Why Rodney Scott feels BBQ doesn't get enough respect from the culinary world - Exclusive

Winning the James Beard Outstanding Chef Southeast award in 2018 was a life-changing honor for master barbecuer Rodney Scott, whose journey from a teen working for his parents' small town whole-hog BBQ restaurant to becoming an internationally known king of 'cue is the subject of a new episode of A Chef's Table BBQ on Netflix. While this accomplishment was a turning point in Scott's life, it also begged the question: why don't you see more barbecue masters winning James Beard awards?

In fact, Scott feels that the culinary industry has never given barbecue the respect it deserves. In an exclusive interview with Mashed, Scott said that for as long as he's been carving up whole hogs, he has struggled to get respect for his craft. "My biggest struggle to get to where I am today is respect," Scott said. "There's a lot of people that downplay barbecuers. And I've met some of the most intelligent barbecue people out there." According to Scott, culinary critics tend to separate what is known as "fine dining" from the kinds of food that people eat in more casual circumstances. In doing that, they're failing to recognize how much work and expertise is required to be a masterful pitmaster. "You have 'white table dining,'" Scott explained. "Barbecue [is just as] important. That's been a struggle to kind of get people to reconcile the two."

Why BBQ deserves as much respect as fine dining, according to Rodney Scott

While James Beard and Michelin awards frequently go to French and other types of high-end cuisine, casual cookout fare can involve just as much skill and discipline, Scott said. His episode of A Chef's Table BBQ details the days-long process entailed in transforming a whole hog into a succulent, intricately spiced delicacy. But really, all types of barbecue require a mixture of creativity, tradition, and grueling hard physical labor, Scott noted. "I feel anybody that gets up to prepare barbecue — it's a challenge already just to wake up," he added. "Some of the best food, I've ever had, has been in hole-in-the-wall joints."

One reason why these culinary awards aren't going out to pitmasters may be that the movers and shakers in this industry simply don't eat barbecue on the reg. Which, according to Scott, is a shame. "I feel like it would be nice to get that mutual respect of fine dining versus barbecue," he said. "Because they both have the same common denominator: people like to eat food. So in my mind, I feel like maybe they should just mention some more, check them out, give it a chance, check out the little joints as well as the large ones and just see. You'll be surprised."

Fortunately, though, the tides might finally be changing, now that others are becoming aware of exactly what goes into creating the mind-blowingly good grub that inspires people to wait for hours for a seat at his Rodney Scott's BBQ location in Charleston, South Carolina. "Chef's Table brought that to light, thank goodness!" Scott said. "The most exciting part was being able to tell the story of barbecue in the South and how it's such a big part of the South, [especially] whole hogs. And how the whole hog art is kind of diminishing. And not a lot of people still do it, but it felt good to just be filming and telling that story through my eyes."

How Rodney Scott manages to stay positive

In addition to being overlooked by culinary judges, disrespectful guests have been deflating to Scott. "People will say, 'I didn't enjoy it.' And you have to not let that get into your mental state. You have to stay strong and say, 'Okay, how can I make it better for you? Can I change your experience? Can I fix it?' And just trying to maintain that positive mentality — to stay strong — has been one of the biggest challenges, and [getting] that respect from other people that you are either feeding, or people that are doing the same as you do," he explained.

Similarly to culinary judges, picky diners simply don't realize how much craft goes into whole-hog barbecue. "[S]ome people say, 'I can do that with my hands tied behind my back.' People, they think of it differently, which is okay. Everybody has an opinion, but one of the biggest challenges just being heard, telling the story and people letting you finish telling the story and being heard," Scott said. "And with The Chef's Table episode, it kind of gave me a chance to tell the story and the world to hear it. And they kind of understand it a little bit more."

While customers' dismissive comments have been hurtful, their repeat business has made Scott's efforts worthwhile — and has proven to him that regardless of what people might say, there is much love for his work. Years before he won his James Beard award, "If I saw a customer more than five times, I considered myself in my own mind — that was my Beard award for that day or that week," he explained. Certainly, Scott has had his share of repeat business; Rodney Scott's BBQ is adding two locations in 2021. And for that, Scott is grateful. "So, in living out my dreams, now I want to spread the word," he said. "I need to spread positivity [to] every individual that I encounter, as much as possible, to make sure that they can stay positive in the world can somehow be a better place."