By Tracy Kaler
A time-honored tradition, whole hog barbecue requires skill, tenacity, and patience. Few cooks partake in the dying art any longer, since the mastery isn’t often passed on to the next generation. Chef Rodney Scott is one of only several pitmasters keeping the inherently southern tradition and slowest of slow foods alive.
For Scott, 49, the arduous process is a labor of love that includes chopping hardwoods; starting the fire and burning the wood to embers; breaking down the animal; slow-cooking the hog meat-side down for 12 hours; flipping the pig, rubbing it with seasoning, and mopping it with vinegar sauce; roasting the hog for one final hour; and, finally, stripping the tender meat from the bone.
For nearly 40 years, he’s perfected his method of roasting whole hogs, and it’s paved the way for his culinary career. He won James Beard’s Best Chef Southeast Award in 2018—only the second presented to a pitmaster—and his cookbook, Rodney Scott’s World of BBQ: Every Day Is a Good Day, is scheduled for release in March.
A Philadelphia native, Scott found himself on the path to whole hog barbecue when he cooked his first pig at age 11. An only child, he worked under his father, who smoked hogs for his shop, Scott’s Variety Store & Bar-B-Q, in the tiny town of Hemingway, S.C., where Scott was raised. There, smoking barbecue was a way of life.
“Growing up, cooking whole hog was the only thing we would do,” Scott says. “We’d try to cook little things in between—hot dogs, a piece of baloney, hamburgers—and I would find so much satisfaction in those snacks. I fell in love with cooking over the fire. I’m still in love with that. The flavor of the wood is my thing.”
That flavor is what lures folks from around the country and beyond for a taste of the regional delicacy. Scott explains that as the flavor steams from the red hot coals up into the meat, you can hear the fat dripping. “There’s a sizzle to it,” he says. “It’s a beautiful sound.”
He may have honed his pitmaster skills at a young age, but it was a 2009 New York Times article and a friendship with fellow barbecuer Nick Pihakis—who would become Scott’s business partner—that placed his innate talent and enthusiasm for barbecue in the spotlight, earning critical acclaim. Scott took the leap from overseeing the Hemingway shop after rebuilding the eatery due to a fire, and launched Rodney Scott’s BBQ in Charleston, S.C., with Pihakis Restaurant Group, in 2017. The duo expanded to Birmingham, Ala., by 2019.
In Sept. 2020, Scott was featured in an episode of the Emmy-nominated Chef’s Table: BBQ on Netflix. Days after the show aired, crowds of hungry carnivores queued outside Scott’s Charleston shop, boosting sales for his King Street restaurant, which were holding steady during Covid-19 because of its drive-through business.
Despite the pandemic, “Our restaurants are doing good,” Scott says. During a worldwide health crisis, there’s not much more comforting than a piled-on plate of barbecue with all the fixings.
Recently, Penta chatted with Scott about life growing up in small-town South Carolina, his favorite barbecue ingredient, and what the future holds.
PENTA: What did you learn from growing up in a small town in South Carolina and cooking barbecue that’s led to your success?
Rodney Scott: I didn’t realize until I moved to Charleston that I was in a very small town. When you’re in a small town, you end up living the small-town life. In small towns, you hear a lot of limited thoughts and ideas. Staying positive and focused, believing and following my dreams and goals are the most important things I learned in that small town—to not let little things get in my way. I can do anything I want if I stay focused. The world is my playground.
Your positivity is infectious. You often say, “Every day is a good day.” What makes every day a good day for Rodney Scott?
Every day is a good day in the life of Rodney Scott because I’ve had personal challenges put before me, but yet, I’m alive. I feel like if I’m alive, I can handle whatever life has to toss at me. So I continue to say, “Every day is a good day as long as I am alive.” Saying that makes me feel good about myself and my day. I say it to everybody. It would be great if the whole world said it every day. Take the positive energy and spread it around—everywhere.
What’s the one ingredient any great barbecue should include and why?
I would say cayenne. I’m a fan of the cayenne. I have sprinkled a little cayenne on fried chicken after it was done. I’ve sprinkled a little cayenne on fish after it was done. That little kick is just right. Get the top of that ham to sweat a little bit, and you’re all good.
This past year has been a tough one for the restaurant industry. What assistance do restaurants, chefs, and staff need to survive this pandemic?
A lot of people are trying to figure out ways to survive. Maybe the government can give us a package to help keep restaurants going until the pandemic is over. A lot of prayer, for those who do believe. Maybe big corporations can pick a different small restaurant every day and provide lunch for their employees. Mom and Pop can feed companies and do it on a rotation. That might be a big help.
You’ve accomplished a lot since 2017, with the opening of your restaurants, a James Beard award, and the Netflix feature. You plan to launch a restaurant in Atlanta, two more in Alabama, and release a cookbook in March. What else should we expect from you in the future?
I have a few dreams. Have barbecue all over the United States. All over the world. To go to Rodney Scott’s in any location and get the same service, quality of food, and experience that you would get at another one. If I’m in Australia, France, Hawaii—why not? I’ll be able to get it. That’s the dream.
This interview has been edited for clarity.