How a small-town pitmaster turned a dying cuisine into the stuff of celebrity

The Washington Post – By Tim Carman

Chef Rodney Scott checks racks of ribs at his restaurant in Charleston, S.C. (Alex Holt/For The Washington Post)

The pit room at Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ feels like a sauna without the steam. An open furnace on the back wall blazes with split logs of red oak and hickory, slowly burning down into coals, which the staff will shovel into five custom-made smokers.

There’s no thermometer in the building, which squats behind the airy, sun-dappled restaurant, so Scott can only guess at the temperature. But it’s hot enough that the pit crew’s faces and necks shimmer in the light that pours through the screen windows. It’s hot enough that one new cook lost 15 pounds during his first three days on the job. It’s hot enough that the workers will, every once in a while, seek the shade of an oak tree in back of the smokehouse.

But with sunglasses perched atop his ball cap — a Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ cap, turned backward — the namesake pitmaster and the current James Beard Award-winning chef from the Southeast looks as cool as a tall glass of sweet tea. There’s not a drop of sweat on his company-branded T-shirt, whose only mark is a printed silhouette of a pig.

“These guys sweat a lot harder than I do,” Scott says. “I’ve got to be in here almost half a day to get a sweat going.”

To say that Scott can stand the heat is an understatement. As a native son of the Pee Dee region of South Carolina, Scott has risen to prominence despite the fact, or maybe because of the fact, that the odds were stacked against him from the start. He grew up in a rural, largely African American county that was so poor that, by the early 1980s, residents were either fleeing the area or getting arrested just to have a hot meal in jail. Optimism was not a commodity frequently traded among the agrarian residents who remained in Williamsburg County, Scott recalls.

A pulled pork sandwich and sides at Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ. (Alex Holt/For The Washington Post)

His youth, Scott says, was marked by criticism and “a lot of negative experiences.” He can rattle off the comments as if they were uttered yesterday: “I wouldn’t do that if I was you.” “You ain’t going nowhere.” “That ain’t no good.”

“I think it’s a small-town mentality,” he says. “Crabs in the bucket, as they call it. ‘I’m not gonna let you get too high. I’m going to throw you down.’”

Scott has spent a chunk of his 46 years developing a philosophy to combat those messages. He distills his wisdom down to aphorisms that he will drop into regular conversation: “My glass is always half-full.” “He who angers you, controls you.” Or the one that graces T-shirts for sale at the barbecue joint that bears his name: “Every Day Is A Good Day.”

To Scott, these are not empty slogans. They are mantras that have helped him break the chokehold of small-town life and embrace the opportunities presented to a second-generation pitmaster who, like Sam Jones in North Carolina, has become a leading light of a cuisine once thought to be on the verge of extinction: whole-hog barbecue.

Rodney Scott’s mother, Ella Scott, left, and her sister, Fannie Mitchem, at Scott’s Bar-B-Q in Hemingway, S.C. (Alex Holt/For The Washington Post)

Rodney Scott was born in 1971 in Philadelphia, but the following year, his parents, Roosevelt and Ella, whisked their only child to South Carolina, where Ella’s father had land around Nesmith, a small community in Pee Dee. The family became farmers, raising hogs and growing tobacco and other crops. Come harvest time, or the holidays, the family would smoke a hog. It’s what folks did in the area.

“It’s almost like how barbecue is now, how you see people with grills,” says Sheldon Riley, a native of Manning, S.C., less than 50 miles west of Nesmith. “Everybody had a pit, homemade and makeshift, a hole in the ground.”

Scott’s family grew or raised much of what they ate: cucumbers, butter beans, okra, sweet corn and more. If they ate meat, they slaughtered and cleaned the animals themselves.

Scott recalls smoking his first hog at age 11. It was at Scott’s Variety Store and Bar-B-Q, a gas-station-cum-dry-goods shop and pool hall that his parents opened in Hemingway shortly after arriving in South Carolina in 1972. Roosevelt Scott, or Rosie, as friends and family call him, would smoke a hog once a week at the country store; as Rosie’s sandwiches and platters became more popular, the family expanded production to two hogs a week, then three and four. The airport-hangar-like smokehouse next to the country store now smokes seven or eight hogs a day, Ella Scott says.

Smoking whole hogs is hard and sweaty work, particularly at a rural operation. The wood comes from freshly cut trees in Pee Dee, a region dense with forests. On a recent weekday afternoon, a giant pile of logs, branches and leaves still attached, awaited a wood splitter behind the smokehouse. Once cut, the wood would be transformed into coals via an outdoor burn barrel, constructed from sheets of metal pierced with old truck axles, which hold the logs in place until they burn down into embers. Rain or shine, crews will haul those hot coals into the smokehouse and place them under the cinder-block-and-brick pits to maintain a constant temperature for 12 or more hours.

Sam Wilson checks on whole hogs at Scott’s Bar-B-Q. (Alex Holt/For The Washington Post)

It can also be dangerous work, because those hogs are cooked with their fat fully intact. A flare-up can quickly turn disastrous if the crews are not paying attention. Such was the case in 2013 when the smokehouse burned to the ground. (It was rebuilt a few months later.) “The fire is going to chase the grease,” Scott says, “which is the fat cap between the [hog’s] meat and the skin.” If the fire then jumps from the pit, all bets are off.

The Scott family’s country smokehouse caught the attention of John T. Edge, the writer, historian and director of the Southern Foodways Alliance. His 2009 profile of Scott’s Bar-B-Q, and its charismatic pitmaster, for the New York Times turned a local institution into a serious destination for barbecue hunters and food writers alike.

Scott’s was “at once the most rudimentary of barbecue restaurants and the most sophisticated,” says Edge. “And Rodney Scott was, from Day One, this kind of bright, energetic, telegenic personality. All those ingredients, the kind of tension between tradition and modernity . . . all that stuff was in place when I showed up.”

Almost a decade after Edge’s profile, Rodney Scott himself has become a barbecue celebrity. He has been featured in national magazines. He has cooked on the international barbecue circuit. He has appeared on television. The late Anthony Bourdain, with celebrity chef Sean Brock in tow, made a requisite pilgrimage to Hemingway.

“One of the best bites of whole-hog barbecue I’ve ever eaten, maybe the best bite that I’ve ever eaten, was from Rodney Scott,” says Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn, who sampled Scott’s pork at an SFA symposium in 2012. “And I say this as somebody who is working on a book with Sam Jones.”

Rodney Scott at his Charleston restaurant. (Alex Holt/For The Washington Post)

The Southern Foodways Alliance introduced Scott to Nick Pihakis, a veteran Birmingham, Ala., restaurateur who helped expand Jim ’N Nick’s Community Bar-B-Q from a single shop to a multiunit chain across seven states. Pihakis and Scott quickly became friends and then confidants. Pihakis recalls a trip he made to Hemingway in which he felt comfortable enough to suggest that Scott increase his prices. Pihakis thought the family was basically giving away its food.

Next thing you know, Scott grabbed a ladder and changed the prices as customers were still standing in line for barbecue. “A lady that had already paid and was waiting on her order goes, ‘Thank God I already paid,’ ” Pihakis remembers.

Pihakis would have a profound influence on how Scott ran the Hemingway operation once Roosevelt and Ella gave their son full control in 2011. Among other things, Pihakis taught Scott the importance of projections: determining how much barbecue you might sell during the day, so you don’t waste money on unnecessary food and labor. Before Pihakis came along, Scott says, the business would just “fly by the seat of [our] pants and hope you pay the bills.”

He’s not kidding: For a multiyear stretch in the 2000s, state and federal authorities filed more than 50 tax liens against Scott’s Variety Store and Bar-B-Q, for sums large and small, according to Nexis records.

Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ, on Charleston’s King Street. (Alex Holt/For The Washington Post)

It was an almost foregone conclusion that Pihakis and Scott would partner for a business of their own. Their collaboration led to Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ in Charleston, a counter-service restaurant that puts a sleek, fast-casual spin on an old Pee Dee tradition. The place debuted in February 2017 with 64 seats and a menu that went well beyond the Scott family’s signature whole-hog barbecue with a spicy vinegar sauce. It also features spare ribs, fried catfish and a rib-eye sandwich.

More than a year later, when Scott was nominated by the James Beard Foundation for Best Chef: Southeast, the partners decided to nearly double the seating at their restaurant to capi­tal­ize on the nod. When Scott won in May, becoming only the second pitmaster to win a Beard chef award, the gamble paid off. Their sales doubled, Pihakis says, and they bought out early partners. They’re now planning a second location in Birmingham, where Pihakis can oversee operations, and possibly in other spots, too, including New York City. They could end up being the nation’s premier evangelists of whole-hog barbecue.

But will anyone outside the Carolinas listen? The ability to appreciate “anything done with passion exists in every corner of this country,” emails Scott’s good friend Sam Jones, the acclaimed pitmaster behind Sam Jones BBQ in Winterville, N.C. Like Scott, Jones is making a name for himself, separate from the pitmasters in his legendary family. “Whether there is enough to sustain a whole-hog joint or not is a $20,000 question.”

Scott’s BBQ. (Alex Holt/For The Washington Post)

Rodney Scott’s successful migration from country to city has come at a cost. The locals in Hemingway, Scott says, sometimes give him an earful about leaving them behind. They accuse him of selling out and selling out his own family.

But the situation seems much more complex. Those close to Scott, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of their friendship with the pitmaster, say that father and son no longer talk. It’s a classic case of son transcending father, one person says, and the jealousies that come with it. Roosevelt Scott could not be reached for comment and wasn’t at Scott’s in Hemingway on the day I visited. (Ella Scott, incidentally, says her husband is supportive of their son.)

Rodney Scott quotes T.D. Jakes, the pastor behind the Dallas megachurch, the Potter’s House, when asked about his father.

“T.D. Jakes told a story that not everybody you encounter on your journey is meant to be with you when you get to your destination,” Scott says. “Sometimes your journey is to go past that person. That person may be your brother, sister, mother, father, uncle, whomever. . . . My life is just like that.”

“I don’t waste my time dwelling on people’s opinions and what they say and think,” Scott adds.“I focus on running my business.”

His focus might also explain why Scott didn’t mention the person who has replaced him as pitmaster and proprietor of the family smokehouse in Hemingway. I found out from Ella Scott: It is Rodney Scott’s son, Dominic, a 23-year-old with an associate degree in business from the University of South Carolina Salkehatchie . Dominic is Scott’s son from a relationship long before he married his current wife, Shanika.

Like his father, Dominic is a man of few words, at least to a stranger with a tape recorder. Tall, lean and full of ambition, Dominic learned how to cook hogs from his father, although he says he talks more now with his grandfather about cooking techniques. Asked what he thought when his father left Hemingway to open his own place in Charleston, Dominic sounds a lot like his dad, relying on a glass-half-full, focus-on-your-own-thing philosophy.

“I wasn’t upset,” he says. “I keep going. I know how to do basically everything he knows how to do.”