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Food Network star Bobby Flay, left, sneaks up behind Pitmaster Ed Mitchell, and challenges him to a rib and beans throwdown for his show Throwdown! with Bobby Flay in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Corey Lowenstein/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT)
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RALEIGH, N.C. - Barbecue legend Ed Mitchell, co-owner of Raleigh’s The Pit restaurant, got a little surprise Friday: a throwdown with celebrity chef Bobby Flay. A Food Network crew had been in Raleigh for several days filming Mitchell. And on Friday, the nationally known barbecue man thought he would be cooking baked beans and ribs for a crowd of regular folks under a tent outside Haywood Hall, a historic house in downtown Raleigh.


As Mitchell sauteed diced onions for the baked beans before the crowd and the TV cameras, Flay strolled up the brick walkway behind him. The crowd could see Flay, but Mitchell could not. Flay put his fingers to his lips to quiet them.


He patted Mitchell on the back and asked, “Are you ready for a throwdown?”


“You know it’s on now,” Mitchell cried.


For those who aren’t Food Network fans, Flay, 44, is one of the cable network’s franchise stars. As one crowd member said Friday, he’s “the Paula Deen of grilling.”


Known for his Southwestern cuisine, Flay owns six restaurants, has written a number of cookbooks and stars on several cooking shows, including “Throwdown! with Bobby Flay.” On the show, he engages in a cooking competition with chefs who are masters of foods ranging from muffulettas to doughnuts.


Most of the crowd at Friday’s event responded to an online posting to eat free Mitchell’s barbecue for a Food Network film crew. Despite the relentless drizzle and temperatures that felt like they were in the 30s, the crowd lined up by 11 a.m. They huddled under the tent filled with red balloons, space heaters and a bluegrass band called Old Habits.


Before Flay’s arrival, the show’s producers taught the crowd how to perform for the cameras: thunderous applause to golf claps, hearty laughs to giggles, even pretending to crane their necks to get a better view.


Audience members soon learned that if they asked a good question or make a wisecrack that they would be asked to repeat it for the sound guy.


After Flay got there, his team members pounced into action. They rolled in two Weber grills, one that seemed as wide as a Monster truck tire. They set up two tables, soon covered with cutting boards, knives, apple cider vinegar, brown sugar, garlic cloves and gallon jugs of Mesa Grill barbecue sauce.


Flay sauteed black beans on a portable gas burner. As he doused his beans in dark rum, Mitchell reached for his own secret ingredient, a bottle of (legal) moonshine called Midnight Moon.


Behind their own tables, next to their own grills, the two soon started bantering back and forth about what they were cooking.


Mitchell explained that his baked beans are a mix of pinto, kidney and black beans. He called his ribs Carolina-style, more bone than meat, with a simple rub cooked fast and hot.


Flay said his ribs were slow-cooked St. Louis-style with a lot of meat and a thick tomato-based sauce with honey, molasses and smoked jalapenos.


At one point, Flay peered into a bowl containing Mitchell’s rib rub, which Mitchell quickly pulled away.


“See how he moved that rub away from me?” Flay pointed out to the crowd.


“It’s a throwdown,” Mitchell retorted.


Finally, Flay asked the chilly crowd: “You guys ready for some ribs?”


The crowd cheered without a cue from a producer. With paper plates in hand and pork fat on their fingers, they handed down their verdicts.


“Bobby you brought your A-game,” shouted Hannah Hopkins, 23.


“Ed beat him on the beans though,” chimed in Shay Williamson. She and her husband, Don Williamson, preferred Flay’s spicy ribs to Mitchell’s, saying they didn’t have a crust.


But Nancy Oakes, 46, declared Mitchell’s ribs better: “They are fabulous.”


Then the official judging began. Seated at the judging table were Allison Keith, co-owner of a wholesale pork and barbecue business in Wake Forest, and Melvin Simmons, owner of Backyard BBQ Pit in Durham. The judges aren’t supposed to know who made which ribs and beans but it soon becomes clear they could pick out N.C. style.


When Simmons commented on the unique three-bean combination in Mitchell’s beans, Keith said, “That’s just how I make mine.”


Both judges picked up on Mitchell’s fall-off-the-bone tender ribs as N.C. style and said that Flay’s were a bit more spicy, without the vinegary tang that they were used to eating.


But if you want to know who was declared the winner, you will have to wait until May when this episode of “Throwdown! with Bobby Flay” airs during the Food Network’s grilling week.


___


CATCH THE ‘THROWDOWN!’


New episodes of “Throwdown! with Bobby Flay,” premiere at 9 p.m. EDT Wednesdays on Food Network.


A specific date when this episode will air is unknown. But producers say it will run in May during a week of grilling shows. Typically, the Food Network’s grilling week coincides with Memorial Day.

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