Chef Roscoe Hall is a force to be reckoned with. While many of us were recently introduced to him as a cheftestant on Bravo’s Top Chef Portland, he has been working as a chef for nearly 25 years.
His resume includes some of the most esteemed fine dining restaurants in the country, including Chez Panisse and Momofuku Ssäm Bar. However, Hall is no stranger to comfort food. Most recently, he was the executive chef at Rodney Scott’s BBQ in Birmingham, and he currently works as the culinary director of celebrated pizzeria Post Office Pies. This versatility carries over into his personal life, as he is also a talented artist with works currently on exhibit.
It was a pleasure to speak with Chef Roscoe Hall about his storied career. His story is an inspiring one, as he demonstrates the power of being true to one’s self. There is no need to choose a single passion; in fact, being multifaceted only makes life richer. I look forward to seeing what else Hall’s future holds.
An Interview with Chef Roscoe Hall
Tell me about yourself. When did you start cooking, and what made you fall in love with it?
I started cooking at age 18…1997 I believe. I found a whole new world within the dynamic of it all. Organization was something I needed to focus on in life as a whole, so it worked in and out of the kitchen. The focus and creativity of the flavor profiles while keeping the methods traditional was so interesting.
In 1958, your grandfather, John “Big Daddy” Bishop, founded the lauded Dreamland Barbecue chain in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He was inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame in 2019, and the franchise now boasts several locations throughout the state. What role did this legacy play in your interest in cooking?
I’d like to say going to visit Alabama often [from my hometown of Chicago], also when moving here just hanging out in Dreamland was so awesome. The dynamic with the customers, watching my mother and other family members just be themselves with guests was a huge inspiration. I remember my granddad tripping out that I had white friends hanging and walking through the backdoor with skateboards in tow, just ready to scarf down some ribs and bread.
Once you decided that you wanted to be a chef, did you go to culinary school or learn the ropes in restaurant kitchens?
I got my chops in the kitchens.
You have been working as a chef for nearly 25 years, and have since worked your way up in the industry. You have been at the helm of two renowned culinary institutions in Birmingham, Alabama: Post Office Pies and Rodney Scott’s BBQ. Can you talk about these restaurants, particularly your new role as culinary director for Post Office Pies?
Birmingham is a strong culinary town. It has been focused on local ingredients since I started cooking. My homie John [Hall], who owns and created Post Office Pies, is one of the best chefs I’ve ever cooked with. He comes from a strong kitchen background, having worked in places like Gramercy Tavern, Momofuku, etc., so you know we clicked ASAP. His hustle within the pizza game is what I love. The sense of urgency of a fine dining kitchen approach crushes woodfired pizza service any day.
Rodney Scott’s BBQ was a beast for sure. I’ve never cooked BBQ like that in my life. The wood, the fire, the coal feed, and the mopping of the sauce was intense. It was the first of many and an amazing technique used daily. I was stoked to learn it. At Rodney’s, I learned the business of food in a major way. The pandemic showed me a lot about labor and costs overall. It was hard for sure. Within both institutions you have brown business partners at the head, and I’d never had the chance to work with brown owners whom are the chefs as well. It’s an honor.
In addition to being a chef, you are also an accomplished artist. Your work, Angola: Works in Response to the rural landscape, work force, and punishment of Angola/Louisiana State Penitentiary, is currently being displayed at Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment facility in Huntsville, Alabama.
According to your description, “This body of work is based on the history of ‘rural design’. This place was built to control, produce, provide and punish. The more I studied the focus of agriculture within the layout of Angola I was even more interested in just the master plan of a once intense plantation turned into one of the roughest penitentiary in the country.”
That is a powerful message. What type of art do you do? How does it influence you as a chef, and vice versa?
I’m a painter. I started it while in undergrad but once I got into kitchens I’d practice after work and realized it calmed me down from the high tension of a restaurant. Art has always been therapeutic for me as I worked towards a balance in the kitchen and just living overall.
Painting influences my cooking by studying and referencing those who did it best and then adapting that expertise to express my voice through a dish and sometimes the management of people. Cooking influences my art by the time restraints and organization of production. I’m a procrastinator when it comes to studio time, but I know if I get my shit organized and set up the time to do this and that…I’ll crush.
You competed in Season 18 of Bravo’s Top Chef Portland. What motivated you to join the show, and what did you learn from that experience?
Yes, yes, I did. Good lord, was it an experience. I was approached at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’d just let go of so many cooks and had taken on so many more hours and adapted to so many new avenues of revenue and management of costs that I kinda just said yes, not thinking what would come of this at all. When they called with a “you’ve been chosen”, I was like “you lyin!”
I learned that I’m finally a chef. After 25 years and after such a hard year, I got to be in the room with some of America’s best. I saw that they respected my crafts as much as I did theirs. I saw what I could do, how much I’ve learned and how much I loved painting and cooking. It just made me realize that it’s time to embrace it more. Embrace life and those you care about like no other before it’s too late, ya know.
What’s Next After Top Chef?
Now you are back home in Birmingham, continuing to make your mark there. What is the culinary scene like in the city, particularly as it relates to African-American cuisine and Black-owned restaurants?
Birmingham is a true Meat & Three city with some solid joints thrown within each neighborhood. The food mostly consists of [timeless] staples of the work week of a southerner, if it was the 60’s or the 90’s even. We’re talking Pork Chops smothered with a sauce next to white rice, boiled cabbage, yams, and some type of bread. It’s amazing to see the takes on classics as such. So in that regard it’s African American cuisine. But the more I dig deep, I find out that not many of those joints are owned by Black people outright.
Does the history of the civil rights movement have an impact on Birmingham’s food industry?
The civil rights history is respected and at times it puts a slowed down perspective on progression. But overall, I think it puts the food in a better category than most cities, even in the Southeast. We’re talking about comfort when it comes to those times. [During Jim Crow and the fight for civil rights] a meal was the only comfort you could find to give you the strength to push out the negativity of others and attempt to merge cultures.
What are five must-have ingredients you always have in your kitchen?
I’d have to say garlic, cane vinegar, onion powder, dried spicy pepper of some sort, and cornmeal.
What is your favorite dish to make at home?
It’d have to be Adobo Chicken with bay leaf and buttered rice and a saute veg.
What is your dream food destination?
Spain and West Africa, and always New Orleans.
What legacy do you hope to leave on the culinary industry?
I’d love to leave a scope of the description of what African American food is in this country. A refined technique of classics, presented with purpose and practiced in respect to the techniques of our settlement, progression and solidarity.
Are you working on any projects now that you would like to share?
I’m always working on new exhibitions for gallery showings and hope to get booked out forever. Culinary wise I’m just working on sustainability within the industry as a whole. It’s wild out here, so gotta get people back into the craft of things. I may have a few things in the making but you’ll know…trust me.
Follow Chef Roscoe Hall for food, art and updates @artisticmisfits.