he said no. Then he walked up to me and said, ‘But I will have a picture taken with this sweet young thing.’ I was star struck.”
That’s one of the more memorable moments for Ashley, who was introduced to the sport at a young age. After Kenny joined the barbecue circuit in 2005, the small girl accompanied him to various events. Ashley entered her first barbecue competition at the tender (pun intended) age of 3, and a father-daughter relationship began blossoming.
“Even though she was young, it was something special that we shared together and continue sharing together,” says Kenny, who competes in the pro division. “My wife accompanies us for support but she lets this be mine and Ashley’s thing.”
It became obvious early on that Ashley had a special talent for cooking the tastiest, most tender piece of meat possible. At 4, she finished second in her age division at the Hog Wild Pig Crazy BBQ Competition in Lake City. That day became extra special when one judge said her chicken marinated in Italian dressing was the tastiest pieces of meat he had ever eaten.
“Back then I cooked only hamburgers and chicken,” she says. “My dad allowed me to do the cooking but always assisted me with anything that had to do with fire.”
Now that she’s older, Ashley also cooks pork, ribs and pork chops. And during competitions, the independent girl absolutely refuses assistance from her father.
“I don’t let him help me with fire or anything else,” she says in an authoritative voice. “I tell him not to touch my food!”
Kenny has no beef with that. After all, he has his own meat to prepare and cook.
“I don’t influence her or tell her what to do. I want her to feel confident in her choices. If she wins she did it all on her own. If she doesn’t do well it’s a valuable lesson and she has to figure out what she can do better next time. I always fine-tune my meats, and I want her to do the same. I’m proud that she wants to be 100-percent independent, even if that means a small burn here and there.”
Ashley does sport a minor burn mark on her left arm. Sometimes, fire shoots out when she opens the lid of an open-flame grill. It hardly fazes her, though. It’s either grill or be grilled.
“I just put ice on it and continue cooking,” she says nonchalantly.
Nor does she mind when barbecue competitions become deliciously messy. When she uses a needle to inject meat with vinegar, juice sometimes shoots out and onto her face. Sticky fingers and stained clothes come with the territory.
“I wouldn’t want someone to hit me with a big ball of mud, but I really don’t care if I have barbecue sauce all over myself.”
Rise and swine
Kenny and Ashley compete 18 times a year and travel far away as North Carolina, Missouri and South Carolina. On Thursdays before competitions, they load up a 40-foot trailer with choice cuts of meat, their sauces and spices and their favorite smokers.
“We always leave on Thursday no matter where the competition is,” Kenny says. “The reason we do that is because I have to try to park the trailer at the competition, and that means squeezing into tight spaces.”
The trailer sleeps four people comfortably and includes a small kitchen, toilet and shower. It becomes their home away from home for the weekend. If an event is more than six hours away, the family stays one extra night instead of leaving after the Saturday evening awards ceremony. That allows them to soak in the unique atmosphere of a barbecue competition, which could be described as a giant tailgate party. Barbecue competitors are a close-knit family and love sharing tips about cooking methods, rubs and sauces.
“We all get along well because we share the same interest,” Kenny says. “I now have close friends in Iowa, Virginia, Louisiana and even Canada whom I’ve met at barbecue competitions.”
On Friday mornings, judges conduct inspections to ensure participants have not marinated or seasoned their meats beforehand. That night, competitors begin prepping their meats and put them in a smoker. Speaking of smokers, Ashley prefers high-tech. Hers has a built-in WiFi, allowing her to control and monitor temperature via a smartphone app. Thus, heat stays regulated and consistent.
“When heat is consistent, it adds tenderness and flavor to the meats,” she says.
Choosing the right blend of seasonings is a crucially important aspect of barbecue competitions. Ashley uses some of her father’s award-winning seasoning rubs such as Wild Bunch Butt Burner, Uncle Kenny’s Butcher Shop Garlic Lovers and Uncle Kenny’s BBQ Rub and Grill.
Saturday afternoon is when Ashley submits her meats to a panel of judges who score her entries on presentation, taste and tenderness. At the Florida Barbecue Association Fun Cook held last September, two judges awarded her with perfect scores in all three categories.
Perfection is extremely satisfying to Ashley, especially after all the careful planning and attention to detail that goes into her cooking. And those perfect scores are even sweeter considering most competitors in her age division are boys.
“Most of the boys are nice to me, but there are a few who think they can beat me because I’m a girl. It doesn’t bother me because I know girls can do anything as good as boys!”
One can easily respect Ashley’s competitive fire.
She not only smokes butts.
She kicks them, too.