Adam Hughes, a competitive pitmaster from Edenton, will represent North Carolina in a “Chopped” showdown to end all barbecue showdowns.
Tuesday, on Food Network’s “Chopped Grill Masters,” Hughes prevailed over three other pitmasters from North Carolina — heavy hitters on the competition circuit and the chef of one of the state’s best-known barbecue joints.
They were Melanie Dunia, the executive chef at The Pit in Raleigh; Chris Prieto of Prime Barbecue; and Jerry Stephenson of the Redneck BBQ Lab.
Dunia finished as the runner-up.
On Aug. 28, Hughes will take on the winners of Memphis, Texas and Kansas City episodes. He competes nearly half the weekends of the year in barbecue tournaments under the name “Old Colony Smokehouse.”
The ultimate winner will take home $50,000, but clearly regional barbecue bragging rights are on the line.
Throughout the episode in the “Chopped” kitchen, the chefs were given a basket of North Carolina-tinged ingredients that they had to incorporate in a dish in a certain time frame. First appetizers in 20 minutes, then an entree in 30 minutes and a dessert in 30 minutes.
At the end of each round, a pitmaster was eliminated or, ahem, chopped.
Stephenson exited after Round 1 and was followed by Prieto in Round 2 with his entree.
That left Dunia and Hughes to come up with a dessert using a strawberry sonker (already a fruity dessert), sweet tea, sweet potatoes and Moravian cookies.
Hughes made a sweet potato pudding with strawberry fluff, an ode to his grandmother’s sweet potato casserole.
Judges praised the dish’s influences and that the pitmaster had focused more on presentation than previous dishes in the competition.
“You really brought it here today,” said Marc Murphy, one of the judges.
Dunia, called a “chef on the rise” during the show, served fried wontons filled with strawberry sonker alongside sweet potato puree with a sweet tea reduction.
Host Ted Allen said the decision came down to the technical cooking of Dunia versus Hughes’ cooking from the heart.
Ultimately, Dunia came up short, with Hughes taking the win and earning the right to represent North Carolina against the other barbecue regions.
Here’s a look at the North Carolina winner and fellow competitors, who were interviewed before the episode.
Adam Hughes, Old Colony Smokehouse, Edenton
This general contractor from Edenton spends half his weekends a year at barbecue competitions.
Hughes started grilling while in college at East Carolina. Grilling turned into smoking, and smoking turned into trying out competition barbecue on a lark.
Hughes has been cooking on the Southeast competitive barbecue circuit since 2015 but has won three grand championships and has a few dozen Top 10 finishes.
Though he usually cooks shoulders, pork ribs, chicken and brisket, Hughes said North Carolina’s pit-cooked whole hog is the most fundamental barbecue of all regions.
“North Carolina is the most basic type of barbecue; it goes back to the roots of man,” Hughes said. “As far as representing North Carolina, the dishes we prepared spoke to North Carolina: traditional, simple ingredients.”
Hughes believes his passion for his home state is what landed him on the show.
“There’s probably not another person in the competitions that has as much pride in North Carolina,” he said. “I’m so proud to be from North Carolina — Eastern North Carolina. It’s something I wear on my sleeve.”
As a home cook whose hobby became a passion, Hughes said he felt a little out of place in the “Chopped” kitchen, a six-burner stovetop in the middle of a brightly lit studio. There’s TV magic, for sure, he said: hours of interviews and photo shoots, but the cooking is real.
“I was a nervous wreck the entire time I was there, but once the clock started and I was cooking, I was doing what I like to do and it was fun,” Hughes said. “When I watched (‘Chopped’), I thought surely they have more than 20 minutes. But the time is the time. There’s no second take.”
Melanie Dunia, The Pit, Raleigh
As the executive chef of The Pit in downtown Raleigh, Dunia steers one of North Carolina’s best-known barbecue restaurants. Dunia grew up in Raleigh and cooks whole hog barbecue day in and day out.
But she didn’t grow up on it. Hailing from New York state, Dunia said her parents know “barbecue” as hamburgers and hotdogs grilled out back on a summer day. Her own barbecue upbringing started as a sous chef at The Pit, where she eventually worked her way up to the executive chef spot.
While many of the Grill Master competitors are old-school barbecuers, Dunia’s kitchen chops may be her advantage in the “Chopped” studio.
“It gave me a chance to really show what I can do,” Dunia said. “At first I thought, ‘There’s no way I could cook a hog for 10 hours in 30 minutes.’ ... But I think it definitely does help me. At The Pit, guests are coming in and looking to get a meal in and out.”
The Pit serves brisket and the stylings of Eastern and Western Carolina, but Dunia said her heart belongs to whole hog, eastern-style.
“North Carolina prides itself on cooking whole hogs and has been doing it for hundreds of years,” Dunia said.
She said she was a fan of “Chopped,” but when producers reached out to be on the show, she was initially hesitant, preferring to tend to fires behind the scenes than star in front of the camera. But after a series of Skype interviews and an application, she took the plunge.
“I try to stay out of the spotlight,” Dunia said. “But it was everything I thought it would be. An intense environment.”
Chris Prieto, Prime Barbecue, Knightdale
Raised in Texas but settled in North Carolina, Prieto’s barbecue background is divided. He embraces them both — the brisket and the whole hog — but wants to see more Texas passion in North Carolina’s barbecue landscape.
“When I stand in line at barbecue places in Texas, everyone is happy to be there,” Prieto said. “There’s a deep barbecue culture in North Carolina, but no one really waiting in line. I think it’s time.”
Though he’s written barbecue cookbooks, appeared on the Destination America series “BBQ Pitmasters” and taught classes, Prieto just broke ground on his first restaurant, Prime Barbecue in Knightdale. It’s on track to open by the end of the year.
Prieto says he takes a cerebral approach to barbecue, researching and perfecting techniques. That includes the traditions of North Carolina.
“My culinary background really bloomed in North Carolina, I really matured here,” Prieto said. “I have a lot of passion for North Carolina. It’s where my kids were born, it’s where my wife is from. Every dish I made I wanted people to know they could drape a giant N.C. flag around it.”
Jerry Stephenson, Redneck BBQ Lab, Benson
Jerry Stephenson opened his first restaurant, the Redneck BBQ Lab, a year and a half ago, lining the walls of the Benson restaurant with dozens of competition trophies as a kind of barbecue bling. He and his sister, Roxanne Manley, spend half the year on the road competing under the name Redneck Scientific.
Stephenson is on the show because of his daughter, a “Chopped” fan who wanted her dad to give it a try. She pleaded with him to give it a go.
“Next thing I know, I’m getting a call from a television producer,” Stephenson said. “I was hesitant. I’m not really a public guy. I hate being the ‘I’ guy, the ‘me’ guy. I did it for my daughters and Johnston County and to promote our shop and store.”
The hardest thing, Stephenson said, was being sworn to secrecy by an air-tight nondisclosure agreement. His wife didn’t know he would be on the show until about a month ago.
Stephenson knows competition barbecue like breathing but said being on “Chopped” is like comparing apples and oranges. But even under the bright lights of the studio camera, the pang of adrenaline and thinking on the fly is the same.
“The moment you’re standing over the basket, when they ask you to open it up, it’s like looking in the smoker and seeing the brisket drying out,” Stephenson said. “The show is split-decision stuff. You can’t really prepare for it.”