The pitmaster’s quiver is notoriously spare. Largely beholden to the vagaries of temperature and time, the pitmaster has just two tools for prodding pig flesh toward magnificence: a shovel and a very sharp knife.
If you go
WHAT: Cook It Raw
WHEN: Noon-4 p.m. Oct. 26
WHERE: Bowen’s Island
MORE INFO: Since parking is limited, a shuttle will run from the Piggly Wiggly on Folly Road. Guests are asked to bring their own plates and utensils. For a complete list of participating chefs and more informations, visit www.cookitraw.org.
There’s no sanctioned way to grip a knife when chopping barbecue. Like an athlete handed a tennis racquet for the very first time, the typical pitmaster nestles the knife’s handle beneath the fleshy part of his palm, wraps his fingers around it and holds on tight.
“I grabbed it and cut,” recalls Rodney Scott, pitmaster of the acclaimed Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway. “Kept the knife point on the cutting board and just cut.”
Lately, though, Scott has adjusted his snug grasp, unfurling his fingers and positioning them the same way that aspiring chefs are taught in culinary school.
He picked up the technique from the upscale restaurant chefs with whom he regularly shares billing at glitzy food festivals and multi-course dinners, where a seat sells for more than 10 times the price of a smoked chicken plate at Scott’s.
The next big event on Scott’s local collaborative calendar is Cook It Raw BBQ Perspectives, hosted by his buddy and fellow Fatback Collective member Sean Brock.
The Oct. 26 party on Bowen’s Island will feature dozens of globally renowned chefs paying homage to Lowcountry barbecue, represented by Scott.
The lineup, announced last week, includes New York’s April Bloomfield (The Spotted Pig), Dan Barber (Stone Barns) and Alex Stupak (Empellon), as well as nine Charleston-based chefs.
Over the past decade or so — perhaps since 2002, when Magnolia Grill’s Ben Barker prepared pork cheeks in barbecue jus for a Southern Foodways Alliance symposium celebrating the long-ignored artistry of pitmasters — it’s become commonplace for chefs to gather and publicly proclaim their indebtedness to the South’s smoked meat talents.
They ritually praise pitmasters’ patience and dedication, their closeness to their ingredients and their service to their communities, which they cite as inspiration for their slow-smoked pork bellies and white-sauced quail. What’s often overlooked, though, is how classically trained chefs inspire pitmasters. Turns out the learning runs both ways.
The notion doesn’t exactly square with the popular image of pitmasters as mythic figures who butcher hogs exactly like their great-granddaddies did and learned the correct proportion of vinegar to pepper from a recipe whispered once and never repeated.
In the privileged mind’s eye, a pitmaster wears stained overalls, not a perky white toque. But some local pitmasters say exposure to high-end cooking has prompted them to change their methodologies and — avert your eyes, purists — made their barbecue better.
“It’s a whole bunch of little things,” Scott says of the skills he’s brought home from chef-spangled events. “Things like wiping down plates, or holding the knife properly, or preparing the proper amount of food. It’s not just ‘cut the meat and eat.’ ”
A little knowledge ...
Although Tim Handy never turned barbecue into a business, his resume mirrors the experience of many professional pitmasters: As a boy on Johns Island, he helped older relatives dig pits and smoke whole hogs for family get-togethers.
“On Johns Island, we barbecue before we can walk,” he says.
Countless hogs later, he decided to jump on the competition circuit, attracted by the promise of trophies and $1,000 checks.
But Handy got frustrated long before he got rich. The techniques that worked so well in his backyard weren’t producing any prizes, a conundrum that often leads to late nights spent scanning Craigslist for bargains on massive, hand-welded rigs. Handy enrolled in culinary school instead.
“When I started putting that classical spin on it, it turned everything around,” says Handy, the first Master Barbecue Champion from South Carolina.
Handy reworked his meats and side dishes according to his culinary school training, butterflying his pork chops and making a roux for his mac-n-cheese.
Emboldened by instruction, he gleefully bent the boundaries of barbecue, fooling with compound butters and brines.
“Barbecue can become a little one-note,” Handy complains. “It’s smoke and spice.”
To tweak the smoke, Handy, who now teaches barbecue seminars, fuels his cooker with a mixture of apple, peach and cherry woods. He acknowledges that his relatives who believe that barbecue consists of hickory, a whole hog and a hole in the ground might not classify his injected and marinated meats as barbecue.
Still, he believes a “classically trained mentality” is helpful even when conforming to a highly traditional style.
“You can’t start a recipe without knowing what you need,” Handy says, referring to the standard kitchen practice of mise en place, or setting out ingredients before cooking. “And one thing I learned was how to write things down, so I can reproduce them.”
Aaron Siegel, owner and pitmaster of Home Team BBQ, isn’t surprised by Handy’s embrace of culinary schooling.
“Those techniques are super valuable when you’re doing anything,” says Siegel, a Culinary Institute of America graduate who spent 10 years in high-end restaurants before launching Home Team in 2006. “I’m not saying someone has to go to school to make great barbecue, but it certainly helps.”
At Home Team, the brisket is a patchwork of classical influences. The recipe starts with a housemade stock of mirepoix, herbs and red wine, poured into a hotel pan so it surrounds the beef as it smokes.
Keeping it simple
Of course, not every pitmaster is keen to Frenchify his cooking. There are no bottles of red wine or slender carrots behind the counter at Cooper’s Country Store in Williamsburg County, where Russell Cooper smokes whole hogs.
“I’ve never gotten any ideas (from restaurant chefs),” Cooper says. “I can’t say I have.
“I reckon it would just be a family tradition,” he continues. “I was just brought up around different people, some of them are women, some of them are men, and that’s just all I know.”
Although Scott isn’t clinging quite so tightly to the past, he has no plans to fully classicize his cooking.
“Some of it, maybe a lot of it, I wouldn’t touch,” he says. “I want to keep it simple. Keep it fun.”
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560 or email@example.com.
Using experience as his gauge, Jim Lasher checks the doneness of half chickens in the smoker at Home Team BBQ on Sullivan’s Island on Aug. 16.×
Onions from the smoker at Home Team BBQ.×
The poblano peppers, which will be used in the house-made salsa, share space with chicken wings and other meats in the smoker.×
As he starts pulling the pork, Lasher removes the bones from the pork butts and puts them into a pot of collards.×
Jim Lasher uses a carefully placed finger on the jug of vinegar to splash the just-pulled pork at Home Team BBQ on Sullivan’s Island.×
Lasher uses roasted corn on the cob in salads and house-made salsa.×
Lasher uses the smoker for jalapenos and garlic cloves at Home Team BBQ.×
Jim Lasher pulls half chickens from the smoker at Home Team BBQ on Sullivan’s Island on Aug. 16.×