Chris Prieto is a pitmaster, author, barbecue competition judge, overall barbecue connoisseur, and owner of his new restaurant, PRIME barbecue, that will be opening soon in Knightdale, North Carolina. Prieto's passion ensued after his first bite of barbecue in the back of an old grocery store meat market when he was just five years old in Houston, Texas. Ever since that defining moment, Prieto has been perfecting the art and science of slow-smoked meats. After years of traveling around the country competing in the biggest barbecue competitions and studying under some of the greatest pitmasters, Prieto has created his own signature style that fuses together elements of Texas, North Carolina and Kansas City flavors.
I recently attended the groundbreaking ceremony for Prieto's restaurant and had the pleasure of interviewing him afterwards. Prieto shared his thoughts on the golden age of barbecue, where he draws his inspiration from, his motivation to make PRIME barbecue an all-encompassing experience and his advice for aspiring restaurateurs.
Cara: First off, could you tell me a little bit more about your background and how you got into barbecue?
Chris: I was born in Bryan, Texas, and raised in Houston. I lived half of my life in Texas and half in North Carolina--like a storm of beef and pork. When I was five years old, my father gave me my first bite of barbecue. He'd moved from Puerto Rico and had never tried it himself. That moment was the first and only thing in my life that has impacted me so deeply. Every time I saw those glowing BBQ letters I stopped to get a bite. In the 80s, barbecue wasn't very sought after...but now is the golden age of barbecue. Before, the pitmaster wasn't a position held in high regard, but I knew that was what I wanted to be.
Cara: When did you know you wanted to open a restaurant?
Chris: When I was 19, I became a professional barbecue competition cook. We traveled the whole country competing in the biggest contests...and I also spent time traveling the country studying under the biggest pitmasters. Keep in mind that I had to cultivate these relationships before social media--I had to earn my way into their pitrooms to learn their techniques and styles because I knew that's what I wanted to do some day. I've had every opportunity to open my own restaurant since I was 25, but I never felt it was the right time until now. I wrote a book for Southern Living, I've been on BBQ Pitmasters...traveling and teaching the mystery behind barbecue has really been my passion.
Cara: That's amazing. Can you tell me more about your signature style of barbecue and what makes it different than others?
Chris: Sure. I've spent a lot of time not having a specific style because I don't want to be known for only cooking one thing. I think that's what a lot of chefs confine themselves to. Our most popular dish is our brisket because no one else makes it like we make it here with the unique trimming style and the flavors. The focus is on making one bite tell an entire story. That's how it is in competition barbecue--you turn in six tiny little pieces of barbecue and a judge gets one small bite...so I have to tell a judge my entire story and why my barbecue is better in just one bite and do it better than 60-80 other people. My goal is to give you barbecue where you're just in awe of the whole experience. Everything is wrapped around experience. We're going to be cooking whole hogs, brisket, German-style sausage, smoked turkey breast, beef, lamb and pork ribs...we're going to be very protein heavy with only a few sides, which will probably shock people.
Cara: What kind of sides?
Chris: Our signature sides will be a sweet potato salad, a mustard slaw, smoked gouda mac n cheese and our brisket beans which have all of the fat and trimmings from our barbecue.
Cara: What's been your biggest milestone so far, and what has been your smartest move in coming up with the vision for PRIME?
Chris: I think my biggest milestone is my next one. I'm all about momentum. I simply start a fire and put meat on it--I have the simplest job when you think about it. Being patient is the biggest thing throughout all of this--you have to be ready. Just because you want to do something doesn't mean you have to do it right away. I've grown so much since I was 25. I put the right people in front of me to tell me I wasn't ready yet, to tell me, "you think you're great--you have all of these awards but it means nothing yet."
Cara: Where do you get your inspiration from?
Chris: I get a lot of my inspiration from the Bible. I read through scripture any time I feel like this path isn't the right direction and I'm continually looking to God's word to see that it is. Secondly, my wife pours into me so much and I don't deserve it. I don't deserve to be loved and supported so much. I told her over one dinner when we were dating--she asked me what my goals were and after I told her, she looked at me and held my hands and told me I would achieve it.
Cara: Finally, do you have any advice for anyone who wants to open a restaurant?
Chris: Yes, I have tons of advice, and I'm still receiving it myself. Patience is the biggest thing. Then, surrounding yourself with the right people who support your vision. Thirdly, always continue to have faith in what you're doing. Always keep focus on the one main objective of what you're after. That's the formula I see in the most successful restaurateurs. I used to burn a brisket whether you can believe it...it just shows that failure is the necessary foundation of greatness. You have to really fail and understand what that feels like and know where you came from. That's where the growth will stem from.