Perhaps the most celebrated pitmaster in America not named Aaron Franklin visited the nation’s capital recently from Scott’s Bar-B-Que in the small town of Hemingway, S.C. Rodney Scott, who has been touted everywhere from the New York Times to the Travel Channel, was in Washington on the Fourth of July to accept a 2012 American Treasures Award from Made: In America, an organization that promotes American products.
Bibiana chef Nicholas Stefanelli, the chair of the 2012 American Treasures National Advisory Committee, was hosting Scott. The pitmaster couldn’t set his two giant wood-burning chimneys and wood-only pit on a downtown D.C. street, so he used the Southern Pride gas-fired, wood-enhanced oven from Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q, a Southern barbecue chain.
The flatbed trailer holding the oven and a rusted wood-only smoker was parked on the street outside of Bibiana, creating a comical contrast to the high-end Italian restaurant. Although Scott doesn’t use an oven, he is good friends with the owners of Jim ‘N Nick’s and praises its barbecue.
But a worried Scott barely slept a wink before the awards ceremony. “I woke up two or three times through the night wondering, ‘Is the hog all right? Is the hog all right?’” the pitmaster told me during the ceremony, held at the Washington Design Center, where the crispy-skinned, succulent finished product was served.
Smoke Signals talked to Scott, 40, about his purist’s methods — he not only uses an all-wood smoker, he cuts down the trees — his celebrated whole hog and how fame has affected him. An edited transcript follows.
Jim Shahin: Have you been to Washington D.C. before?
Rodney Scott: Never been in the city of D.C. Usually been getting lost or getting gas on my way up 95, but this is my first time in the city.
JS: Have you had a chance to do anything while you’ve been here?
RS: We went over to the Mall, not a shopping mall, but, you know, the National Mall, and visited the Washington Monument and walked to the World War II museum. Walked past the White House.
JS: What were your impressions?
RS: I’m very impressed. I love antique things. Antiques tell the story of what people were thinking when they made them. These buildings tell a story, too. They tell a story of our history.
JS: How did you learn to barbecue?
RS: I grew up in the business. Learned from my dad. When he was barbecuing, I was standing there watching and asking a few questions here and there. We’ve had a family business since 1972.
JS: Do you think about the history?
RS: You want to keep it as pure as you can. ‘Cause if it ain’t broke, why fix it? I like the authenticity of staying where we are and doing things how we do them.
JS: Would you use a Southern Pride?
RS: (Joking) What’s that? (Pause.) What’s that? It’s good, but because I think barbecue should be hands-on, I feel like [with a Southern Pride] the baby isn’t being nursed properly.
JS: It used to be that you had to have years of training to be called a pitmaster. Now the term is common. What are your thoughts?
RS: In the words of pitmaster Sam Jones [owner of North Carolina’s fabled Skylight Inn], “Everybody has the right to be wrong.” To me, it all starts with the chainsaw. I don’t knock a guy for using a Southern Pride. But a pitmaster, I believe, is a hands-on guy who is bustin’ his hump every day.
JS: How have things changed for you since getting discovered?
RS: Wow! A lot of traveling, meeting a lot of new people, and I try to pay a lot more attention to my technique and flavor.
JS: Are you changing anything with the barbecue?
RS: It’s not necessarily changing. I just pay closer attention. I am going to focus on making sure that every part of the hog is tender, that every part has the sauce. I am watching it closer.
RS: Because people are watching me closer. They’re coming from all over now. I can’t let one little bit be anything less than great or they’ll go back and say it wasn’t that good.
JS: Do you plan to open a second restaurant?
RS: Yes. Hopefully, soon. In Charleston, S.C.
JS: Will you be able to do things the way you do them now?
RS: Yes. I don’t want to jeopardize who we are.
JS: How will you be able to do that?
RS: I’ll just have to train more people.
JS: Do you have any cookbook or TV plans?
RS: Some people threw some things at me. Some TV mentions, but nothing’s locked in yet.
JS: What is the significance to you of winning the National Heritage Culinary Landmark?
RS: It’s amazing. Man, it’s like the United States knows where little old Scott’s Bar-B-Que is all of a sudden. I never thought it would be this big.