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The Redneck BBQ Lab’s Jerry Stephenson: Interview with a Johnston County Legend

Last Updated on April 20, 2020

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The Redneck BBQ Lab is in a prime location at Exit 319 off I-40, otherwise known as McGee’s Crossroads in Johnston County. Unlike most of the other locally-owned North Carolina restaurants you’ll find, this place proudly serves competition-style barbecue.

Before you go asking about what that even is and why someone would do this, Jerry Stephenson talked about it with us at his restaurant.

He also shared his background before becoming a BBQ competitor and eventual restaurateur, things he’s learned while traveling in North Carolina and around, his menu, and even more during our interview.

This post is a part of our series that features the People of NC and North Carolina Food.

The Redneck BBQ Lab’s Jerry Stephenson: Interview

Redneck BBQ Lab Johnston County NC

BBQ Background

Redneck BBQ Lab Owner Jerry Stephenson Image

Jerry Stephenson is an Eastern North Carolinian through and through. He grew up with a barbecue at every funeral, wedding, holiday and it runs in his veins.

“I always thought that it was so cool how they would shovel fire under these things. I always wanted to do it.” Jerry eventually got to run his own coals and started cooking ‘cue as a way to earn some extra money.

But stoking the fire wasn’t the only thing Jerry did in college at East Carolina. While working in the statistic lab he learned from a professor who also brewed beer how to keep empirical data and notes for beer.

For even more background on this NC staple, check out Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue by John Shelton Reed. It’s one of many essential reads that we featured here

Scientific Background

Restaurants near Benson NC Redneck BBQ Image

“And that was so cool to me, how you can take something in a theoretical concept and you put in a quantitative data.” The science of smoking meat continues to be at the forefront of the Redneck BBQ Lab.

For competitions, everything is weighed out in grams and using the dynamics of the smokers and reactions, they cook as efficiently as possible.

The Redneck BBQ Experience

To be efficient, Jerry uses Ugly Drum Smokers using simple physics. With coal coming from the bottom, it traps heat and creates convection. Keeping it fueled at 225 degrees makes moist fall-off-the-bone turkeys, which turned into competing and eventually catering for this redneck.

Redneck BBQ Lab: A Competition-Style Restaurant

Competition Style Barbecue in North Carolina Benson NC Image
The Fat Redneck.

Jerry opened his competition-style barbecue restaurants in January 2017. Using the same smokers, rubs, and spices as he does in competition, the public is getting a taste of what it’s like to be tasting the real deal!

Redneck BBQ Lab isn’t Eastern or Lexington-style barbecue. While there is “sawse” on the table, it’s not whole-hog, vinegar-based, or a red dip.

“Our BBQ is what you do for competition: chicken, pork ribs, brisket, and pork shoulder,” Jerry explained.

Jerry also does whole or quartered chicken, St. Louis Ribs, and the most incredible competition burnt ends. Burnt ends are only served on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday while they last. So we definitely recommend being there as soon as they open to guarantee a plate!

All Fresh

Redneck BBQ Lab Benson NC Hidden Menu Sandwich Image
The Hidden Menu Sandwich: Burnt Ends, Link Sausage, Torched Provolone, and Jalapeno Slices. You’re Welcome!

Some other things you might notice about the menu is the absence of the typical Carolina hushpuppies to the plate. When Jerry started he said there would be, “no steamer, no microwave, no fryer, and no freezer. What you eat is fresh.”

When you pull into the gas station in McGee’s Crossroads looking for some ‘cue you probably won’t realize how much community outreach is happening after hours.

Any leftovers from Redneck BBQ Lab is donated to a homeless kitchen every morning.

“Food is a powerful thing. It can bring people together, it can get people’s attention, and you can use food as an awesome tool.”

Travel

But don’t be disappointed if you order your ‘que and don’t see Jerry. He clocks over 25,000 miles a year traveling for competition bringing home major awards.

“All travel brings together some of the most interesting, and even boring, people together.”

Advice for Us All

Benson NC Redneck Image

We also asked Jerry for some advice and he definitely dropped some knowledge bombs on us. Our biggest take away from him was this:

“Do your homework. Know what the rewards are, but also what risks are involved. Failure is the indication that you’re trying. The only way that you can do this is to jump off that cliff.”

Our Final Thoughts

I’m hopeful that in reading Jerry’s thoughts, you’ll be able to glean the absolute passion that he exhibits when chatting about BBQ, traveling to competitions, Johnston County, and everything else we talked about.

After we finished the interview, Christina and I got in line and ordered some lunch. What came out was one Fat Redneck sandwich (Brisket, Pulled Pork, and Collards) and a Pulled Pork Plate with Jalapeno Mac and Cheese and Collards.

We gobbled it all up because it was just too delicious to leave even crumb behind. And that’s all I really can say about that eating experience, mostly because it was a blur.

Local Places to Eat in North Carolina The Redneck BBQ Lab Johnston County
Not a bad lunch. Pulled Pork Platter on the left and The Fat Redneck on the Right.

Seeing the food, eating it, and then watching all the people around us happily chat with each other while they ate, convinced me that there’s something special happening here.

The Redneck BBQ Lab is definitely somewhere I think you should check out for yourself, too, if you haven’t already. So what are you waiting for?

Head out to McGee’s Crossroads and spend your next meal eating some of the most delicious and genuinely award-winning barbecue you’ll eat in North Carolina.

There, I said it. Now, it’s up to you to go and get some. Enjoy!

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