Pitmaster Rodney Scott Talks BBQ Brawl, Tailgating, And Barbecue Secrets - Exclusive Interview

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The United States is filled with hallowed monuments to the art of smoking meat over a hardwood fire, but Rodney Scott's Whole Hog BBQ may be the ultimate temple to pork and fire. Rodney Scott was destined to be a barbecue master, and he's been smoking hogs since he was a kid. His South Carolina style of barbecue is intensely old-school and labor-intensive — instead of merely cooking chunks of meat in a smoker, he prepares entire pigs over open pits filled with hardwood coals. The process may seem primitive, but it's hard to argue with the results. Scott's barbecue earned him the 2018 James Beard Award for Best Chef Southeast (via Crown Publishing).

In addition to his passion for barbecue, Rodney Scott is a bigtime football fan. In this exclusive interview with Tasting Table, he shared his secrets for tailgating success and a multitude of tips for the passionate home pitmaster. If you want to take your home grilling game to the next level, keep reading.

'BBQ Brawl' stories and rib tips

What were some of the best things you ate on "BBQ Brawl"?

I ate so much good food on "BBQ Brawl." One of the most memorable dishes was the chocolate chip banana pudding that Anne's team put together, and there was the seafood that Rashad did. There were some of the desserts that the ladies did from both seasons. There were days I wanted to take food home, but I had to be stone-faced and not show favoritism. I ate a lot of great dishes — a lot of great steak, a lot of great pork, from every team. The contestants were amazing; multitalented people with multitalented barbecue styles. I gained a lot of weight.

If you were going to compete in a grill-off against Bobby Flay, what dish would you pick?

I'd do pulled pork against Bobby. I've seen Bobby cook, and Bobby is amazing. To compete against him, I would probably have to do my go-to dish, which is pulled pork. If we were grilling, I'd go against him with some pork ribs.

Are there any mistakes you see people making when they try to cook ribs at home?

Some of the mistakes I see people make when they're cooking ribs at home is that they try to boil them first. I understand you want tenderness, I get it, but sometimes, people don't finish them on the grill long enough after boiling them. You have this boiled meat with a touch of smoke on it. It could be a lot better. I say if you're outside barbecuing, go from start to finish outside. Go for it.

Scott's seasoning secrets

You were recently in a Tailgate Throwdown, and you did a pimento cheese sandwich. What's your secret to the perfect pimento cheese?

The secret to the perfect pimento cheese is adding some Rodney's rib rub to it. I definitely like that little extra cayenne in there and that touch of brown sugar. The spice and the sweetness of the pimento and the rib rub together is the perfect balance.

Speaking of your rib rub, that recipe and the spice blends you sell have MSG in them. A lot of people misunderstand that ingredient. What does MSG do to make food more delicious?

One of the things that MSG does is enhance what's already there. It's like hitting the turbo button on your race car. You're  bringing out what's already there, and you're adding a little bit more flavor to whatever you're cooking. A touch of MSG doesn't hurt, in my opinion, because it's everywhere.

A lot of people don't realize it, but it's definitely everywhere. I said, "I'm going to add a touch to my food. That's all it takes." It opens up what's already there.

The perfect dishes for football season

Are you a big football fan?

I am a huge football fan. I don't care who's playing. I will go to a football game and find some reason to like one team more than the other, and I will enjoy myself during every play — high school, college, professional level. Once in Australia, I learned a little bit about rugby while I was there. I was watching rugby on TV.

Beyond the classics, what are some cool dishes that are good for tailgates?

A steak slider. In our restaurants, we do a steak sandwich, but a steak slider is great, because a lot of people don't expect to have a cheesesteak-style sandwich at a tailgate. [You can have] a loaded pork skin, which is something different. You can add whatever protein you want to it. You get pork skins with some type of filling. People can scoop and dip, or you can grab it already loaded and enjoy it. If you want to go a little bit heavier, you could do a one-pot dish, like our chicken perloo. Chicken perloo is great. It can be done outside if you have burners, and it serves quite a few people, so it helps.

Some people might not know what perloo is if they're not from around the low country. What is perloo?

Perloo is pronounced so many different ways in the area that we're from: "perloo," "perlo," "perla," and it's a rice dish with meats added to it. Some people add vegetables, so it's a pot of rice, with maybe chicken, bacon, or onion, or different little things that you can add to your rice. It's basically a rice dish with whatever things that you want to add to it.

Why South Carolina whole hog barbecue is the best

One thing that people find challenging about tailgating, or hosting a football party at home, is that you're cooking for way more people than you're used to. Do you have any tips for making that a little more stress-free?

If you can, cook an entire whole hog. That's lots of sandwiches, that's lots of small servings. if you're not doing a whole hog, you have the option of ribs, where you can cut and serve them by the bone. That tends to help you a lot.

One of the best parts about tailgating, let's not forget, is a lot of drinking. You want to entertain your guests. My go-to is Crafthouse Cocktails. These are traditional cocktails that are pre-made in small batches. You can pour them over ice, or have them chilling on ice already, and pop the can open, or you can get the box. They also make them in a box, so your guests can serve themselves. While you're making this delicious tailgate steak, chicken, or pork, these cocktails help save you that time. Your guests are all served, and they don't have to wait for you to prepare them a drink.

Texas gets a lot of shine for being this big barbecue place, but you're a big advocate for South Carolina. What elevates South Carolina whole hog barbecue over the other styles?

There's a saying that South Carolina is one of the most popular places for barbecue. I've heard it said that barbecue was born in the South. Many people may disagree with that, but I'm going to stand by that. Barbecue was born in the South. South Carolina has that history and that consistency. 

One of the things that makes South Carolina stand out is the fact that there are regions of sauces here. There are three different regions. You have a vinegar and pepper sauce that's mostly on the coastline, to about the middle of the state. Then, you fall into that mustard region, and then in the northwest corner of the state, near the mountains, you have tomato. That's one of the things that makes South Carolina so unique: the three different regions of sauces. That makes it unique compared to Texas barbecue.

The best sauce and meat for home barbecuing

Speaking of the sauces, between those three options, do you like to pair certain ones with certain proteins? How do you choose between vinegar, tomato, and mustard?

I don't. I choose vinegar. I'm a huge fan of vinegar when it comes to barbecuing. We do have other sauces that we do ourselves at the restaurant, but for me personally, if I'm making a choice, it's probably going to be a vinegar-based sauce the majority of the time.

What goes in that?

In our sauce, we have white vinegar, we have crushed pepper flakes, sugar, we have cayenne pepper, black pepper, lemon juice, [and] that's it. The acidity helps to break down the protein and gives it a nice balance.

If you're not going to cook a whole hog at home, what cut of meat would you recommend for the home smoker?

I would recommend, for the home smoker, a shoulder or a ham. These are not very hard to cook at home. If you maintain your temperature, you can balance your time with the slow cook going on and preparing for your tailgate, and you don't end up with a lot of leftover food. These are pretty good size cuts of meat for smoking that you can pull from and serve quite a few people.

What do you look for when you're sourcing pork?

When I'm sourcing pork, I look for that fat cap. You don't want a really thick fat cap, because when that fat is rendering while you're cooking, you stand the risk of flare-ups. I get that you still have different types of grills, and different ways of doing it, but you still run the risk of a flare-up regardless of what you're cooking on. I look for a fat cap that's not too thick, and I also look for that marbling in the meat to make sure it has that nice deep red color. Oh man, when you get that deep red marbling and beautiful color inside of a piece of protein, it's going to be a great product when you're done barbecuing it.

Not like that gray supermarket pork.

No, no. There's a difference. Find a butcher, get acquainted, and always ask questions if you don't understand completely what you're purchasing.

The best grills and woods for smoking meat

What would you recommend as a hardware setup for people smoking at home?

First of all, you have to understand your space, and your budget, and how many times you're going to be using it, and is it worth it to you? I say that because you have products like the Green Egg, which is a ceramic grill, and it's perfect for cooking pizzas. You can grill, you can smoke, you have all these options, and they come in different sizes. If your budget is a little bit smaller, you have the Kamados, [and] you have the Weber grills, these cheaper grills that you can use and store away if you have to.

It's all about space and your budget. I would recommend if you're just barbecuing every now and again, you get a cheaper grill. If you really want to go all out, I can hook you up with my buddy, Bob the Builder, and you can have a full outdoor kitchen. [Choose] smaller products, cheaper products, whatever fits your budget and the times that you use it.

What kind of wood do you like to smoke over?

When it comes to woods, I recommend hardwoods. You don't want anything with sap in it. You don't want pine or anything that has a lot of tar and sap inside of it. When we say hardwoods, we're talking about woods like pecan (or pea-can, depending where you're living). You got hickory, oak, you have cherry, you have apple wood, peach wood — all of these woods are great. Mesquite, post oak, all these woods are great for barbecuing because they're hardwoods. Always look for the hardwood stuff, or natural woods that you can use that don't have any tar or sap in them.

Is that because they burn better, or for flavor? Both?

Both. They burn better, and they have better flavor. They don't have that nasty, bitter smoke coming out of them all the time. That wood is way better for cooking.

Strategies for monitoring the temperature of your meat and your grill

You've been doing this since you were a kid, so you're able to cook by feel. If you're just starting out on your meat journey, what are your tips for knowing when to pull the meat?

That is a very important question. I cook by touch, feel, and sight. One of the things that the beginner usually runs into, is knowing when it's done. One of the things you can do, with all the technology nowadays, is Google the product that you're cooking. Get a meat thermometer, and find the safe temperature to serve, which is about 165 with a chicken. 

Take a thermometer, and you test it in the thickest part of the chicken that you're grilling — for beef, same thing. All these things have different temperatures, [including] pork, chicken, and beef, and you always look at them to make sure that the temperature that you Googled is the temperature that you're reading in the thickest part of the protein from your thermometer. This takes a lot of stress away.

For the grill, get a gauge to make sure that your temperature is always consistent. If it gets a little low, know your equipment and try to keep it maintained at the temperature that you want.

What temperature is good to shoot for when you're smoking meat?

When you're smoking meat, I like that 225 to 250 range: "low and slow," as a lot of people say it. This is a great temperature to cook at. This allows you not to lose control of your cooking. It also allows you to pay a lot of attention to what's going on throughout the cooking process. It gives you a minute to relax and prepare. That temperature is good for me, and for the beginner as well, to make sure that they're going to do this thing successfully.

Rodney Scott's favorite vegetables to grill

For our friends who may not eat meat, are there any non-meat foods that you like to throw on the smoker?

When it comes to non-meat foods on the smoker, vegetables are a favorite here at my house. My family loves it. I'm not a healthy eater all the time, I must admit. I try my best. I like to grill corn and asparagus. I like brussels sprouts. I like broccoli. That's something that I never ate growing up, but once I tasted it charred on the grill, it was totally different.

These are some of the favorite vegetables that I like to do, and I've even tasted eggplant on "BBQ Brawl," eggplant that had the texture of meat. I thought it was very unique and different. I'm a meat lover, but it surprised me how good that was as a non-meat barbecue product.

When you're doing vegetables on the grill, do you like to throw on your rib rub or something like that?

I always throw on rib rub when I'm doing vegetables on the grill. Always.

Respecting traditions and expanding to Nashville

"Chef's Table" turned you into a spokesperson for South Carolina barbecue, and more broadly for the way of life that you grew up in. Do you feel pressure as a representative of that culture?

Absolutely not. I don't feel pressure. There are a few universal languages out there. You got music, and you got food, and we all know that other one — it's an adult thing — but it's all universal. I don't feel pressure, because we have the opportunity to spread our product in several states, which we are doing now. We have the opportunity to show our style and tradition and what we do in several states, and we welcome people to experience what we grew up doing. 

It's like saying, "Welcome, here's what we do. We want to share our love, our tradition with you, the guests, and hopefully you're in love with what we do and you continue to come back and eat with us."

Speaking of that, you expanded to Nashville recently. How has the Music City been treating you?

We're in the process of opening up. Right now, I'm so excited about Nashville, it's unbelievable. Standing there in the space, viewing the space, and seeing where we're located, I get super excited. A rooftop barbecue joint in Nashville, man, that is unheard of. For a small-town guy like me, going out to Tennessee to do barbecue, it's huge. My partner and I, we're super excited about this.

Plans for expanding in the future

Do you have any more plans in the works for stuff you're working on or new places you're going to open?

Nick and myself (that's my partner, Nick Pihakis, he's a great guy), we have some ideas. Being an optimist, I always say, "Why not open a hundred restaurants? Why not open them all around the world? Why not spread barbecue around the world?" Hopefully, we can expand to more states sooner than later. We have some ideas and thoughts on several states that we want to look into, but "to be continued" on that. We'll keep you posted.

With multiple locations, you can't be cooking every pig anymore. How do you make sure that across every location, everybody is tasting the same, famous Rodney Scott barbecue?

That is one of the hardest things, to get consistency across every restaurant. We developed a team with one of our partners, Tyler, our head chef, Paul, and Nick. We all work together, and we all go from restaurant to restaurant. We created recipes and handbooks for everybody to follow. 

One of the most important things, after creating these handbooks, these recipes to follow — we embrace our employees to work with us. We bring them in and let them know what we expect and what we want them to do. We keep a close eye on it day-to-day. There's somebody checking somewhere, in each restaurant, to make sure that we're trying to deliver the most consistent flavor that we can so that each Rodney Scott's that you visit has a consistent flavor.

Passing on the business to the next generation

You grew up in a barbecue family, but you ended up having to go off on your own and do your own thing. Do you hope to pass your knowledge and your business on to your kids?

Absolutely. I hope to pass my knowledge and business on to my kids, to my partner's kids, and grandkids. We're all one huge family. His family's my family. We're all one. We want to pass on our traditions to our family, to our kids, to continue the Rodney Scott legacy so that it lasts for a thousand years. The sign's still going to be up in 3013. We want the tradition to continue to live on.

Why is it important to you to pass on that knowledge?

I feel like this knowledge is important to pass on because I enjoy it so much. It gives me so much fun and joy. There are challenges, but I get way more joy. If we spread a lot more joy around the world, the world will be a way better place, especially if they're eating Rodney Scott's whole hog barbecue.

Does your kid enjoy making the barbecue?

No. He's always ready to eat.

Kids are like that.

Yep. He's a teenager. What you see, that's what you get used to doing, so we have to accept it.

Rodney Scott's BBQ has locations in Charleston, Atlanta, and throughout Alabama. You can buy Scott's cookbook, "Rodney Scott's World of BBQ," on Amazon.

This interview has been edited for clarity.