Last night, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay introduced the United States to his new Fox reality series, MasterChef. Among those who will be featured on the series is UNC-CH alum Darryl Pierce (broadcast journalism, 2003), my chatty geology lab partner from sophomore year. A competition for home cooks with aspiring culinary ambition, the show, already a hit in Australia and the UK, airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. In true reality TV fashion, Ramsay drops the F-bomb and makes a grown man cry because he forgets to add salt to his mac-and-cheese in the first episode. But for the winner, $250,000 and a cookbook deal is worth the tears and insults.

Out of more than 20,000 auditions nationwide, Pierce was one of 50 who made the cut for the series. My chef radar must be totally off. I would have never guessed that the jovial Tar Heel basketball manager hid a secret cooking obsession, rooted in Southern staples and expanding to Asian-influenced gourmet.

From sweet Oprah Winfrey to fiery Gordon Ramsay: UNC Alum 03 Darryl Pierce scores a spot on MasterChef.
  • Courtesy of Darryl Pierce.
  • From sweet Oprah Winfrey to fiery Gordon Ramsay: UNC Alum ’03 Darryl Pierce scores a spot on MasterChef.

Quick-witted and intelligent, the successful Charlotte native has an unstoppable confidence. After college, Pierce became an entertainment publicist in New York City and Los Angeles, gallivanting around the country for gigs with MTV and Oprah Winfrey, leading to freelance public relations consulting.

I caught up with him over phone right before last night’s television premiere, which he watched in Wilmington with his grandmother, who attended the filming in LA. Though he is “sworn to secrecy because of scary Fox contracts,” Pierce was bubbly and excited about the series, dishing out his not-so-scary opinion of Ramsay and why the show should be a hit.

Darryl, how did this even happen?

In November, I lost a PR contract, and for about two minutes, it was one of those “Oh my goodness, this is awful” moments. But then I realized, this is exactly what I needed and wanted to pursue my culinary dreams.

So you’ve always had culinary dreams?

Yes, I was looking at culinary schools. But then I saw the casting notice [for MasterChef]. It was almost a surreal moment. I thought “I’m gonna be on that show.” It sounds crazy or vain. But I don’t know why, I thought, these are cosmic culinary forces working together.

What inspired your cooking obsession?

At 10 years old, I was making chocolate cake from scratch with my grandmother and tweaking frosting recipes. She really sparked my sweet tooth. And my mother was a great cook, too. She passed away in 2006, and she is my number one reason for cooking. It helps me reconnect with her and is very therapeutic.

When did you audition?

In January, you had to prepare whatever your signature dish is. (Filming occurred in March and April.) I’m gonna play to my Southern roots, and do a Southern barbecue feast: ribs, beans, cole slaw. Starting Dec. 15, I cooked my ribs 4 or 5 times a week. It got expensive, because they weren’t that cheap. Tweaking my sauce, using different rubs. I felt like Eminem in “8 Mile” … this is my one shot. i gotta get this right.

Ha! And what makes your ribs special?

My brand of Southern style barbecue is heavily influenced by Asian flavors. My rib rub is based on a traditional Memphis style — paprika, sugar, salt, cayenne. I substitute cayenne with Korean pepper, gochugaru, pretty intense. My sauce is a Western Carolina sauce, with Asian ingredients. Traditional calls for apple cider vinegar; I use Japanese umeboshi plum vinegar and hoisin sauce.

I can’t believe we never talked about food in college. I had no idea you were so into it.

Oh yeah! In college, we’d have guys’ poker night. … While they’re playing poker, I’m in the kitchen making up batches of chicken, mashed potatoes and biscuits from scratch. My ex-girlfriend once thought I was downstairs looking at inappropriate things on my laptop, but I was looking at food blogs. Yes, food porn.

What about Gordon Ramsay? Is he as ferocious as he is on Hell’s Kitchen?

Chef Ramsay comes out, and that’s when it got real. This is no joke; he made it really clear. We’re making TV, but this is gonna change someone’s life. He has this persona that he’s developed where he’s angry and yelling all the time. He’s a surprisingly good, nice guy. It was clear that, since we were amateurs and not professionals, he wanted to be a mentor and supportive. Rest assured, he had many bad things to say and feelings were hurt. But he was inspirational and supportive.

Why do you think MasterChef will be a success?

It’s amazing, the ridiculously high level of cooking going on in people’s homes. Everyone can relate to home cooking. It’s gonna be pretty phenomenal TV. I really do think this is gonna be a massive hit.

You’ve lived in some major U.S. cities. Where do you like to eat when you come back to the Triangle?

When I lived here [in college], I had no idea that I was in a farmers market mecca. I love going to the markets. My favorite restaurants in the Triangle are Watts Grocery and Poole’s Diner.

Next week’s episode introduces Pierce to the series. (He was a major focus in last night’s preview). Tight-lipped about the outcome, he is currently working on launching his personal chef business.