A response to Food & Wine's "Most Important Restaurants of the Decade" list 

The real Rodney

I was thrilled to see that two Charleston restaurants made Food & Wine's list of "The Most Important Restaurants of the Decade." The first was no surprise: Husk Restaurant. I recently put a Husk plate first on my list of the dishes that defined the decade in Charleston dining, so it only seems logical that it would define things on a national level, too.

The second selection — Rodney Scott's BBQ — left me scratching my head.

Not that I don't think Rodney Scott is important. I agree wholeheartedly with the first sentence of the Food & Wine blurb: "Barbecue is one of the best things America ever did, and Rodney Scott is one of the best to ever do it."

The rest of the commentary puzzles me, though. First, the author states that Scott "opened a brick-and-mortar location in Charleston in 2018." The restaurant actually opened in Feb. 2017, but the bigger issue is the phrasing. It makes it sound like Scott was operating a food truck or something before setting up shop on King Street.

The last time I checked, his family's restaurant up in Hemingway is a pretty solid structure, and they've been cooking whole hogs there since the 1970s. Scott didn't just parachute into Charleston in 2018 (or 2017, for that matter). It was the end of a long journey that started in the small town of Hemingway, S.C. — a place that isn't even mentioned in the write-up.

But what really made me choke on my Red Rock soda was the last line. The author hints at the "chatter that Scott may one day open in New York" before conceding "he's proved the vitality and impact of staying put and being the best."

What? Staying put? We can let pass with a snicker the provincialism of Brooklyn-based food writers. (Gee, if only Rodney could manage to make it to New York City then he might really amount to something!) But who the heck says Scott is staying put?

The whole reason there is a Rodney Scott's BBQ in Charleston is because he didn't stay put. When he was in his 20s, he started taking more of an active role in running his family's restaurant in Hemingway, and he felt a drive to do things better. He focused on perfecting his cooking techniques and pushed his father to do a little more on the marketing front, like adding eye-catching light blue paint to the restaurant.

Scott remained in Hemingway until a decade ago, working every day at the restaurant, cutting and splitting wood and cooking hogs. Jeff Allen came across Scott's in 2006 and included it in his Whole Hog barbecue tour for the City Paper, but it wasn't until John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance profiled the Hemingway operation in The New York Times in 2009 that folks outside the Pee Dee discovered what seemed at the time like a throwback to an almost lost era.

click to enlarge JONATHAN BONCEK FILE PHOTO
  • Jonathan Boncek file photo

Suddenly Rodney Scott was on the move. In 2010, he was invited to cook at the Charleston Wine + Food Festival. A whirlwind of travel and events followed. He hopscotched around the South, wowing barbecue lovers with his burn barrel-style whole hog cookery. He towed his pits into the heart of Manhattan for the Big Apple Barbecue Festival and flew halfway around the world to cook at events in Australia.

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Scott's influence on the American barbecue scene, in other words, started long before he opened a restaurant on King Street. He emerged during an era when restaurants seemed to be sliding inexorably toward the International House of Barbecue mode —gas-assist cookers, a blurring of regional styles, corny Hee Haw-esque decor. He opened our eyes to the wonders of traditional wood-cooked barbecue and the old, slow way of doing things, and he inspired a new generation of pit masters to open their own whole hog restaurants.

Scott's arrival in Charleston marked the end of the first phase of his career and the beginning of the next — the transition from pit master to restaurateur. His daily routine changed, as he was no longer the guy back in the pits all day. Instead of managing a fire he was hiring, training, and managing staff — the thing he has cited as the biggest challenge in opening his restaurant.

The overall conceit of Food & Wine's list is to present "13 influential spots that challenged longstanding notions of what a restaurant could be." But exactly what restaurant notions did Rodney Scott's BBQ challenge?

It wasn't proving that whole hog ("the deeply sophisticated, mostly rural art") could be cooked in a city restaurant setting. Pat Martin of Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint had been doing that in Nashville since 2006, and a wave of young pit masters had opened new whole hog joints in Southern cities between 2014 and 2016 — many of them inspired by Scott.

If anything, Scott changed his style to be more in line with cityfolks' notion of what a barbecue restaurant should be, not the other way around. He added fried catfish, a garden salad, fresh-cut French fries, a kid's menu, and craft beer on tap. You won't find any of these things up in Hemingway.

And, mind you, Scott isn't staying put in Charleston, either. After winning the coveted James Beard Award for Best Chef Southeast in 2018, he spent the rest of the year driving back and forth on I-20 between Charleston and Birmingham, where the second Rodney Scott's BBQ opened in February. A third restaurant in Atlanta is scheduled to open in the spring and, word has it, a fourth on the heels of that.

If by "stay put" one means "not move to New York," then I guess you could say Rodney Scott has done that. But from my vantage point it seems that he's been on the move for quite a while. And he shows no sign of stopping any time soon.

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