There’s a quiet secret many barbecue pitmasters only admit begrudgingly: Because they spend most of their lives smoking meat for others to enjoy, they generally avoid the style when they’re ordering food for themselves or on the road.
Rodney Scott, though, says he’s never stopped loving it.
“It’s still a go-to meal,” says the Charleston restaurateur and owner of Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ. “If I’m out of town, I look for that barbecue spot. That’s my thing. If you see a hole-in-the-wall place with lots of cars around it, something’s going on in there that’s real good.”
If I'm out of town, I look for that barbecue spot. If you see a hole-in-the-wall place with lots of cars around it, something's going on in there that's real good.
Scott has certainly had time to tire of ‘cue. He’s been cooking whole hogs since he was 11 years old — and cooking them full time since May of 1989, when he was 17. These days he oversees the cooking of at least 12 to 15 hogs per week, along with hundreds of racks of spare ribs and a significant number of chickens and turkey breast.
That experience has certainly paid off, though. Beyond running one of Charleston’s hottest restaurants, Scott was honored in 2018 with a James Beard Foundation Award for best chef in the Southeast.
The magnitude of that accolade really can’t be overstated. Only the nation’s best chefs earn nominations, much less awards. And only one pitmaster — Austin’s Aaron Franklin — has won before.
Scott says he thinks part of the reason the foundation was more open to a pitmaster winning was because so many high-end restaurants have started using wood-fired grills, reintroducing smoky flavors to people’s palates. And that has made judges appreciate the fact that barbecue, despite its backyard origins, is indeed cuisine.
“A lot of barbecue guys saw [the award] as a door opening for the barbecue world,” says Scott. “They have a chance. They’re ready to go forward and continue doing what they do — proudly.”
Scott’s victory was also notable for a much more serious reason. In the 28 years the awards have been around, only five African-American chefs have been nominated. Scott says his win was “humbling.”
Food is one of the things that brings the world together. It eliminates all judgmental thoughts and comments. To me, it's proof we're going to be a happy world one day.
“For me, it kind of says that food is one of the things that brings the world together,” he says. “It eliminates all judgmental thoughts and comments. It just kind of says ‘this is this; this is food; this is barbecue; it was great. Oh, by the way, the guy [who cooked it] was a black guy.’ To me, it’s proof we’re going to be a happy world one day.”
Scott’s Charleston restaurant, a small, intimate affair on King Street, opened last February. People begin lining up every day at 11 a.m. for sandwiches (or pounds of meat to go). And there have been times when demand outstripped supply. (It takes 12 hours to cook a whole hog in Scott’s style, so if there’s an unexpected surge in orders, there’s nothing the restaurant can do about it.)
Prior to coming to the Holy City, he ran the same kind of hole-in-the-wall place that he loves to seek out in the small town of Hemingway, South Carolina. As word spread, people from around the state would make the drive to see if the pulled pork and ribs could possibly be as good as they had heard.
Few, if any, left feeling they had wasted their time.
That location is still open, run by his parents. But Scott had long wanted to open a place in Charleston, which he now calls home.
“How can you resist the personalities from a town where 90 percent of [people] welcome you, they embrace you?” he asks. “They serve great food here — all different kinds. And I like to eat!”
With the James Beard Award under his belt, he’s looking to expand, too. He and his business partner recently announced plans to open a second Rodney Scott’s BBQ in Birmingham, Alabama. (Scott will oversee the pits both there and in Charleston, traveling between the two cities.)
That’s going to be a brutal schedule. People start manning the Rodney Scott pits at 5 a.m., removing the pigs that were started the previous afternoon, preparing them for the lunch crowd, and getting that day’s ribs underway. Oftentimes, Scott is one of those people.
The pulled pork has a nice heat to it, a byproduct of the mopping sauce Scott uses, which is North Carolina style, using a vinegar and pepper base. Scott’s a big fan of sauce (“any day, all day,” he advocates), but the pork is pretty amazing tasting on its own, melting in your mouth.
So what’s the secret to Scott’s success? There really isn’t one, he hints. His rub is basic, he says. The mopping sauce is unique but based on a familiar recipe. Ultimately, it comes down to technique, and that’s something you can only learn through experience and feedback.
And getting that feedback, he says, is part of the fun — because in order to get it, you get to cook for friends.
“Have fun,” he says. “You’ve got to be careful. You want to take your time. Make sure you’ve got all the right ingredients you think you’re going to use so you don’t have to leave it unattended. Then enjoy it. Bring your closest friends over, who don’t mind giving you criticism, and say, ‘Try this.’ … When you’re doing barbecue, it’s usually at a party or a wedding or a union. It means a coming together. It’s a sign of people bonding.”