Gratified by a new respect for barbecue, and the art and science of listening to the pit.
By Rodney Scott as told to Jake Emen
Rodney Scott is pitmaster of Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ, started with its first location in Charleston, second in Birmingham, and several more on the way. Scott was featured on the latest season of Chef’s Table, and by taking home honors as the 2018 James Beard Best Chef Southeast, became the second pitmaster to win a James Beard Award.
One of the first things I learned was how to cook a whole hog. Knowing that, and telling the story—it feels good. It feels even better to have the experience of an art which is somewhat disappearing, and to try to keep it alive. The whole-hog tradition was my childhood, it was my growing up. It’s what I did for work, something I did when school was out, something I do to this very day.
When the hog is cooking, you get a chance to have fellowship with some folks. Whether it’s a person who’s helping you, or a passerby who’s just trying to find out what’s going on—”What ya cooking, what time’s it done?” And you create conversation and fellowship. So I feel like when you put any protein on the grill, especially a whole hog, you just bring people together. It’s like Anthony Bourdain said, we can bring the world together one barbecue sandwich at a time.
I’ve always felt that food is the common denominator for happiness, peace, joy, fun. When you come into our restaurant, everybody’s welcome. Whoever I meet, I want to give them positive energy if they don’t already have it. I like to say that everybody’s at the same table. Everyone’s enjoying the food. And we’re all equal. Everybody wants to eat. Everybody has to eat. And I’ve never been disrespected in Birmingham. Lots of love from everybody. They call me “Mister.” That says a lot from where I’m from.
I took art in junior high and high school, and I remember details and background, and color and dark to light, the kind of things that you notice in art. And whenever I’m cooking a hog, I’m trying to paint a picture of how I want the pig to look, where I want the sauce to be nice and puddled at, how I want the ham to be seasoned when the hog is done versus the rest of the hog. I find myself trying to paint an overall picture in my mind whenever I’m about to present a whole hog. I would have to say it’s art, but it’s also instinct. Because when it’s belly side down, I can fire, fire, fire—and someone else told me this, they noticed that I start listening to the pit. And smelling it. I never knew I did that. And I can smell when I’m cooking, about where it is, and I can hear from the drip of the grease on the coals how fast I’m cooking. I know that sounds weird but, I’ll have to say it’s both instinct and art.
The James Beard award is one of the biggest things that ever happened to me. As far as the awards go now, I feel like this is an opportunity for everybody to really stop and reset everything. We can all start fresh—the way that people are nominated, the way that winners are chosen. I would love for a lot more barbecue people to be nominated. I would love for a lot more, different, fine dining chefs, and up-and-coming chefs to be nominated. I just like the fact this is a possibility that everybody has equal opportunity to win this award. Man, woman. Whomever.
In my personal opinion one of the changes that could happen is just to eat everything. Let’s eat everywhere. Let’s taste everything. Let’s not pass a spot just because it doesn’t feel right, or the neighborhood doesn’t feel right. Taste everything, because you never know where that flavor is, that perfect bite. It may be on the top of a fine dining restaurant rooftop somewhere. Then again it may be on a roadside stop. If a little hole in the wall has an opportunity at a James Beard, they should get it. So everybody should eat at more places. A lot more places. Eat all of the unexpected things. You never know.
With Chef’s Table, it was great to be able to get a chance to tell the story of barbecue, the whole-hog tradition, and just to tell the story of something that’s very important in the South. And I gotta say, in a very appreciative way, it’s about damn time pitmasters and barbecue are getting more respect. I really, really appreciate being accepted, and not just me personally, but the whole-hog tradition being accepted on the level of fine dining, as a culinary tradition which is not what people are used to when they see white tablecloths. That’s a respect that I never thought whole hog would get. Every now and again you get that one or two people who like to challenge what you’re doing but, you know, again, that’s fine. That’s okay. Everyone has an opinion, and they’re entitled to one. I have encountered some naysayers here and there, but I don’t let it take away my joy.