Special Sauce: Rodney Scott Was Born and Raised to Be a Pitmaster

[Rodney Scott photograph: Andrew Cebulka. Barbecue photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Barbecue pitmasters are among our nation's greatest storytellers—they learn that all-important skill tending to their 'cue all night. But Rodney Scott, South Carolina pitmaster and James Beard Award winner, might just have the best story of all to tell, as you'll hear on this week's Special Sauce.

When Scott was growing up, his family started making barbecue one day a week at their general store in the tiny town of Hemingway, South Carolina, two hours' drive from Charleston. As Rodney tells it, "We did whole-hog barbecue sandwiches like most gas stations do hot dogs. It was just an extra income, just a quick side meal. And we did it on Thursdays." But demand gradually grew until, finally, the barbecue itself became the core business, and with that shift came a huge increase in the hard work of producing it, all of it shared by young Rodney, an only child.

It started with cutting down trees and splitting wood to make the charcoal. "If we did two hogs, or four hogs, whatever, we had to have enough wood to get it done," Scott told me. "And my dad would never let you lay around in the afternoons. You got off the school bus, you did homework, you went to work.... Of course, after cutting wood, you had to load it, haul it, help unload at the barbecue pit. And if you were out of school, you had to cook.... My high school graduation, I'm 17 years old, I walk out and speak to my dad, hold up my diploma, and he says, 'You need to be at the barbecue pit at 12 o'clock tonight.'"

After he graduated, the work became even more intense. "Three nights a week, we worked all night long. We had guys there in the daytime, and I was there all night. So being there all night, you had to keep the fire going to keep enough hot coals to fire up your hogs.... You had to have enough coals to fire anywhere from two to 15 hogs, because you never knew how many you were going to cook."

Not only did this upbringing develop Scott's lifelong love for barbecue, the discipline and work ethic it instilled in him clearly assisted in his journey from driving a tractor as a six-year-old kid on a tobacco farm, to cooking for John T. Edge, to opening his own restaurant in Charleston and winning the Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast. To get the whole story, you're just going to have to listen to the episode. You won't be disappointed, only inspired.

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Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats' podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce, we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks and non-food folks alike. And have you thought about running for office?

Rodney Scott: I've thought about it once, years ago. And then I found out that you gotta tell a lot of lies, and I said, "I don't know if that's gonna work." And I saw the trouble that politicians can get into and I said, "I'll take my chances on barbecue."

EL: This week is indeed our great pleasure to welcome one of the nation's premier barbecue pitmasters, whole hog auteur, restaurateur, and dare I say chef, Rodney Scott.

RS: How are you?

EL: Good, how are you, Rodney? So good to see you, Reverend.

RS: Wow.

EL: And he is the proprietor of Rodney Scott's BBQ in Charleston, South Carolina. He was just named the Best Chef Southeast by the James Beard Foundation, and I believe you were the first pitmaster to do so.

RS: And I am-

EL: Congratulations.

RS: Thank you, sir. Thank you, sir.

EL: So anyway, we are so honored that you've graced us with your presence. I know you have a zillion things to do.

RS: Thank you all for having me.

EL: Oh, it's great, man. So let's start by asking you about life at the Scott family table growing up.

RS: Wow. Life at the Scott family table growing up, it was interesting. We all sat down on Sundays to eat, you know? Me, my mom, and my dad. Every Sunday after church we would sit and eat. Throughout the week, whenever we had a chance, we would eat one or two cooked meals. My favorite was Wednesday nights when my mom made pork and beans, which is baked beans over rice. That was one of my favorite meals I remember growing up with her. It was interesting. You sat there and you ate. It wasn't a lot of conversation. You just ate. You liked it or you didn't, you know? It was-

EL: But you were ... Nobody asked for your opinion?

RS: No. Nobody asked for your opinion, and you better had eat. Eat or no drink. And, you know, that was my Mom's rules. And a lot of times I got my drink, 'cause I did eat.

EL: So were you living near the store?

RS: As a child growing up, no. We lived 10 miles away-

EL: Got it.

RS: From the store. Yeah. We're 10 miles out. And I just ... I moved closer to the store back in 2000. I was across the street from the restaurant.

EL: So you were 10 miles from the store, which we should say was as much a convenience store as it was a barbecue joint, right?

RS: Definitely. It was exactly ... That's exactly what it was.

EL: So ... And tell us about how it came to be at this convenience in Hemingway, South Carolina, two hours from Charleston?

RS: It started with ... We did whole hog barbecue sandwiches like most gas stations do hot dogs. It was just an extra income, just a quick side meal. And we did it on Thursdays. And the demand of people wanting barbecue and getting one sandwich, two, or they would buy a pound. That increased, and we went from Thursdays to Fridays. Then we moved to Saturdays. And we noticed an increase in demand and we stopped focusing on the general store and we focused on the barbecue itself.

EL: Was it still a working farm?

RS: Yes. We were still working on the farm-

EL: Oh my God.

RS: Growing tobacco, plowing corn, planting beans, planting corn. You know, I've rode tractors for hours and hours.

EL: You probably learned how to drive a tractor when you were 10?

RS: Six.

EL: Six?

RS: Yes. They put you on the seat, they gave you the procedures, they showed you one gear. And you learned how to put it in that one gear and steer it going real slow down the row.

EL: Wow.

RS: And we got it to the end, somebody would run in front of the tractor and help you stop it. And then they would turn it around and put it in the next row and put you back in the seat. And you did it again.

EL: And you were growing tobacco and then were you drying it, too? Or were you sending it to the sheds?

RS: We grew it. We dried it. We loaded the barns, we unloaded the barns. I mean, I did it all.

EL: Wow.

RS: Picked cucumbers, butter beans, all of that.

EL: Barbecue was easier than farming?

RS: Yes. Oh my God, yes.

EL: But that's hard to believe, because barbecue is like a 24/7 thing, too.

RS: That's alright. It's easier than farming. Can you imagine a snake crossing the field in front of you while you're picking cucumbers, and you don't know where that snake went, and you gotta move bushes back to pick cucumbers. It's like, wait a minute, where did that snake go? You know? You're walking down this long row, and you see bear prints in the field, you don't know was that really a bear? Is it close by?

EL: And if it really is a bear, do I really want to know that?

RS: Exactly, you know? So I prefer the barbecue pit. I can deal with the heat. I know what's around me. I can see what's coming.

EL: So you gravitated towards the barbecue pit?

RS: Yes, I did gravitate towards barbecue pit.

EL: So you were working the store and the fields all through high school?

RS: All through high school, all through childhood. You know, we farmed on days, we cut wood on certain days. And we cooked barbecue on other days.

EL: You did this great short film with Joe York from the Southern Foodways Alliance called Cut/Chop/Cook, which I think is a brilliant but extremely abbreviated description of how you made your barbecue, at least at Hemingway. I want every delicious, gory detail. Because I don't think I've ever met anyone who started with cutting the trees down.

RS: Well, the cutting the trees down came with the discipline of you having to do chores. So in the middle of doing chores, you had to go help cut wood. And if we did two hogs, or four hogs, whatever, we had to have enough wood to get it done. And my sad would never let you lay around in the afternoons. You got off the school bus, you did homework, you went to work, Or, you went to work and came home and do homework.

EL: Wow.

RS: Very hard-working environment, you know? It wasn't always I'm going to the neighbor's house and play ball.

EL: Right. There was little of that during the week probably?

RS: Very little. Very, very little. And then where we lived was so remote, the neighbors were a quarter mile up the street. Or should I say the dirt road. So you always had to work, and cut wood was one of those things. And, of course, after cutting wood, you had to load it, haul it, help unload at the barbecue pit. And if you were out of school, you had to cook.

EL: And first you had to take the wood, cut it, and I've seen film of you doing that. And then you put it in a homemade chimney, you know, that made it into coal.

RS: Exactly. Those were old fuel drums from old tobacco barns or any type of home that had an oil system or oil heating system that we used. And before we had hydraulic splitters, you had to split wood by hand. So I had to swing an ax, you know? I had to load it up. There was a point in my life where I had to split one to three truckloads of wood myself every day.

EL: Are you kidding?

RS: Every day.

EL: And that was after school?

RS: That was after school. You can get one in. And that Friday or Saturday, you get another one in. And if it was winter time and school break, you worked every day. So you get two or three truckloads in a day.

EL: Oh my God. That's insane.

RS: Work was so intense, and my dad was so serious about it, my graduation night-

EL: Your high school graduation?

RS: My high school graduation, I'm 17 years old, I walk out and I speak to my Dad, hold up my diploma, and he says, "You need to be at the barbecue pit at 12 o'clock tonight.

EL: Oh my God. So let's finish the process. So you're making the coal from the wood that you've split. Then, you split the hogs, right?

RS: Yes.

EL: You put them on the grill. You specialize in whole hog barbecue.

RS: That's my specialty, yes.

EL: Right. So you put it skin side down. Am I right?

RS: Skin side up, first.

EL: Skin side up? Okay.

RS: Skin side up.

EL: So ... And when did the hogs go in, like ... You must have been working all night?

RS: Three nights a week, we worked all night long. We had guys there in the daytime, and I was there all night. So being there all night, you had to keep the fire going to keep enough hot coals to fire up your hogs. With that being said, you had to have enough coals to fire anywhere from two to 15 hogs, because you never knew how many you were gonna cook. And holidays meant increased numbers, which means more work at night. Which can mean two burn barrels going at the same time. It was intense, it was hard work.

EL: What incredible discipline and work ethic your parents instilled in you.

RS: Oh my God, yes. You had to work or you were in trouble. And I did not want to get in trouble. So it was work, work, work.

EL: And yet you still stay that barbecue is easier than farming?

RS: It still was. Yes. It definitely was. You're talking getting on a tractor at about seven in the morning. You're not gonna get off that tractor until maybe three or four o'clock in the afternoon. Dust, sand flying all over the place.

EL: Snakes, bears.

RS: Snakes, bears. At noon, you gotta hope that you don't use all your water before noon. It's inconvenient. You're in the woods somewhere plowing a field.

EL: That's so, so crazy. So the barbecue took off and sort of left the convenience store stuff in the dust, no pun intended?

RS: Yes.

EL: And so that's what your parents did every day when you were in school?

RS: Yes.

EL: And then you came home and ... You have siblings?

RS: Just me.

EL: Just you. So it was just the three of you keeping this barbecue joint and convenience store. Which was only a convenience store at the end probably no days a week, right?

RS: Pretty much. Pretty much.

EL: You loved it, though?

RS: I loved it. Yeah.

EL: I mean, I don't get the sense you resented it or that you wanted to rebel and come to New York and be a poet or whatever.

RS: No. My first dream was to be in the auto body, in mechanics. Because I love vehicles.

EL: Got it. From being on the tractor when you were five.

RS: Being on the tractor, yeah, you know? I loved the way vehicles operate. I love the way they drive. Everything about 'em.

EL: And yet, one of the things I felt was really interesting ... Another film I watched of yours was that music sustained you.

RS: Yes. Music is the one drug that I hope to never heal from. That's an addiction that I always want to have, music.

EL: So even in high school, when you were coming home, there'd be music?

RS: There was always music.

EL: Always music?

RS: Always.

EL: And that sustained you even to this day?

RS: That's still my medicine.

EL: I did notice you're a fan of Naughty By Nature.

RS: Yes.

EL: You're a fan of Anthony Hamilton, Best of Me?

RS: That's my favorite, yes. Oh my God.

EL: And you're a fan of Don't Make Me Beg, by Tucka?

RS: Yes.

EL: But which one of them is your karaoke jam?

RS: I would have to say Anthony Hamilton.

EL: Really?

RS: “Giving you the best of me.” I've seen this guy in concert so many times. My wife looks at me and say, "Again?" And I would say, "Yes." You know? And the last show we saw him at, we had the pleasure of sitting front row. And it was Charlie Wilson and Anthony Hamilton performing that night. So you had legend and you had my favorite. And Anthony Hamilton looked down in the first row and saluted me.

EL: 'Cause he knew ... He'd seen you so many times.

RS: And not only that, we ... Turned out that we have a mutual friend that knows him. And they told me that he remembers a lot of faces and he loves to cook. And at that same show, he mentioned he likes a lot of eggs in his potato salad. And I was like, that's my man.

EL: That's awesome. That's awesome. You know, I spent many years in the music business. I was in the jazz business. You probably don't know this, but I ran like a jazz club-

RS: Wow.

EL: I produced some Dr. John records. I've done all kinds of weird shit, Rodney.

RS: Nice.

EL: You know, it's like ... But never driven a tractor when I was five. Probably never driven a tractor at all.

RS: It was crazy.

EL: So people started paying attention. You were this convenience slash barbecue joint in the middle of rural South Carolina, right?

RS: Yes.

EL: Two hours from Charleston. I remember I got really ... My wife got really mad at me because we were visiting some people in Charleston. I was like, "There's this barbecue joint I gotta go to." I said, "I think it's only an hour away." 'Cause I knew it was the only way I could get to go.

RS: Get her to go.

EL: So it's like ... And then she's like, "Okay. We're an hour and a half." Oh no, we're right here! We're right here! So what happened? Was it the Southern Foodways people? Like, how did people get to know that you existed?

RS: Amazing.

EL: Beyond your area code or your zip code?

RS: Amazing story. Reggie Gibson, who can go for Donald Sutherland if you're blinking your eyes real fast, an architect from Charleston. And he was mutual friends with John T. Edge, who we all know is with SFA. And Reggie told John T., "You think you know barbecue or had barbecue, you should check out this little spot out in the country." So Reggie sent John T. John T. came in, tasted, liked what he tasted. And it just went from there. The invitation came to come do an SFA dinner in Charleston.

EL: Yeah. I think that's where I ... Oh, you know I met ... Didn't you also do the conference in Oxford?

RS: I did. I did do the Oxford conference as well. And it was the Southern Foodways Alliance that introduced me to Nick and-

EL: Nick from ....

RS: Jim N' Nick's.

EL: Jim N' Nick's in Birmingham.

RS: Yes.

EL: Who's sort of this barbecue business ambassador, right?

RS: Nick's a great dude. He kind of guided me to help me improve my craft, my business. And even gave me ideas to help just move myself forward.

EL: Yeah, he ... You know, I've only met him a couple times, but people talk about him so reverentially, 'cause he's not one of these guys who gives you advice and then expects a return.

RS: No, he doesn't expect anything. You know, he and I have been so tight for so many years that he was my best man-

EL: Really?

RS: At my wedding.

EL: Wow.

RS: So we're that tight.

EL: So was it weird when people starting making pilgrimages from all over the world to your humble barbecue joint in Hemingway? Like, did they ask you to autograph their aprons? Like, what happened? What was that like?

RS: Oh, man. It was humbling. It was an experience that I just couldn't believe. But just to sit there and go through it made me step back and take a look at my personality, you know? My craft that caught the attention. My respect for the people who took the drive out to Hemingway. 'Cause it's quite a ride. And it made me appreciate the people appreciating what I do. And I've always tried to give them that respect and that Southern charm I've always thought was everywhere in the world.

EL: You know, some people who do that, I don't feel like it's genuine. But I feel like you really do like to meet people and watch them enjoy your food. Like, I think you should be a politician. Have you thought about running for office?

RS: I thought about it once years ago. And then I found out that you gotta tell a lot of lies. And I said, "I don't know if that's gonna work." And I saw the trouble that politicians can get into, and I said, "I'll take my chances on barbecue."

EL: So do you think that the values your parents instilled in you sort of enabled you to drink this celebrityhood in without getting tripped up by it?

RS: Oh, yeah. You know, every time I'm recognized or appreciated for something or I get some accolade, it also takes me back to the humble beginning of be respectful. Be patient. Be aware of what you did and try to make it consistent over and over and over. You know, to take a step back. The week after I got back from Chicago from the awards ceremony, I was dumping trash. And a young lady showed up and said, "Wow. You dump your own trash." And I said, "Yes. Why not?" But I appreciate. I love it. Lovin' the ride, lovin' the wave. All the same time, I'm respecting and wanting to inspire everybody that's heard about it, that encounters me that wants to know how can they get started on their craft.

EL: What's the best piece of advice you've ever gotten as both a pitmaster and as a businessperson? And what's the one piece of advice you would give to anybody who wants to make great barbecue or open a barbecue joint? I know that's a bunch of questions-

RS: Wow. The one great piece I would have to say came from my mom, and it wasn't directly towards barbecue. She said, "Respect will take you where money never will." And with that being said, I like to respect people and what they do. And the second piece of advice, which came from Nick, be influential. Influence. Continue the movement. The respect-

EL: Pay it forward.

RS: Exactly. Pay it forward. Because you never know who you touch, who you can reveal. And the two things that I got the very week after James Beard was, two barbecue guys said to me ... These guys were unknown, they're backyard guys. They just have a dream. One guy said, "I'm going to study for my ServSafe, because I want to start pulling my trailer and do the right thing."

EL: Wow.

RS: Another guy said to me, "I believe you now. Here's a picture of my rig. I'm gonna start setting up my catering job. I have all my paperwork."

EL: Wow.

RS: Two people.

EL: Amazing.

RS: Two people. And I felt like I've reached the world with just those two. And I want to inspire people, let them know that you can do anything you want. You can take what you believe in and just make the best of it. Just be respectful and continue to influence.

EL: And be respectful of the process, right?

RS: Exactly. Exactly.

EL: Because there's no such thing as a shortcut in what you do, is there?

RS: No shortcuts. No shortcuts. None. None.

EL: And probably every time you try to take one, it boomeranged on you?

RS: Oh, quite a few of them did, yes. Quite a few did. So, you know, be patient. Follow process. Don't be in it just for fame or fortune, but be genuine with it. And be influential. Be respectful.

EL: Yeah. And, I mean, you have to take it slow. You can't speed things up. I mean, how long are the hogs on the-

RS: 12 hours the hogs are cooking.

EL: 12 hours?

RS: 12 hours.

EL: That's a lot of jams, man-

RS: Yes, sir-

EL: To listen to in 12 hours.

RS: Man, I party. I party, too. I'm telling you. I start slow, and I pick it up later on. I party. Yeah, you might see some of the most awful dancing in the world. But it don't matter, because I'm in my zone. Barbecuing and partying.

EL: That's great. When people started paying attention to what you're doing in Hemingway, like John T. and Nick Robinson, did those two play a role in your decision to open your own joint in Charleston?

RS: They did. Doing that dinner and seeing appreciation that people gave me for that dinner let me know that other people in other areas understand and appreciate barbecue. Not just Hemingway. Because in my mind, it was just Hemingway that was appreciating barbecue, and nobody else outside of the area. But all the same time, they kept saying, "You saw how that person appreciated it. Maybe you should think about it." And that played a big part. I said, "If I could do that dinner, and that dinner was about a hundred people, why don't I take about a hundred people a day and pretend I'm doing a dinner and open up this restaurant?" So it gave me that inspiration to take the chance.

EL: And what year was that?

RS: That was 2015 when we made that decision.

EL: Got it.

RS: Late '15 we made that decision to finally go ahead and do it.

EL: And did you have to get outside investors? Like, how did you do it?

RS: Oh man, that's-

EL: Like, you wrote a business plan, did the whole deal?

RS: No. That's where me and Nick just put our heads together-

EL: Got it.

RS: And said let's start searching. And we did. We searched, we were patient. You know, we did our homework. We did our travels. And we put our heads together and created some extra recipes. And here we are.

EL: Yeah. It's amazing. And so is the Hemingway place still opened or no?

RS: Hemingway is still open. Mom and dad are in control of that. So that gave me more opportunity to focus on Charleston.

EL: Got it.

RS: I didn't have to worry about what's happening at home-

EL: And you didn't have to feel guilty about it?

RS: I didn't have to feel guilty at all. And I just moved on and went and got the ball rolling in Charleston.

EL: Wow. That's so great. And so Nick and John T. I suppose really helped in enabling you to move to Charleston?

RS: Very much so.

EL: Which is a very different kind of a place, right? It's a real restaurant, it's not a convenience store turned into a barbecue joint, right?

RS: It's a full restaurant. It's a full restaurant. And-

EL: You're making fried catfish-

RS: Yes, sir.

EL: You know ... And how does that make you feel? Is it ... Was it difficult to make the transition?

RS: No. The adjustment was more of ... A staffing thing was my biggest challenge. Making the adjustment, working with people ... Trying to show them something that I've been doing all of my life. Had to learn how to prepare them the right way.

EL: You had to learn how to school people.

RS: Exactly. So it was a learning process for me, as well as all of the new folks that were coming in. And, you know, one thing I do really, really appreciate about John T. and Nick that a lot of people will probably never believe is that they weren't there just to pat you on the back. They were there to discipline you as well. You know, they let you know, hey, this is ... There's a certain way to do things. And I think you should reconsider this, or do it a different way. They weren't afraid to be that big brother, if you will. To let you know that you're not just all praises here. We're gonna discipline you to make sure that you don't make any mistakes. And just realizing that was more appreciative than them saying, good job, good job.

EL: Right. For sure.

RS: You know? That shows that-

EL: You need people to tell you.

RS: You gotta have people to tell you.

EL: You know, it's true and we should mention that our mutual friend John T. Edge is recuperating from a terrible car accident. But I've been emailing him every week, Rodney, and he seems to be doing better. I think he's getting really impatient sitting on the couch, watching TV, movies, reading books.

RS: I checked on him several times, too.

EL: Seems like he's doing okay. But we send him our love and our prayers.

RS: Yes. Get well soon, John T.

EL: Gonna have to leave it right here for your first episode of Special Sauce. But we are gonna keep talking about Charleston, raise some barbecue, more about music for the next episode. I want to thank you for coming on. We're gonna keep it right here. And we'll see you next time, Serious Eaters.

RS: Thank you. Thank you.