Rodney Scott
Photo by Angie Mosier

Rodney Scott: “You’ve got to stay patient”

Short Profile

Name: Rodney Scott
DOB: 1 November 1971
Place of birth: Philadelphia, United States
Occupation: Chef, pitmaster

Rodney, as a James Beard award winning chef and one of the foremost whole hog pitmasters in America, what does a typical day at the pit look like for you?

The cooking process at both of my restaurants actually starts with making our own charcoal. We put the wood in the firebox, let it burn down into hot coals, we put the hot coals under the hogs to cook it for 12 hours. Our process is manual, it all has to be done by hand, so we make sure that the barrel stays filled with wood, burning the entire time; and then every 15 to 20 minutes, you have to get more hot coals to put under the hog. So for those 12 hours, you're constantly loading your wood and hot coals to make sure that cooking process continues.

That is an incredible amount of physical labor, in comparison to a home cooking situation which can be mostly prep or inactive cooking time.

We try to make the best of it and have fun with it! If you have somebody with you or a bunch of people with you, it gives you time to hang out and have conversations, you get to have a few drinks, tell a few stories, tell a few lies. A lot of people do it all night long, and they get invaded by neighbors and they hang out and have fun while they do it! In South Carolina, where I’m from, Sunday meals after church were really important. Sometimes meals would start Saturday night, and finish up on Sunday afternoon. Sunday was the day where everybody would come together to one house to eat. If you’re alone doing whole hog, you get to listen to music — which I’m a big fan of. So, you don't get too bored!

“I love that it's a little rough around the edges, but it still gives you that satisfying result of a full belly.”

Either way, it seems like there’s a lot of patience involved.

Absolutely. Patience is very important when it comes to barbecuing. Especially when you're doing whole hogs like we do at Rodney Scott’s BBQ, it all takes time, typically half a day to get something really good. Often the home cook can lose his or her patience when cooking. In hour three, if you're not happy with what's going on, if it's not happening fast enough for you, and you walk away from it or you let it cool off, you’ve got to throw this whole animal away. You’ve got to stay patient because it’s only about the fourth or fifth hour that you’ll even notice the hog really starting cook.

Is that why whole hog barbecue has become such a singular cooking method, even in the restaurant industry?

I believe that that's one of the reasons why whole hog is so rare. You're also gonna need a lot of people to feed, at least 130 people minimum to help you eat this hog… So a lot of people, chefs included, tend to get the smaller cuts instead. But I do think that many chefs are starting to come around on the idea of barbecue. There are fine dining chefs who are starting to incorporate what we’re doing into their work, smoking wings or fire-cooking meat. That’s a great collaboration.

Rodney Scott featuring on Anthony Bourdain's series Parts Unknown

Did it feel like, at one point, there was a line between fine dining and barbecue?

I have noticed a lot of people who say things like, “Oh, barbecue, anybody can do that.” People say that a real dinner is when you sit down at a restaurant with a white tablecloth and you can have wine and things like that. These days, I think that shows like Chef’s Table or something like American BBQ Showdown or Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, they’re really changing how barbecue is perceived.

Apparently featuring on Bourdain’s series was one of the highlights of your career.

That man was amazing! I always wanted to cook for him, and when the opportunity came… We met, we had a conversation, we ate some of my food together; I was living out my dream. And that made a big difference not only for me but for people to get to see the labor and work that goes into this craft. That goes a long way. People are starting to really appreciate and have a lot more respect for barbecue.

Do you think the manual labor is part of the reason why barbecue can be looked down on in that way?

I think the labor is part of it. The equipment side of things as well! We use chicken wire to lay the hog on top, then to cut the wire, you need these big wire cutters. You’ve got your wheelbarrow to help you with carrying the wood from wherever your pile is. I use a mop to get the sauce on my hogs. So, these are all hardware tools.

Do you like that your methods and tools are a bit more laidback?

I love that they're laidback! They’re different. It's a different approach to cooking, and I love that it's a little rough around the edges, but it still gives you that satisfying result of a full belly.

Matt Abergel says that he doesn’t really care about expressing himself or being an artisan, he just wants to buy good ingredients and make good food.

I feel like I know him already! Yes, I like to make sure that the food looks good on the plate but I've never shot for a fancy design or anything like that. I’m just kind of putting it there for people to enjoy it. I’m just excited to show people what we’re doing here in Hemingway, to show people our story. You know, we had a pretty devastating fire in one of our restaurants a few years back… I just had to take a moment and figure out, what do I do next? What am I going to do? How am I going to make it through the rest of the holidays?

How did you get through that?

Well, after calming down and taking a quick breather and looking around at what we had and what we could do and couldn't do, we were able to figure out to take all the portable pits off the trailer, and we put them in the back of the area where we cook. That really saved us. We just made the best of what we can do. It was still a learning process, just trying to figure out what to do and listen to my staff — because sometimes your opinion is not always the right thing to do. It’s good to have these conversations. And together we were able to build a plan, and we got our building back up and running. And having these restaurants now, it’s beautiful, it makes me very happy. Barbecue is an important part of southern culture, and this is our version of it. So for me, it's a bit exciting to tell it through our food.