Woodsmoke and the Woosah: Barbecue Pitmaster Rodney Scott’s Lessons on Patience and Adversity

I am not exactly sure why I decided to schedule a Zoom conversation with Rodney Scott on the morning after Election Day. Maybe subconsciously I thought that talking about whole-hog barbecue—and Scott is a virtuoso of the form, with a James Beard award to prove it and a cookbook on the way next spring—might help distract my doomscrolling brain in a time of political uncertainty.

Scott has restaurants in Charleston, South Carolina, and Birmingham, Alabama, and he got his start studying and perfecting barbecue (at his family’s famed spot, Scott’s Bar-B-Que, in the South Carolina town of Hemingway) before he’d even hit his teens. His path to pitmastery is the subject of a recent episode of Chef’s Table, the Netflix food series. But Scott is more than a culinary maestro. He is also an avatar of positive thinking, and our bleary Wednesday conversation wound up bringing me some unexpected comfort—comfort that had nothing to do with fistfuls of smoky pork fat—before the eventual relief of the election results.

ESQ: Right now we don’t know who the next president is. We’re trying to be patient, and it’s not easy. But you’re kind of a guru of patience. What you do with barbecue is all about that.

RS: As a person I cultivate patience. I like to say, “one step at a time.” No matter how fast you want to go, you’ve still got to wait on 60 seconds to pass. Take it one step at a time. Take a deep breath. Relax. Think it through before you make a move that’s not good for you. I guess you would call it the woosah, the deep breaths, inhale and exhale.

What is that term? Is that from yoga or something?

Woosah. I got that from the Bad Boys movie with Martin Lawrence. He was like, “Woosah!” I guess that’s the calm-down word. I don’t know.

Esquire

Get 85+ Years of Award-Winning Journalism, Every Day

esquire.com

Barbecue doesn’t work—it doesn’t come out right—if you’re not patient.

Exactly. You have to be patient. I’ll tell you a story. Just a couple nights ago I dropped some food on the Green Egg [barbecue cooker]. I wanted to be quick about it. I thought, I’m rushin’ it, I’m going too fast—I’m so ready to get back in to watch football that I’m not paying attention to what I’m doing out there. So I take the burgers off, and they’re not done yet. So immediately I put ‘em right back on the grill, and because I wanted to rush, I ended up cooking ‘em a little bit on the well-done side. There we go. And when you rush barbecue, man, you’re taking chances on either overcooking it, undercooking it, or just screwing the whole thing up.

You have to pay attention to it all the time.

Once you start, you’re committed. If you’re expecting to get a good product out of there, you’ve got to pay attention to it and be patient.

Barbecue, like pizza, always seems to be pretty damn good, no matter where you eat it. But sometimes it’s really sublime—another level. What factors make Rodney Scott’s barbecue so distinctive?

The one thing that gets us there is the whole hog. It’s a different taste. You take the loin. You take the belly. You’re taking the ham, the shoulders. And you’re mixing all of this meat together. And when you put all of that together, you’ve got different textures, different cuts, and it’s one unique taste. I can go to a restaurant and know if it’s just shoulders, or if it’s just hams. I can pick that out.

I’ve seen how much attention you pay to the wood that you burn, and what the proportions are. A lot of people might wonder, does it really matter that much?

Yes, the wood does make a difference. Hickory is great. It’s nice and hot and has a nice flavor to it. Oak, as well. Pecan. Cherry. Applewood. All these hard woods are great. Those give you a much better flavor. You don’t want to get a wood like pine.

chef's table bbq, volume rodney scott in episode 3 of chef's table bbqcr courtesy of netflixnetflix © 2020

Courtesy of NETFLIX

If I were to give you plates of barbecue—over here we’ve got barbecue cooked over pecan and cherry wood, and over here we’ve got barbecue cooked without those woods—would you be able to tell the difference just by tasting them?

I’m pretty sure I’d be able to tell the difference. I can walk into an area of a barbecue restaurant and I can tell you if they’re using the rotisserie smoker or they’re cooking over open pits. Just from the scent I can tell you what’s going on in that place.

You’re in South Carolina right now. It’s the day after Election Day, and Jaime Harrison has lost to Lindsey Graham in the race for a Senate seat. What’s on your mind? How are you feeling?

Rodney? Rodney Scott, after Election Day, is feeling great. Every day is a good day. Politics is what it is. I hope they all have appetites, because I just want to feed everybody, you know? Me, I can speak to any person. Usually I don’t talk about politics or religion a lot. What you say or think is your choice. I just want to feed you. I want to give you that world peace. I want to give you that happiness. One of the voting places is right across the street from the restaurant, here in Charleston. They brought in their appetites, and we obliged everybody who had a voting sticker with a serving of banana pudding. I like to treat everybody equally. I don’t care what party you’re in. I’m gonna feed you.

This year, 2020—it’s been heavy. For you I imagine it’s been a bit of “the best of times, the worst of times.” Because you’ve faced the challenges of COVID-19 as a restaurant owner, but you’ve also had this Chef’s Table episode that cemented your place in American culinary history. How has business been, in light of those two things?

In the beginning, when the pandemic started, it was a little shaky. I found myself challenging my “every day is a good day” term with the concern of our staff. The way that we got through that, my partner Nick and I, we all got together and we made sure to learn and follow the CDC guidelines, to go above and beyond to protect our staff as well as our consumers. The fact that we have a drive-through window on the restaurant here in Charleston, that gave us a chance to give some people something to do so that they wouldn’t have to worry about how to pay their bills. And we also offered a staff meal. That led up to us getting into a rhythm of to-go orders and drive-through all at the same time, still giving us a chance to give our staff some work. Then here comes Chef’s Table, and that boosted everything along even more—getting more staff in, giving them jobs, getting them back to work. The popularity of the show itself just brought a lot of people in, so business has been great.

This content is imported from YouTube. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.

So that’s real, the impact of Chef’s Table?

It came out on September 2, and I think that boost kicked in around the fourth. And man, let me tell you. At first it was just a bunch of reactions on social media, then all of a sudden there were people showing up at the restaurant, lines out the door. That impact is for real.

I’ve heard that the Chef’s Table episode changed you emotionally and spiritually. Can you talk about that?

That episode kind of freed my spirits. The fact that something that is so important to the South, a story that is always told throughout the South, which is whole hog barbecue—they came to us, and myself, to tell that story. It felt great to tell that story, and it was kind of a load off the shoulders.

How so?

Dealing with the family situation of, you know, me and my dad not on great terms, and having to leave the family business not on great terms and start my own thing—it was like, Can I do this? Can I make it? I never really had a lot of conversations about that with a lot of people. But with the Chef’s Table interviews, I started to open up about that—to tell that story. And in talking to someone, it was like therapy—being able to say it and get it out. After that interview, it was like, Ahhhhh. It felt great. Relieving. Because going on four years I’ve been holding this secret with family issues, and not telling the media, not telling the public, and all of a sudden I said it and it goes global. But so many people related to it, and it was amazing the response that we were getting, saying, “We are going through the same issues in our family. We understand what you’re talking about.” So it was a big relief to know that it helped me feel better as well as other people.

It was a woosah.

Oh, it was a woosah, man. It was so much freedom. It’s like the shoulders just came down. A great feeling.

And that mostly has to do with friction between you and your father?

Yes. That was mostly the friction between my father and a couple of other family members and some of the people in the community who put in their two cents.

So you feel that you haven’t gotten support, emotionally, from your folks and friends in Hemingway about the path you’ve taken? Is that a fair way to put it?

That is definitely a fair way to put it. Some support from some people. But not a whole lot of support from a lot of people. There are still a lot of great people down there who call me and give me support—quite a few of them—but then there’s those few who are constantly trying to steal your joy, so to speak. Trying to bring you down. I ignore it. Because my glass is always going to be half-full.

What have you learned about yourself from doing Chef’s Table?

Man, I learned that I got somewhat of an interesting life. We don’t pay attention to things that we’ve experienced and done until you put it all together, sit back, and watch it. I’m like, wow. It kept my attention. I’m like, this is about me. This is me telling my story. It was good to see myself making progress instead of thinking that I’m not making the steps that I could be making.

Part of the framework of the Chef’s Table episode has to do with the way that you, when you were a kid in rural South Carolina, used to look up at planes passing overhead and wonder where they were going.

Man, true story. If you ever catch me on a plane, if I’m in the window seat, the first thing you’ll see is me asleep. Headphones on, I’m knocked out, I’m asleep. And whenever I wake up, you’ll see me staring out the window. Usually I’m staring out the window wondering if there’s another kid down there doing the same thing. A kid on a dirt road there. A kid on that farm. Some kid in the city right there just dreaming about traveling somewhere else. I always have that thought.

When do you sleep?

Barely.

You were born in 1971.

November of 1971. November 1. Just had a birthday—49 years old.

Rodney Scott’s World of BBQ: Every Day Is a Good Day

amazon.com

$29.99

Oh, wow. I’m 53. You’re about to enter your fifties. I apologize in advance. I’m not into it. I’m suddenly afraid of falling down stairs. How do you do this kind of barbecue, this kind of work, at 50?

Well, you keep on trucking but you get in the right lane. You want to get in the slow lane, when you’re trucking at 50, okay? All of the grabbing hogs and lifting them straight on your shoulders? You don’t do that no more. You say, “Hey, come help me.” As you said, that certain fear kicks in, of not wanting to get hurt or to fall. I work with the guys we have in the pit. Things that I know I can lift, I still ask for assistance now. Don’t take no chances. Because the way we do it with whole hogs, it’s physical. You may be swinging the ax, splitting wood. You may just be lifting wood at a weird angle up and into the firebox. You’re leaning over and you’re flipping things—there’s all kinds of physical activity that’s going on with the whole hog. Even the gravity in turning it over. So you always want to be careful. You woosah before you start.

Just before Thanksgiving in 2013, your family’s barbecue cookhouse in Hemingway caught fire and burned down. How did you get through that?

Again, patience. Patience and adversity, for me, go hand in hand. I knew at that point, that morning, when I saw the building—it was gone. One thing about being on the bottom for a second, there’s only one direction to go: up. I kept saying to myself, “Now we can do it different, maybe we can do it better.” I saw it as a challenge. I took it on and I started to make adjustments. As with any adversity, when something happens, see what happened, make your notes, try to get past it.

If the barbecue thing doesn’t work out, Rodney, you could definitely have a second career as the next Tony Robbins.

Man, it keeps me going. It makes me feel good about everything, just knowing that if you keep a positive vibe, man, you can find some positive things in whatever situation it is.

This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io

Source : Esquire