It’s no secret that North Carolina is home to some of the nation’s best barbecue. From chopped, to pulled, to ribs and everything in between, there is a virtual barbeque revolution taking place across the country not to mention right here in NC. There is no shortage of options to choose from and leading the pack in what has become an increasingly cut-throat and competitive industry, is third generation pitmaster Sam Jones.
Jones began his career in the barbecue business at an early age, helping his grandfather and uncle sell chopped pork at the famous Skylight Inn in his hometown of Ayden, NC. Sam’s grandfather, the late Pete Jones, opened the legendary eatery in the summer of 1947 at age 17. He ran the restaurant with an emphasis on the philosophy that hogs should be fresh and cooked whole over wood, the same tried-and-true method his ancestors adopted many generations prior, and which Sam says he has strived to uphold over the years even after his grandfather’s passing. Under Pete’s and Sam’s leadership, Skylight Inn has earned national praise from National Geographic, People, GQ, and many others, and has become a destination for barbecue lovers across the world.
In 2015, Sam partnered with longtime friend and former Skylight employee Michael Letchworth to open Sam Jones BBQ in Winterville, NC. Winterville is located just outside Greenville, which earlier this month played host to the North Carolina GOP convention. Rooted in the tradition of the NC whole-hog technique that Jones says he basically grew up with, Sam Jones BBQ also offers a variety of new spins on smoked meats. Jones opened the second location of Sam Jones BBQ in downtown Raleigh in November of last year, at the height of the COVID pandemic.
Like the rest of the restaurant and hospitality industries, Jones along with his staff and other team members have undoubtedly lived through an incredibly tumultuous year and a half due to the pandemic. Yet he still chooses to focus on what he refers to as COVID’s silver linings, from a news interview earlier this year, “We were very, very fortunate — we were able to streamline some stuff and I think COVID-19 allowed us to work out curbside service and online ordering which wasn’t the norm for independent restaurants prior to the pandemic.” Jones says he doesn’t anticipate curbside service and takeout are things that will ever go away even in life after the pandemic. “Once you start something that’s convenient for guests it becomes an amenity.”
However this story is not about that — it is about a man who literally at the age of 15 lost interest in the art of BBQ making, temporarily swearing off the family business, but later realized it was his true calling while working on a 13-page paper about barbecue during his time as a student at Pitt Community College. Luckily Jones came around, and rediscovered at an early age what would become a lifelong passion.
“Inspired by his family’s legacy and hard work, Sam moved back to Ayden to help with the restaurant and has since dedicated his life to the art of making traditional Eastern North Carolina-style pork barbecue,” says one source close to the BBQ pitmaster.
So what originally began as a family business has now blossomed, making Jones one of the most famous pitmasters in the country, and the culinary honors keep pouring in. In 2018, Sam earned a semifinalist nod for the James Beard Foundation Awards Best Chef: Southeast, and published Whole Hog BBQ: The Gospel of Carolina Barbecue with Recipes from Skylight Inn and Sam Jones BBQ. In his debut cookbook, he partnered with fellow barbecue expert Daniel Vaughn to share stories, recipes, and family secrets from Skylight Inn and Sam Jones BBQ.
Most recently, Jones won Vaughn’s hard earned praise in Vaughn’s highly authoritative list of the 100 best barbeque restaurants and will reportedly compete on the Food Network in one of their upcoming seasons. Daniel Vaughn, who is also an editor at Texas Monthly, regularly writes the nationally influential BBQ list and has traveled the world sampling smoked meats at over 1,800 barbecue joints.
Jones’s fans and loyal followers will tell you that what sets his restaurants apart is the whole hog slow cooked technique he uses, which is a rarity in the industry these days. Experts say it can take up to 24 hours to smoke a whole hog and is deeply tied to tradition, earning a distinction as a regional food that hasn’t spread much further than TN and NC. “But it’s not as simple as throwing a pig onto a wood-fired pit,” says Tyler Letchworth, one of Jones’ longtime friends and business partners. “A pitmaster must cook the three main sources of meat on the hog — the shoulder, the neck, and the belly — evenly, without overcooking them…it’s very tricky. You really have to know how to manage the heat and fire.”
When Sam isn’t cooking or traveling the country to spread what he calls “the gospel of North Carolina barbecue,” he serves as his hometown’s Fire Chief and is an active member of his local community. He lives in Ayden with his wife and daughters.