British Esquire, March 2014
The Whole Hog
The perfect barbecue requires love, sweat and sleepless nights. In America’s Deep South, pit legend Rodney Scott hosts a masterclass – and the world’s top chefs take note. By Tim Lewis
Standing at a grill, wearing sawn-off denim shorts and wraparound shades, Albert Adrià peers intently at a row of sizzling avocados. For his day job, Adrià is a chef and by popular consensus a genius, the co-creator of El Bulli, the most influential restaurant of the last two decades. But this afternoon, in a car park on Bowens Island in South Carolina, deep in the American South, his aspirations are rather more modest. He, along with two-dozen cooks from around the world, has been charged with throwing a barbecue for 750 guests. Right now he is juggling two concerns that may be familiar to even mere mortals: one, how to make sure his arms don’t get any more sunburnt; and two, how not to scorch the fuck out of those avocados.
The setting may be scruffy, the equipment primitive, but the talent is something else: the finest chefs from four continents, a constellation of Michelin stars. Two of those belong to April Bloomfield, a British-born chef who is stealthily conquering America with an ever-expanding empire of restaurants, radiating out from the Spotted Pig in New York. Next to her is an unreasonably handsome man who looks like a hipster Paul Newman: Eric Werner. He made his name as a chef in Brooklyn before taking his knives and his exuberant beard down to Tulum, a remote beach retreat on the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico, and opening a place called Hartwood. Werner is actually cooking on a grill of his own creation – of course he is – built with salvaged local bricks and hand-mixed concrete, embellished with oyster shells. On top of it, he’s dumped a 50-kilo amberjack that yesterday was swimming a few hundred yards from here, in the Atlantic. The fish’s sardonic gaze follows you wherever you stand.
Everywhere you look there are outstanding chefs, outsize personalities. Brandon Baltzley, a twenty-something reformed cocaine addict and one-time heavy-metal drummer who has already been employed by and fired from a handful of the most prestigious restaurants in North America, wears a denim apron, no shirt, his torso doodled with tattoos from a horned beast over his belly button to the knife and fork on his Adam’s apple. A cigarette dangling from his mouth, he distractedly pushes four pigs’ heads around a hot plate. Should you want one image to encapsulate the state of modern cooking – for good, for bad – this would do rather nicely.
At midday, the gates open and the public swarms the site like Boxing Day shoppers at Next. But something strange happens: the crowds do not congregate, for the most part, around the superstar chefs who have travelled in from across the globe. Instead the main draw is emphatically a utilitarian mobile barbecue rig manned by a local pit master called Rodney Scott and two of his uncles. Scott has no Michelin stars last time anyone checked and you would be hard-pushed to leave his restaurant, a couple of hours up the road in Hemingway, South Carolina, having spent more than $15. Behind him, a boom box blasts out a playlist of provincial nightclub staples. At one point, hearing the song’s unmistakable opening bars, Werner looks over and says, “Really, Rodney? ‘The Macarena’?”
Watching Scott cook isn’t much of a spectator sport, either: everything takes place inside a corrugated metal box. The effect is of a magician who doesn’t want to reveal his secrets. But the mob stands transfixed by the intense aroma, a heady perfume of wood smoke and roasting pig that is almost a meal in itself.
I join the line and get chatting to two chefs who have flown in to attend the event from Houston, Texas. “It’s fucking awesome,” says Ryan Lachaine, executive sous chef at Underbelly. “There’s Albert Adrià over here and everyone’s lining up for these guys with their barbecue. But why wouldn’t you want pulled pork and crackling? That guy Rodney’s no joke – he’s the real deal.”
I first heard Rodney Scott’s name a few days before the barbecue on Bowens Island. I was talking with Sean Brock, the head chef and owner of McCrady’s and Husk restaurants in Charleston, and reigning kingpin of the American food scene. The US edition of Esquire named the 35-year-old as one of their annual Best and Brightest: a list of “geniuses who give us hope”. When Husk opened in 2011, the New York Times called it “the most important restaurant in the history of Southern cooking”. In the New Yorker, Brock’s cooking was described as “Southern food as conceived by space aliens”.
For all the accolades, Brock is not a man of excessive airs and graces. He grew up dirt-poor, beside the Virginia coalfields, and still identifies himself as a “hillbilly”. Like Frank Rossitano on the TV show 30 Rock, he wears trucker caps with a rotating selection of semi-sensical slogans: that day’s reads “Virginia Is For Lovers”. He spends much of our conversation detailing his love of killing, cooking and eating squirrels, which he calls “the little Ibérico piggies of the rat world”. From the age of eight onwards, he would get home from school, grab his gun and go out on a quad bike to shoot squirrels for dinner. His grandma would skin them and make squirrel gravy, what we’d call squirrel stew. “Hmmm, hmmm,” he says, inhaling an ancient memory. “That’s what hillbillies do.”
Brock was the co-host of an event called Cook It Raw, the reason these chefs have abandoned their kitchens and decamped to South Carolina for a week. Founded in 2009, Cook It Raw is the brainchild of a food entrepreneur, Alessandro Porcelli, and the chef René Redzepi, whose restaurant Noma in Denmark is almost relentlessly named the world’s best. Originally it was conceived as something between a culinary symposium and a stag do: Redzepi invited a group of his friends and they spent a week eating, foraging and drinking, before the event culminated in a lavish feast for which each of the chefs contributed one course. That meal, in Copenhagen, instantly became a word-of-mouth legend and it was decided to make Cook It Raw an annual gathering, changing the venue each time. When the chefs descended on Japan in 2011, paparazzi shadowed their every move.
The 2013 edition of Cook It Raw in South Carolina retained the endearingly shambolic spirit of previous events. Brock curated an itinerary that ranged from the educational (rice cultivation) to the esoteric (hunting alligators in swamps). But there were some significant departures, too: it was the debut of the event in North America and, with the final-day barbecue, it was the first time that the chefs would be cooking for the unwashed. When 500-odd tickets were made available – at $100 each – they were snapped up not quite Glastonbury-fast but only fractionally slower. One of the punters was Bill Murray, who lives nearby and part-owns the local minor-league baseball team, the Charleston RiverDogs.
Barbecue was an obvious choice for the last-supper showpiece: spend a week in the South and it often feels like you talk about little else. You will learn that, forget politics or religion or sport, if you want to start a row in these parts you just have to raise the subject – the region is only half-jokingly called “the Balkans of Barbecue”. You’ll get entrenched in debates over pork against beef, whole hog against shoulders, a vinegar sauce against a mustard-based condiment and which wood you should burn (only the Devil uses ready-made charcoal). You’ll hear about its unique place in the history of the South: how ‘cue joints were sometimes the only places to defy absolute segregation because blacks and whites loved the food so much. Come here, I guarantee, and you will never look at a piece of meat sat on a grill above heat in the same way again.
The South goes a long way back with barbecue, at least to the arrival of slaves from the west coast of Africa in the 17th century. Some of them stopped over in the Caribbean where they saw the Indians cooking *barbacoa*: whole beasts gutted and butterflied, resting on branches over a fire pit. In truth, it is not a form of food preparation that has evolved much over the years – and that might just explain its eternal, elemental and near-universal appeal.
“Barbecue is a way of life,” says Brock. “What I love is that everyone enjoys it, everyone respects it. Whether you are rich or poor, green or purple, doesn’t matter. It’s one of those things where, at its core, it brings a community together. Because if you walk into Scott’s Bar-B-Que, you’ll be sitting at a table with someone who could be the poorest human being alive or the richest human being alive. But that’s not being discussed at the table. What’s being discussed at the table, in the beginnings anyways, is how amazing the barbecue is.”
It was a couple of days before the Cook It Raw barbecue and I ask Brock what he is planning to cook. “Nuh-huh,” he replies, shaking his head. “I don’t want to compete with Rodney Scott. That shows you how smart I am! People take barbecue for granted because it’s a cheap thing: you know, it’s cooked meat between pieces of squishy bread. But it’s an art form that takes a lifetime to master. It’s so funny when a chef tries to do it and screws it up. Then they respect barbecue the way I respect it. Rodney’s the best, man… My mouth is watering just thinking about it, it’s so good.”
Scott’s barbecue, I was learning, is remarkable for a couple of rare factors. The first is the care and attention he devotes to his end product, of which there is just one: Scott cooks whole hog, roasted over wood and doused with a deeply acidic vinegar and pepper sauce. It sounds basic, but the process is a long and arduous one. Cooking starts the evening before you want to eat, and the fire under the pig has to be tended and restocked every ten minutes throughout the night. This nocturnal vigil is inevitably hot and uncomfortable and it isn’t like the job is especially well remunerated either. In Time magazine, the food writer Josh Ozersky praised Scott: “He works harder, and with more skill and more dedication, for less money and fame, than any cook in America.”
Due to these privations, Brock estimates that fewer than ten restaurants in America cook barbecue the way Scott does it, which is essentially the way the original African slaves would have done it. There are plenty of places calling themselves barbecue joints that cook over charcoal or using gas, but these – to a barbecue fundamentalist – are scarcely more than a restaurant with a grill.
Scott is notable in another sense, too: he is an African-American who owns and runs his own establishment. From way back, barbecue was a business where the labour – the so-called pitmen – was traditionally black, but the owners were often white. Even 50 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which desegregated schools, workplaces and restaurants, this remains a relevant distinction. “Ultimately it happens every time: when you talk about food in the South, you end up talking about race,” says John T Edge, the meticulous director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organisation dedicated to documenting the region’s food cultures.
Edge quotes an age-old truism that you could tell a barbecue restaurant was authentic if it had an equal number of pick-up trucks *and* Cadillacs in the parking lot, those being the preferred rides of whites and blacks in the South. He also confirms that in the old days whites would queue up at the back door of the best black barbeque places and vice-versa, but Edge is well aware that there is a different, less Kumbaya spin on that. “You could also think about that as the culinary equivalent of the booty call, too,” he sighs. “It meant that white folks could go get what they wanted and then get the hell out. There’s a grand and celebratory way of thinking about it and there’s a cynical way of thinking about it.”
You don’t have to spend long in the South to realise that it continues to be a region of extreme contrasts. “In the nineteen-thirties, President Roosevelt called us ‘the nation’s number one economic problem’ and we are also the heart of darkness for race relations,” says Edge. “We are the worst of America and the best of America – and that is the role we will continue to play.”
The food scene in the South, however, is experiencing an unmistakable renaissance, from haute-cuisine chefs like Brock at one extreme to barbecue pit masters at the other. In this respect, Scott arrived on the scene at the perfect time, fully formed. He cooks in a way that is faultlessly traditional, using techniques passed down through generations. But he combines these skills with public-relations nous and a passion for food that even white-tablecloth cooks can relate to. Brock is not the only industry heavyweight to appreciate Scott’s talents: he’s now a regular at the James Beard Awards in New York, an event that bills itself the “Oscars of Food”.
I ask Edge how Rodney Scott might feel now that his skills are finally being recognised. His answer surprises me. He takes a few moments to think and drawls, “He sure gets a lot more pussy.”
The queue at Scott’s stand is getting restless. “Sorry I’m late,” Scott announces when he is finally ready to feed his first customers. He is a big, solid man, with a bald dome and a tidy goatee; he has a wide smile and a raucous laugh and he unleashes both now. “I plan to be late for my own funeral!”
Scott and his crew arrived on Bowens Island at dusk the previous evening and straight away set to lighting a fire. Well, that’s not entirely true: Scott went off to a hotel to sleep, while his uncles started burning the logs that they will tell you is the single most important factor in making their food taste so good. The pig plays his part – this one’s a heritage breed from Scott’s own farm – but it’s nothing without good wood. As for the hotel, he would tell you that he’s done enough long nights tending a fire for anyone’s lifetime.
The workweek for Scott starts early on Monday morning when he takes his chainsaw and goes searching for trees to cut down for fuel. Over the years he has determined that the perfect mix is a blend of three hardwoods: pecan, which flames up hot and quick; hickory, a more durable burn; and oak, which imparts the meat with a deep, smoky flavour. Scott likes to say that, much as a chef might go to a vegetable garden to select his produce, he heads out in the woods to hand-pick his trees. He has even gone to the trouble of printing T-shirts that read on the reverse: “It’s all wood.”
At the Cook It Raw barbecue, Scott’s logs are loaded first into the top of an steel cylinder called a burn barrel and heated until orange embers tumble down, past a pair of ancient truck axles, to the bottom. Only now are they ready to be shovelled under the hog. If you retain just one fact from this article for the next Sunday afternoon you’re stood behind your beloved Weber, be it this: flames should never make direct contact with the meat. The secret to barbecue is to cook low and slow. This is not an activity that can be rushed, unless you actually want your steaks black on the outside and blue in the middle.
Scott and his uncles carefully lay the burning embers under the hind legs at one end and the shoulders at the other, with the heat radiating towards the middle and cooking all parts of the flesh perfectly. This is verging on excessive detail, I’m aware, but roasting a hog allows you no shortage of time to reflect on such intricacies. As Sean Brock says, “You cook a pig with somebody, the next day you are really going to know him a little bit more. That’s a lot of hours to sit around and drink beer and tell stories and ask questions and make up lies.”
This is Scott’s story, as he tells it. His father, Roosevelt Scott, owned a general store and pool hall off the highway in Hemingway, a rural hamlet of 446 citizens, according to the last census. On weekends and holidays they would barbecue a whole hog and it soon became clear that people were stopping by for that more than anything else they sold. Rodney cooked his first pig when he was eleven, which was fine, but it wasn’t like he instantly fell in love. He preferred basketball and it was only when it became clear he couldn’t make a career from sport that he began to spend more of his nights in “the pits”, the concrete bunkers at Scott’s Bar-B-Que where they cook half-a-dozen hogs every night, Wednesday through to Saturday.
“I was seventeen when I started full time,” he remembers. “It was exhausting. My friends were going out and they’d come by and tell me how much fun they were having here and there. It was a lot of physical labour, a lot of heat.” Scott is 42 now, and has been doing it ever since. He has two boys, aged eighteen and eleven; Dominic, the elder one, doesn’t like it any more than Rodney did at that age.
Eventually, back on Bowens Island, Scott decides the pig is cooked. He arrives at this conclusion by touching its burnished skin with his fingers and waiting for it to flex in and ping out, much of the water in the pig having evaporated. “There’s a pucker to it,” he comments, less a technical term and more an innate judgement from 30 years’ experience. Now Scott goes to work with impressive haste. First of all, he liberally scatters seasoning over the pig: salt, red pepper and black pepper. Next, he whips out a long-handled mop and begins to drench the pig with a vat of red sauce that glows like a power-station sunset.
What’s in the sauce, Rodney? I ask the question even though I know from every interview I’ve read with Scott what the answer will be. “We use cayenne pepper, vinegar, lemons and love,” he replies, relishing that last part. “Love, man, it’s love. If you don’t put love in, you can’t get love back!”
Part of me is ready to dismiss this answer as hokum: marketing spiel, a clever way of covering for MSG or some other flavour enhancer. But on reflection I wonder if there might be a certain non-literal truth in it. For his entire adult life, Scott has spent his nights sat out beside the wood burner, smoke blowing in his eyes, long after everybody else had gone to sleep. To keep the temperature constant under the pig, there is no thermometer: he has to constantly replenish the wood and use his senses to intuit whether the heat is right. He has burned his property down more than once. If that isn’t love, what is it?
Scott’s pulled pork is every bit as mind-expanding as everyone told me it would be. On an oilcloth-covered table, he removes the bones; the meat is so relaxed by now that he doesn’t even require a knife. With tongs, he mixes up the different parts of the pig: the juicy belly with the lean hams with the tender shoulders. “That way you get a little bite of every bit of the hog,” Scott explains. It is this combination of textures, he believes, that makes roasting the whole animal so much more satisfying than, say, just cooking a shoulder.
During its fourteen hours over cinders, the pig’s back fat has melted and the smoke has infused the meat with a rich, deep flavour. The sauce adds a surprising kick of heat and a tingling acidity. It is quite simply one of the most dense and complex mouthfuls of food you could ever wish for. And I haven’t even got to the best part: the skin is salty and caramelised; Scott can either crisp it up on the grill to create shards of sticky crackling or present it fried, as he does on Bowens Island, as crunchy pork skins that take a year off your projected lifespan with each bite.
So, that is *real* barbecue then. (This is probably an appropriate juncture to reference Britain’s own recent barbecue boom. Despite an explosion of restaurants here, no one does anything remotely close to an old-school operation such as Scott’s. The best of them, Pitt Cue Co in Soho, makes no claims whatsoever for authenticity. “If you try to do a copycat Americana thing straight up,” Pitt Cue’s chef Tom Adams has acknowledged, “you’re just going to look like an idiot.”)
In one of the day’s most predictable moments, Scott is cleaned out by 1.45pm. That does not stop people taking slices of his King Thin white bread and mopping up any stray rivulets of juice that remain in the pans or picking like vultures at the skin and bones of the pig’s skeleton. Sean Brock, today wearing a cap that reads “Make Cornbread Not War”, stands back and watches the feeding frenzy. “There’s nothing in the world that could be more delicious and satisfying,” he says. “In that moment, it’s the most amazing thing.”
The crowd does not go hungry, however. It turns out those other chefs – Albert Adrià, April Bloomfield and the rest – have some skill on a grill, too. In fact, stripped of the wizardry of modern kitchens, isolated from their brigades of sous chefs, it becomes apparent quite how brilliant they are. Werner’s amberjack is like a more succulent swordfish, while Bloomfield has made a virtuous-sounding salad of roasted vegetables with broccoli pesto and polenta. This would seem either an insane or inspired dish to present to a horde of ravenous carnivores, but it proves a zesty, fresh counterpoint to the mountains of meat elsewhere. A group of five Mexican chefs, including Enrique Olvera whose restaurant Pujol is rated among the top 20 in the world, run a no-frills taco stand serving suckling pig and goat consommé.
Meanwhile, everyone gets pie-eyed on bourbon and micheladas, a Mexican cocktail of beer, lime and something like rocket fuel (it may be Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco and chilli powder). Bill Murray corners Sean Brock and concocts a plan to show up at one of Brock’s restaurants, throw an almighty tantrum in the dining room and have Brock manhandle him out. No reason is ever offered *why* they should do this, but it makes perfect sense on an afternoon where the sun beats down, the booze flows, a bluegrass band picks some tunes and everyone gorges on a feast worthy of the Asterix books.
As the event packs up, I find Scott hitching the mobile rig to the back of his truck. One final question: is it true about the barbecue groupies? “Oh yeah,” he replies. “I’ve had women stop me in front of their husbands. I’ve had women stop me and say, ‘This is my husband, but you’re my man. I like what you do.’ I’m like, ‘Ohhh-kay!’”
There it is: Rodney Scott, a man who can’t stop putting in the love.