Rodney Scott dishes on Chef's Table: BBQ, the secret to great 'cue, & more - Exclusive interview

It's the ultimate high school reunion comeback story. Teased as a kid that he would "only going to end up down the street" at his dad's restaurant, master barbecuer Rodney Scott walked away with a James Beard Outstanding Chef Southeast award in 2018, and has cooked alongside the likes of Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain. Scott's journey from the kitchen of an unknown barbecue joint in Hemingway, South Carolina, to world-renowned pitmaster and restaurateur is detailed in a new episode of A Chef's Table BBQ.

In an exclusive interview with Mashed, Scott shared what it was like seeing his life featured on Netflix, how opening his very first Rodney Scott's BBQ location in Charleston was a dream of his since his junior year economics class, and why he feels like barbecue cooks don't get the respect they deserve from the culinary world. Plus, Scott revealed the surprising secret to really great barbecue — hint, get your favorite playlist ready!

Rodney Scott on being featured on Chef's Table: BBQ

What was it like being the subject of an episode of A Chef's Table?

I was very happy with all the content and filming of A Chef's Table. 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.

In your A Chef's Table episode, you described how you saw working as a teenager, as hard work. Eventually, it became a passion. Was there one moment where it changed from drudgery to something you became really excited about?

Absolutely. It was a moment where it changed for me [in] my junior year in high school. I learned economics and government. I learned that supply and demand was a very important thing. And I found out that what is the difference in supply and demand, and food was one of those things. So I said, "we do that." Why can't I make the best of every situation?

All the same time, there was a song that used to play in the clubs. It was a reggae song, "Life Is What You Make It." So, I tried to keep the two together because I love music. And I said, I'm going to find the best of every situation. And then, I'm going to try to have fun doing it. And once I found my rhythm in what I do, that I can listen to music while I'm cooking hogs. I can have a nice conversation with people who are helping me, when I'm cooking hogs.

I said, "I can do this." And all the same time, I'm presenting this food. So, I just said, you know what? I'm going to have fun doing it. I'm going to find the best way to do it. And this is what I do. So everywhere I go, there's music with me when I cook remotely. And then, there's the food and me working hard, making sure that I can try to present the best dishes I can.

On A Chef's Table, it seems as if you are teaching your son to be a pitmaster. What has that been like?

Yes. That's an interesting character. Yes. He is 11 going on 30. He is a handful.

When you spoke of learning to cook whole hog as a boy, it sounded like very hard physical work. Does your son work that hard?

He does not work as hard as I did as a child at that age, but I do give him tasks and responsibilities to make sure that he does — cutting the grass, blowing off the patio. All of these things are the challenges that I gave him every day to make sure that he's learning responsibility, learning duties, learning chores, learning to how to maintain around the house as well as himself. So, he has more challenges than I had that were less physical, so. So, I'm trying to teach him without wearing him out.

How Rodney Scott became a James Beard Award-winning pitmaster

What has been your biggest struggle to get to where you are today?

My biggest struggle to get to where I am today is respect. Believe it or not, there's a lot of people that downplay barbecuers. And I've met some of the most intelligent barbecue people out there. To understand that, you have white table dining... barbecue [is just as] important. That's been a struggle to kind of get people to recognize the two. Chef's Table brought that to light, thank goodness. And just the criticisms from guests — there are challenges here and there.

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. That's a challenge.

...[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. 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.

What did it feel like when you first opened the doors to your restaurant?

When we finally opened the restaurant for the first time we opened the doors, I was extremely scared. I was so fearful. I was nervous. I couldn't sleep the night before. The line that I saw waiting, I didn't know what to do. I was sweating. I felt like I couldn't keep up, but I said, I got to do this. I got to do this. So, I was terrified.

What has been the most important moment in your career thus far?

I would have to say the restaurant was one of the biggest moments first and the Beard Awards was second. First, because when I learned about the Beard Awards years ago, I said, "one day, maybe if I ever did it, it would be great." Until then, my dream [was] to own my own spot, and the reward would be to see a repeat customer. So, 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. And I never told [anyone] — you're the first to hear this. So, I never told anybody that my Beard Award in my mind was repeat customers.

What did it mean to you then when you actually did win the Beard Award for being the Best Chef in the South?

Wow. Winning that award for Best Chef in the South meant a lot, meant that the people are paying attention to your craft. People are paying attention to what you're doing and how you're presenting it to your guests. And it was humbling because it kind of takes me back to you can live out your dreams.

So, in living out my dreams, now I want to spread the word for sure... 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.

Do you feel like more barbecue pitmasters and chefs should get recognized by those types of awards, or by Michelin awards?

I mean, I feel anybody that gets up to prepare barbecue — it's a challenge already just to wake up. I feel like it would be nice to get that mutual respect of fine dining versus barbecue. 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. Some of the best food, I've ever had, has been in hole-in-the wall joints.

Was there one moment in your career when you realized you'd gone from being the barbecue apprentice to being a master?

I am still seeking the moment that I become a master, honestly. I feel like if I continue to learn that I'll be all right, but the very second that I think that I'm a master, oops, you skipped something, you know? So, I consider myself to still be a student, to still learn. I still communicate with younger guys and girls that asked me questions about cooking on the pits. And I hold a conversation with them because they can possibly teach me something as well. So, I keep my mind open for knowledge and ideas and thoughts, just to see. So, I have yet to master it. I'm still learning.

Rodney Scott reveals what Anthony Bourdain was really like

What was it like being on Anthony Bourdain's show?

Wow. Anthony Bourdain's show. Let me tell you that was a moment – that day we had so much fun. I remember being in a hurry and we had to hurry up and film it. And when, they set up the tables and they put the cold beer down, I was like, this guy is cool! And we sat down and we ate and we just had this nice conversation, and I've always admired his just coolness to everything. He's just nonchalant, laid back and he enjoys eating.

And that was one of the best days, we sat there and we had this conversation with him and Sean, we ate. And when we were done taping, we still sat there for a few minutes, just kind of kicking it around drinking, and then we drank another beer. So, it was fun. It was great. It was a good thing. He was an amazing guy. And I learned a lot from him. I said to somebody just last night at an event, that this is the pork spaghetti that Anthony Bourdain and Sean Brock love.

What is Anthony Bourdain's legacy to the culinary world?

I think his legacy to culinary world was to bring people together, to let them know that food is one of the common languages. One of his famous quotes was — I think I may be saying it wrong — but "the world can become one happy place, one barbecue sandwich at a time". Man, when he said that, I was like whoa.

The secret behind Rodney Scott's masterful BBQ

You used a lot of construction tools in cooking your whole hog in the A Chef's Table episode. Are there any modern kitchen tools that you like as well?

I kind of stick to what you saw in the documentary. I'm still using the fencing, the wire cutters for whatever I need, the shovel, of course, pretty much the hardware store is still a first stop.

What do you love most about being a pitmaster?

What I love the most about being a pitmaster is cooking meat. There's something exciting about cooking with fire and meat especially — some other foods too, but mostly the proteins. I love cooking over fire and getting a chance to share that with people who've watched you try to prepare it.

And to get it prepared — and just the whole fellowship of having people with you while you're doing it. That's what I love about it. You get to meet people, you get to tell stories. You get to prepare this wonderful food, if you don't screw it up. I just love it. Just the gathering, the connection of people along with the food itself.

How does listening to music help you when you cook?

It gives me so much energy when listening to music and it helps you to prepare the food better. You got that rhythm in your head, that nice smooth tune. And before you know it, three, four minutes are gone by and you've made progress, but your mind is still at ease.

So, the next song comes on and you do the same thing. And there's another three, four minutes gone. You had fun, those three or four minutes. You're still being productive at work. Everything is still great.

So, I'll always say, if you can play the tunes while you're cooking, it makes a huge difference. It keeps your mentality happy. You're not throwing too much salt in if you're mad, because you're in a good mood, you're sprinkling that high. It makes a huge difference.

What are you listening to these days when you're cooking?

Wow. If it's early morning, I'm listening to some Anthony Hamilton, some Al Green, some O'Jays, some Maze featuring Frankie Beverly. If it's up in the day and it's time to serve, probably be playing a little bit more of some Drake, I'll play some GAP Band, a lot of R&B and kind of clean, decent music. That's fun and upbeat.

The truth about Rodney Scott's BBQ restaurant business

What is one menu item everyone should order at Rodney Scott's BBQ?

Everybody that shows up the restaurant for the first time should definitely order some pulled pork. Try the Rod's Original Sandwiches... you should definitely try that.

Have your recipes changed over the years?

Some of the recipes we have are pretty much my childhood. And, I had help from my good — oh man, my family; I don't even call them my "staff" — Nick, Paul and Nicholas. They all helped me out with recipes and they helped me to create new recipes along the way as well. So all of the ones I grew up with are pretty much still where they are, and they helped me to come up with more recipes that complement our restaurant here.

Do you have any plans to expand Rodney Scott's BBQ beyond South Carolina?

Our next plans are to expand. We're going to expand to Atlanta. We hope to have Atlanta going by 2021. We're going to expand to Birmingham. In the Birmingham area, there's a place called Homewood, Alabama. And we're also in Trussville, Alabama. So, all those are pretty much in the area of Birmingham, and that's where we're going next. And yes, I would love to expand all over the United States and the world if I could.

Has the pandemic impacted Rodney Scott's BBQ?

The pandemic definitely impacted our business a little. We had to make necessary adjustments for our staff and their families. We had to make adjustments due to CDC rules, shutting everything down. We took the precautions of getting our own sanitizers and everything and keeping them in stock.

And our drive-thru window was the one thing that kind of kept us going. So, we were able to still open a little bit and still supply a little bit of income towards the few people that we did keep. And it taught us a lot on just safety, looking out for our people and making sure that they're good.

And it was an impact, and we've since adjusted. Still doing all the necessary rules. All of our employees are still wearing masks. We're still sanitizing — doing everything possible and more to make sure that we're okay. We even tested all of our employees to make sure that they were okay. And if they had to be quarantined that we would compensate them during that time to make sure that they're okay.

So, it did impact us, but it's also had some positive things out of it. For example, I've learned to save money, not be in the streets all the time shopping. So, it has a silver lining.

Why Rodney Scott believes the best BBQ in the world comes from South Carolina

What is unique about Carolina barbecue?

I think one of the things that's so unique about Carolina Barbecue is that [it is] considered whole hog barbecue, be it North or South. And another thing that makes it a little unique is the vinegar and pepper. A lot of people in the Eastern part of both States are mostly into the vinegar and pepper.

And most states — also South Carolina, at least — have a mustard and a tomato, [sauce] and it goes across the state. So, I think that's one of the things that makes it so unique that in the South. These regions were developed verbally by people that live in them to say that, "we are the kings and queens of barbecue in the South, because we do this sauce." So, I think that kind of creates a conversation throughout the United States. They say the South is the barbecue spot because they have all these different sauces. That's my opinion.

When you leave the Carolinas, what's your favorite alternative type of barbecue?

Wow. I know I'm going to get some phone calls behind this one. I went to Kansas City twice and it was pretty good. I mean, Texas — you're good. But Kansas City — it was a little challenging compared to Texas, but I've had a lot of great barbecue and great places. But one of the most memorable has been in Kansas

Rodney Scott's advice for improving your BBQ game

What is the biggest mistake other people make when they're making barbecue?

One of the biggest mistakes other people make when they're making barbecue: they turn their backs. They lose their patience all the same time. And another one is they may or may not pay attention to where their pits can catch fire.

So there's, so many mistakes that can be made, but one of the main ones is losing your patience. Don't lose your patience, stay calm, try not to rush it. Make sure your grill is away from the house — that can be risky. Those are just some of the common mistakes that I've seen in and heard about.

Have you been able to teach other people how to be a pitmaster?

That's a great question. I have explained to people. I can't say that I have to technically taught them, but I have did my best to explain to people, my techniques and experiences. And to have them take notes of everything that I give them and apply it to what they already have learned and to create their own path. So, I shared my ideas and information with folks along the way. Teaching, I'm not so positive, I taught them anything, but I hope I influenced them at least.