Rodney Scott on Bourdain and Letting the Barbecue Speak for Itself [2/2]

In part two of my terrific conversation with James Beard Award-winning pitmaster Rodney Scott, we discuss the fact that barbecue, like jazz, was developed by African-Americans, and yet most well-known pitmasters are white.   “I respect any human being, man or woman, that takes the approach to be a pitmaster…Black, white, tall, short, it don’t matter,” Rodney said. “I see dedicated people who stuck to what they believed in. Kept trying at it, kept going, and they finally got something recognized, the same way I got recognized…So my whole thing is whether that person is white or black, it doesn’t matter. If you’re working hard and producing a product that you’re proud of that’s good, that’s gonna speak for itself regardless of who you are.”   As we were talking, Rodney confessed to a few guilty pleasures, one of which might surprise some people. “McDonald’s. I go to the window, pretend I’m on the phone, and I cover up my brand. Keep my head turned away from the window. And I order happy meals so that they think I’m picking it up for my nine-year-old.”    Rodney was featured on the late Anthony Bourdain’s show No Reservations, and Rodney talked a bit about some of the advice Bourdain gave him. “He basically said, ‘Rodney, don’t eat the sh*t sandwich…Don’t ever let the producers and the fame of people tell you how to do your thing.’ He says, ‘You do what you want. If they start telling you what to do, don’t accept it. Stand behind what you believe in.'”    To find out what else Rodney believes in, check out this week’s Special Sauce.   


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.

Rodney Scott: One thing I do believe in is don’t ever let your race determine your destiny. You know, if you want something, you go for it.

EL: Pitmaster supreme Rodney Scott, a James Beard award winner for Best Chef Southeast, is still in the house.

RS: Yes, yes.

EL: This whole issue of BBQ and race is a really interesting one, because BBQ is in many ways, like many other American art forms like jazz, it is … Most people would say it’s an African American invention.

RS: Yeah.

EL: And yet, you know, the standard narrative arc of BBQ, like jazz, was that African Americans developed the craft. Or the art, whatever you think it is, and then white people popularized it. And now, even when you go to a Big Apple BBQ block party, most of the pit masters are white. How do you sort of make sense of all of that?

RS: Well here’s my thing. I respect any human being, man or woman, that takes the approach to be a pitmaster. Who takes the time to donate towards cooking. Black, white, tall, short, it don’t matter. I really appreciate that and I don’t see that as discrimination, if you will, versus the white pitmaster or the black. I see dedicated people who stuck to what they believed in. Kept trying at it, kept going, and they finally got something recognized, the same way I got recognized.

EL: Right.

RS: I never gave up. I never let people’s opinions stop from what I wanted to try or where I wanted to go.

EL: Mm-hmm.

RS: I never gave up and I’m still not giving up. People ask me, “You’re expanding, why?” And I said “Why not?”

EL: Right.

RS: You know, so my whole thing is whether that person is white or black, it doesn’t matter. If your working hard and producing a product that your proud of that’s good, that’s gonna speak for itself regardless to who you are.

EL: So you’re a content of your character kind of dud?

RS: Exactly.

EL: Although you might be surrounded by white pitmasters, most people have come to it from the same point of view that you do. You know, which is they’ve put in the time, they’re not wealthy Wall Street traders who have decided-

RS: Exactly.

EL: They’re gonna become BBQ guys. They’re, you know … Mike Mills, I think, sold dental supplies, you know. I mean …

RS: Yeah, he put in that work.

EL: You know, it’s like they’re not coming from a different socio-economic class.

RS: Exactly. You know, one thing I do believe in is don’t ever let your race determine your destiny. You know, if you want something, you go for it. If you don’t want it and you lag back, or you don’t put that approach towards getting it done, your not gonna get good results.

EL: Right.

RS: It’s not gonna happen. So regardless to who you are, where you are, if you’re putting that work in, your gonna get it.

EL: Cause it seems to me that you all share a fondness for storytelling.

RS: Oh, yeah.

EL: In your food. And is that because you’re all staying up all night to mind the pit?

RS: That and whiskey, yeah.

EL: So that also is a way to bring people together, right.

RS: Oh yeah, oh yeah. You bond. You got 12 hours with whoever’s helping you. You bond. You know, according to how you cooking it all, you may have 20 to 24 hours.

EL: Right.

RS: On who you’re bonding with.

EL: Wow.

RS: So you get to know that person very well.

EL: Yeah. But who gets to choose the music?

RS: Oh man, that’s the guy who brought the fire. You know, you brought the fire, you bring the tunes. Personally, I like to put on a list that I just have set. That makes me feel good.

EL: Right.

RS: But all the same time, I don’t wanna violate everybody that’s helping me. I want them to be entertained as well.

EL: Right.

RS: So I will share the music. Sometimes.

EL: Right. And you have very Catholic tastes, right. Because you obviously like hip hop, you like old school R&B.

RS: Yes.

EL: I think one one interview, I saw that you like even old-fashioned Chitlin’ Circuit.

RS: Yes.

EL: Soul.

RS: Yes, yes. Love it.

EL: For people who don’t know, the Chitlin’ Circuit was a circuit of clubs in African American neighborhoods.

RS: Yeah.

EL: That R&B singers and groups played at. And they were almost exclusively catering to the African American population.

RS: Known as juke joints.

EL: Right.

RS: Yeah.

EL: They predated the Chitlin’ Circuit, right. The juke joints were in rural places.

RS: Yes.

EL: They were … To call them buildings would be a stretch, right?

RS: Yeah, that’s stretching it. They were shacks, man.

EL: They were shacks. That people would gather at really late. Usually bring their own whiskey, right.

RS: Yes.

EL: And there would be music.

RS: And people would party their asses off. They would party. And those were some of the best joints I’ve hung out of.

EL: There are still juke joints in Mississippi.

RS: Oh yeah, you gotta find them. They’re there.

EL: Are their juke joints in South Carolina.

RS: There are one or two hidden here and there, yes. Definitely.

EL: Wow.

RS: Definitely.

EL: So you have very strong opinions about sauce, as does everybody who’s involved in BBQ. You say that your sauce has pepper, lemon.

RS: Yes.

EL: A little bit of sweetness.

RS: A little bit of sweetness.

EL: Right. Vinegar.

RS: Vinegar.

EL: No tomato.

RS: No tomato.

EL: And probably no molasses? Or do you sweeten with molasses?

RS: No molasses.

EL: Got it, okay. And that’s it. And as far as you’re concerned, that’s sauce.

RS: For me that’s sauce, yes.

EL: Do you think less of others who think differently?

RS: I sure don’t. To each his own. Stand behind what you believe in. Produce the product, be proud of what you have.

EL: Right.

RS: And different regions, where you’ve grown up makes a difference. Different areas of what you like makes a difference.

EL: Yeah.

RS: So if you like what you like, you do that and go with it.

EL: Yeah, you know what’s interesting is you’re from South Carolina.

RS: Yes.

EL: When I first tasted your BBQ I was like, “Where’s the mustard sauce, Rodney?” And then I was like, oh there must be more than one sauce culture in South Carolina.

RS: There’s technically three, from what I’ve seen.

EL: Really?

RS: Tomato, mustard, and vinegar.

EL: Wow, that’s fascinating. And, you know, that’s the interesting thing. Also, I remember at a Southern Foodways conference, tasting the white sauce on Big Bob Gibson’s chicken.

RS: Yeah.

EL: Which is a mayonnaise based sauce.

RS: Definitely.

EL: It’s almost … It’s like a sauce, basically, that you find on a souvlaki in Manhattan on a street cart.

RS: Yes.

EL: Or a gyro.

RS: Tastes pretty good, though.

EL: Oh, it’s awesome.

RS: Chris Lilly’s good.

EL: Yeah, he’s really good, man.

RS: Chris Lilly’s great.

EL: Chris Lilly is a great, great … He’s a great pitmaster.

RS: Good food is good food.

EL: It’s true. You’ve also talked about love as an ingredient. Not just in your sauce. That’s where you keep the secret ingredient, right.

RS: Yes.

EL: But as being a very important part of what you do and why you do it.

RS: Man, when I say putting love into what you do, it’s taking that special time and attention. Paying that respect to the sauce itself. We’ll use the sauce as an example. You know, if you’re cooking and you’re in a bad mood, you tend to throw things around. But if you’re in a good mood, you carefully place stuff. You take your time and put it there. And I feel like that’s that love. To carefully do the procedures, paying very, very close attention to it, instead of just throwing it together.

EL: Mm-hmm.

RS: Because if you’re throwing it together, how much did you throw?

EL: Right. And cause real love’s hard work.

RS: Yeah, it is. It is. Love is for real. And to put in that dedication, that time and procedure, carefully, that’s that love.

EL: Right.

RS: But if I just say, “Hey, dump this in that pot, stir it” and you just throw it in there and don’t taste it or check it, that’s no love.

EL: Yeah.

RS: You know, that’s a one night stand. That ain’t good. But I prefer to take my time and pay attention, and have someone else taste. In my restaurant, every morning 30 minutes before we open, everybody in the restaurant has to taste what we’re about to serve.

EL: Yeah.

RS: And for me, that’s that extra love. To double check that we won’t give our consumers something …

EL: Right.

RS: That’s not right.

EL: And you have to make sure that your staff shares the love.

RS: Exactly, exactly.

EL: With each other and with the customer, you know.

RS: Always.

EL: With your customers.

RS: We preach respect all the time in there. And I tell them, we are a family when we’re in here. We’re a family when we’re out there. We need to always respect each other, help each other, and most of all, respect our consumers.

EL: What do you do … Cause every time I’ve ever hung out with you, you always seem to be in a good mood. What do you do, given how arduous a process BBQ is, when you’re not in a good mood and you don’t feel like doing it.

RS: Man what do I do?

EL: Yeah?

RS: I pick up my iPod and I put on Anthony Hamilton, Giving You the Best of Me. I do. And a lot of times, I feel like if you spend too much time stirring, there’s gonna be more frustrating. Okay, you make a mistake, you saw what was wrong, try to get past it. Move forward.

EL: Yeah.

RS: So if it’s a moment that’s not right, you try to move forward.

EL: Yeah.

RS: You know, not dwell on anything too long. So, you hear me say Giving You the Best of Me all the time. That song is pretty much about how the guy is expressing how much he wants to give this girl the best of him.

EL: Right.

RS: But just the whole layout and the tone of his voice in that sound, is calming to me.

EL: Mm-hmm.

RS: And if I start to get frustrated, I try to either step away from everybody, or I play that song or put it in my head to calm down and move forward.

EL: Yeah.

RS: A smile is much easier to pass along than a frown.

EL: For sure. So, what’s next? Are there gonna be more?

RS: Yes.

EL: Wow.

RS: Yes, yes, we’re going to Birmingham, Alabama next.

EL: Which is the home of Jimenez.

RS: Home of Jimenez. And we’re going there.

EL: That’s awesome.

RS: I’ve done events down there. Well that city showed me the same love and appreciation that Charleston did. And I’ve had friends from my area to perform down there, the band, and they love the city as well.

EL: Wow.

RS: So that pretty much told me that this place is not just my opinion, but is absolutely a beautiful city.

EL: Yeah, and Frank Stitt has helped make that a really great food city. And I bet he loves your BBQ.

RS: Yes.

EL: Frank Stitt is the owner of the Highlands Bar & Grill, and is sort of the first … He’s the founding member of the Birmingham food scene.

RS: Yes.

EL: So all right. Now it’s time for the Special Sauce All You Can Ask Buffet. No pressure on you, man. I’m not saying that you …

RS: Okay.

EL: You know, we don’t have a clock ticking or anything. So, first of all, who’s at your last supper? No family allowed. Could be artists, musicians, painters, politicians. Could be anybody. I’d like three, minimum of three guests.

RS: No family allowed?

EL: Yeah.

RS: Minimum three guests?

EL: Yeah.

RS: My very last supper?

EL: Yeah.

RS: Anthony Bourdain. Another Anthony, Anthony Hamilton, and the final person that I don’t know, President Obama. Not for his political history, but his drive to never … He never gave up.

EL: Mm-hmm.

RS: He kept going.

EL: Yeah.

RS: He did the impossible.

EL: He sort of did in politics what you do in BBQ.

RS: Exactly, and that was an inspiration to me. And Kyrie Irving.

EL: I love this table. I have to come. I’ll wait the tables.

RS: Kyrie Irving. He was an inspiration. I’ve always been a Sixers fan.

EL: Right.

RS: And when he played ball, his calmness, his coolness.

EL: Yeah.

RS: But still, he performed like a maniac.

EL: And you know, when I tell the staff, and Kyrie, he toured much younger than me about Dr. Jay. For like, what are you talking about.

RS: They don’t know the doctor.

EL: They don’t know the doctor. You know, Michael Jordan, yes.

RS: Yeah.

EL: Obviously, LeBron.

RS: Yeah, but you don’t know the doctor.

EL:I love this table. And what are you eating?

RS: Oh, man. We’re gonna eat some seafood.

EL: Okay.

RS: Some oak shrimp. We’re gonna eat, definitely some beef. And of course, a little pulled pork.

EL: Yeah.

RS: And if there’s dessert.

EL: Yeah.

RS: We’re gonna do some soft serve ice cream.

EL: I love this. Like some frozen custard. Like Shake Shack style.

RS: Yeah, there you go. There you go, exactly. You know –

EL: I love this.

RS: Notice I didn’t say a lot of vegetables there.

EL: No, you did not mention five salads.

RS: But, when you do bring that salad and that vegetable, you make sure that it’s a Caesar salad.

EL: Okay.

RS: Definitely with the cheesy croutons.

EL: Right.

RS: Gotta have it.

EL: The anchovies, the whole thing?

RS: The works.

EL: Right.

RS: Rich flavor.

EL: Right.

RS: And then you wanna bring sweet peas.

EL: Wow. I like that, I like that.

RS: Those sweet peas with a touch too much of sugar.

EL: Right. I like it.

RS: Just to get oh yeah.

EL: And then what are you listening to? I know you’re listening to Anthony Hamilton, but what else are you listening to?

RS: We’re listening to the Gap Band. We’re listening to the Whispers. We’re listening to the O’Jays.

EL: Love Train!

RS: We’ve gotta put a little bit of Marvin Gaye in there.

EL: Yes! Sexual Healing.

RS: Yes.

EL: All right.

RS: Gotta let it flow, gotta have the good tunes in there.

EL: I’m gonna let you program your own last supper man.

RS: Oh man, it’s gonna be off the chain.

EL: That’s awesome. So, do you have guilty pleasures?

RS: I do.

EL: Food wise?

RS: I do have guilty pleasures food wise.

EL: Lay them on me.

RS: McDonald’s. I go to the window, pretend I’m on the phone, and I cover up my brand. Keep my head turned away from the window. And I order happy meals so that they think I’m picking it up for my nine year old.

EL: I just told one of the editors at Serious Eats, Sho Spaeth, that I tried the now made-to-order quarter pounder.

RS: Yeah.

EL: And it actually was pretty good.

RS: Yeah, it was nice and greasy and it-

EL: Yeah.

RS: Went back. It’s a retro burger from McDonald’s.

EL: Right, it’s like … And they really did tell me, “Okay, you’re gonna have to wait a few minutes.” And I was happy.

RS: Yeah. Because you get a hot juicy burger.

EL: Right, yeah.

RS: Next guilty pleasure, pizza.

EL: Well you know, son, it’s very close to my heart having written a whole book on pizza.

RS: Pizza? I go get it all the time. And the last thing that … I know these guys gotta know who I am, because I’m always sneaking in there. Hot dogs.

EL: Hot dogs.

RS: There’s a hot dog joint in Mount Pleasant that I always go to. I get two hot dogs. I get an order of fries. I go to the gas station and get me an A&W root beer.

EL: Right.

RS: And I go home and I eat it. And as soon as I eat all of that, I’m like why did I do that?

EL: Exactly. I have similar habits. My wife says that I can’t eat hot dogs every day.

RS: She don’t have to know everything.

EL: So, give me three books that have influenced your life.

RS: Here’s one book that influenced me.

EL: Yeah.

RS: And I never made it past the first page. Finish Well.

EL: Finish Well?

RS: I can’t remember, it’s a small book that …

EL: Like a business book?

RS: Like a small paperback.

EL: Uh-huh.

RS: That was given to me. Nick gave me that book. And I never made it past the first page because I kept flipping it back over saying finish well.

EL: Wow.

RS: Finish well.

EL: Uh-huh.

RS: And I would just keep repeating it over and over and over and over. And I’m not a big, big book reader.

EL: Right.

RS: Sean Brock’s book was an inspiration.

EL: Mm-hmm. Sean Brock.

RS: They way that he took his love for-

EL: Sean Brock is a great chef.

RS: Great chef.

EL: That most people know. Started in Charleston, now there’s … He’s got a restaurant in Nashville. And I’m dying, by the way, for him to open a restaurant here. And I’m also dying for you to open a BBQ join here. So after Birmingham comes New York, Rod.

RS: Hey, that’s … Hey, watch out New York.

EL: So what are three things in your kitchen that you can’t do without?

RS: Sugar.

EL: Okay.

RS: Ingredients or just things that are-

EL: Could be implements. Could be ingredients or whatever.

RS: Skillet.

EL: A skillet. Cast iron?

RS: Cast iron.

EL: Okay.

RS: Cast iron. Sugar.

EL: Okay.

RS: And tongs.

EL: Tongs. Spring loaded?

RS: Spring loaded. I’m a tell you a secret about me. It’s not even a secret if you watch me flipping or pulling anything. But I have tongs in my hand. I click them before I grab what I’m picking up, and I click them again, maybe once or twice when I put that meat down. And all weekend long, out of all the ribs that we planned to cook and have done, there’s a click and a double click almost on every single rib. Every time.

EL: And you probably live for those clicks?

RS: I do. I have four tongs just for me. Not my help, not my guys.

EL: They’re like Rodney Scott autograph model tongs?

RS: Not yet, but I don’t want anybody else touching these tongs because I may go through two of them by the weekend.

EL: Got it, I love it. What do you cook when there’s nothing in the house to eat?

RS: There goes McDonald’s again.

EL: No, you can’t go out.

RS: Okay, I can’t go out.

EL: No.

RS: Nothing in the house to eat?

EL: Yes, you know, there’ obviously some basics but … Like there’s really … You haven’t had time to do any shopping. There must be your go to meal. Could be an omelet.

RS: Oh yeah, fried bologna.

EL: Fried bologna?

RS: I will burn it on the edges, take the bread. If it’s sliced thin, I get two slices. If it’s a little thicker I just get one. And mayo.

EL: Do you fry the baloney in the cast iron pan?

RS: Fry the baloney in the cast iron, give it a nice char on each side.

EL: White bread?

RS: White bread.

EL: Toasted?

RS: No toast.

EL: No toast.

RS: Soft, white bread and mayo.

EL: So it’s just been declared Rodney Scott Day all over the world.

RS: Really?

EL: Yeah. What’s happening on that day?

RS: Oh man, smoking fires everywhere. Everybody’s BBQing. Music’s cranked, and nobody’s complaining about the loud, nice tunes that are coming out of their speakers.

EL: We did talk a little bit about the fact that we are recording on the day that Tony Bourdain passed away.

RS: Yes.

EL: And I know that you did Tony’s show.

RS: I did.

EL: And so, if you could talk a little bit about what Tony meant to you, that would be really great.

RS: Tony was an inspiration to me because his laid back nonchalant attitude … Like nothing seemed to have bothered him. And I love that. And he was straight forward with saying whatever he had to say. And I love that too. So I said, “I would love to cook for this guy. To see where I stand in his opinion. And how I would rank amongst all of the foods and all of the travel that he’s done.” So upon wishing that, less than two years later, I meet him.

EL: Wow.

RS: And a mutual friend of … No, he didn’t know that lady but this lady said, “You need to know who this is. You need to meet this guy.” And he says, “No introduction needed, I know who Rodney Scott is.”

EL: Really?

RS: And I was floored. And we spoke and we drank a beer together. And he said to me, “Let’s do something.” And I said, “Go have your people call mine and we’ll do it.” And he sent the message a year later. And we taped. But upon drinking that beer that night, he gave me some advice. He says … I’m gonna paraphrase because we all know how he was.

EL: That’s okay, you don’t have to paraphrase. It’s a podcast, you know.

RS: Oh good. He basically said, “Rodney, don’t eat the shit sandwich.” And I said, “Huh?” He says, “Don’t ever let the producers and the fame of people tell you how to do your thing.” He says, “You do what you want. If they start telling you what to do, don’t accept it. Stand behind what you believe in.” And that was his advice to me.

EL: Wow.

RS: And I appreciated that because lo and behold, I got calls out of everywhere. People wanted me to sponsor their knives. People wanted me to sponsor their parties.

EL: Aprons, BBQ sauce.

RS: Yeah.

EL: Whatever.

RS: Contracts are coming in, wanting me to sign to do events that basically benefited the people who were sending the contracts. And because of that advice that he gave me, it stuck with me. And it gave me the opportunity to protect myself from getting into uncomfortable financial situations. With somebody else pimping me out.

EL: Right.

RS: To get paid.

EL: He was just telling you to be true to who you are.

RS: He did, and I appreciated that. That’s the best advice that I’ve got from him.

EL: Yeah, that’s great. Well Rodney, thank you so much for sharing-

RS: Thank you.

EL: Your Special Sauce with us. This has been awesome. All Serious Eaters should make a pilgrimage to Charleston, South Carolina, and eat some Q at Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ. Or go see his parent’s BBQ joint in Hemingway. Which is just called Scott’s, right?

RS: Scott’s BBQ, yeah.

EL: So anyway, so long Serious Eaters, and Rodney, thank you again.

RS: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

EL: And we’ll see you next time, Serious Eaters.