Meet the Hillsborough woman who’s breaking barbecue gender norms in New Jersey

Alexandra Donnadio doesn’t mind if men don’t believe she can cook whole animals over an open fire.

Actually she laughs.

“I sit back and laugh because it’s something I enjoy doing, and if you’re going to judge a book by its cover, that’s your problem,” said the Hillsborough resident and owner of Iron & Oak Catering. “It happens a lot, but it’s nice to be able to prove people wrong.”

And proof that she does. Donnadio recently competed on FOX’s “Next Level Chef,” which inspired her to turn her side hustle cooking over open fires and catering for private parties into a business.

In addition to her full-time job as a ballistics detective with the Essex County Sheriff’s Department, she is one of the few people – even fewer women – bringing the South American and Texas-style experiences of open-fire cooking to New Jersey.

Donnadio offers open-fire experiences for private events, including everything from hot dogs and burgers to whole pigs, chicken and skirt steak, in addition to dishes like pork belly sliders and garlic, mussels and chorizo.

She will also be holding an open fire fundraising party at the Roseland/Caldwell VFW called Embers of Valor on Saturday, June 8 from 1-6 p.m. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the VFW, as well as 22Mohawks, a nonprofit suicide prevention organization for veterans and first responders. Tickets cost $70 for adults, $25 for children. Donnadio will be joined by nearly two dozen chefs who specialize in open-fire cooking, including a woman from Florida. For more information, visit

Donnadio cooks meat over oak for several hours after purchasing it from local farms such as Dogwood Creek Homestead in Frenchtown and Stryker Farm in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania.

“There’s something primal yet elegant about commanding a fire, being outside and watching your food being cooked,” Donnadio said. “And whether I’m feeding dozens of people or hundreds of people, there’s something amazing about watching people outside enjoying my food that I don’t get in a kitchen.”

Not that the people she feeds always know that she is doing the work.

“I recently served at a barbecue festival and everyone was like, ‘Where’s the chef?’ Donnadio said. “And I thought, ‘Surprise… it’s me.’ I just thought it was funny that in 2024 people were still undermining women’s power.”

But when it comes to cooking over an open fire, Donnadio thinks women have some advantages.

Earlier: Meet the Hillsborough home chef who cooks for Gordon Ramsay on ‘Next Level Chef’

“Cooking is very intuitive and when you’re outside you have to dig deeper into it,” she said. “It takes a different kind of patience to light the fire, cook whole animals and use the skills you have in the kitchen outside.”

Cooking over an open fire, Donnadio said, is not as scary as it seems. She advises women who are intimidated by it to look, ask questions, have fun and “just go for it.”

Sounds simple? In some ways it is, Donnadio said.

To see open-fire cooking techniques firsthand, aspiring chefs should turn on their stove’s burner and count how many seconds they can hold their hand over it as the flame is high, medium and low. That’s the same way open-fire cooking works, she said.

One day she hopes to teach open-fire cooking to women.

On screen: How Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives helped Somerset County restaurants

Growing up in an Italian-American household in Hillsborough, Donnadio was used to seeing her mother fry up chicken cutlets and cook pasta al dente. But her love for cooking was forged and she especially enjoyed grilling steak or burgers.

After she started posting home cooking videos on her Instagram account @cookingwithzandge_s, which now has nearly 24,000 followers, she was invited to Texas to cook a whole cow.

She was hooked, even though she often found herself one of the few women at open-fire cooking events, especially in New Jersey.

“I’ve learned not to let people’s negative opinions influence me,” she said, “because I do what I love and what makes me happy – and my food makes other people happy. That’s all that matters.”

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Jenna Intersimone has been a staffer at the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey since 2014, though she’s a Jersey girl who considers herself an expert on everything from the Jersey Shore to the vibrant downtown Garden State. To get unlimited access to her stories of food, drink and fun, subscribe or activate your digital account today. You can also follow her on Instagram at @seejennaeat and on Twitter at @JIntersimone.