Octavius Nelson makes some of the best BBQ in South Carolina but he’s not flashing any fancy cooking school credentials. If you’re looking to nail perfect ribs, brisket, or pulled pork this Labor Day, you might check out a few of the YouTube tutorials that helped this self-taught pitmaster reach BBQ glory.
Octavius Nelson, or “Tay” as most refer to him, grew up around good food and cooking. His father Bobby was a diner chef in the tight-knit town of Fountain Inn, South Carolina, and Tay got his first restaurant job at 12 washing dishes in the same kitchen where his dad fed hungry folks in the area. He remembers how much his dad loved the job and how much the joy his food brought to those he cooked for. As if long shifts over a hot stove weren’t enough, Tay’s father would spend most Sundays with his boys, cooking together for friends and family in the longstanding tradition of American backyard BBQ. Food was just a way of life for the Nelson boys.
When both his father and brother passed away in 2008 and 2009, Tay’s life was upended, but it didn’t take him long to decide he’d carry on the tradition in their loving memory. With no formal culinary training, however, and limited upstart resources, Tay had to get seriously creative with where to begin.
One of the most vivid memories Tay has of his father’s cooking is the complex spice blends he’d create and use in his recipes. In 2010, Tay set out to recreate one from memory and bottle it to sell. He began by asking his father’s former co-workers what they thought the mix might be composed of and from there it became a simple game of trial and error. After countless attempts, he felt for sure he’d hit the seasoning blend dead-on and Bobby’s All-Purpose Seasoning became an instant hit. Tay would eventually add two others—a citrus blend and BBQ rub—to the line and began selling them in stores and through his website.
But Tay wasn’t finished. Like his father, Tay also wanted to cook for people more than anything else. Dad remained a guiding light in his culinary endeavors, but because he was no longer around to share tricks of the trade with his son, Tay turned to online how-to videos and began studying tutorials created by pitmasters on technique for searing, seasoning, smoking, and more. One of the first videos that grabbed Tay was an in-depth tutorial on making pork ribs from the legendary pitmaster Aaron Franklin of Franklin BBQ in Austin.
“I just went by the steps in the video and mine looked just how his [ribs] looked when it was done,” he told me.
His first few briskets proved to be a bit more challenging, but Tay isn’t shy and started reaching out directly to the pitmasters from his favorite videos. Most were generous with tips and advice, helping him get his BBQ just right. Tay explained to me that he’s since forged meaningful relationships and still corresponds with many of these BBQ pros for advice, and sharing general industry chatter. Tay even met a few of them in person on a research trip he took through Texas.
What began as a small catering business launched by Nelson in the years following has become a full-fledged BBQ restaurant called Bobby’s BBQ—named after his father and brother. Tay opened the doors to Bobby’s in 2018 and, to date, has fed roughly 35,000 hungry South Carolinians and employed over 60 locals.
Speaking with Tay from his restaurant in Fountain Inn, he explains that Bobby’s is up and running as they adjust to operations during the pandemic and they’re doing as well as can be expected. It’s obvious that Tay feels a responsibility to both his staff and the community to keep things moving despite margins becoming ever slimmer. But the restaurant is also a big part of what keeps him happy and sane in these strange and difficult times: Tay gushes over BBQ but says he loves being with people even more. Running a restaurant like his—a true anchor for the community—is the perfect mix. (No pun intended).
When asked about advice he’d give to someone trying to break into the business, Bobby says, “Be flexible, pray, and work hard. Make sure it’s something you really love to do and something you really care about because it’s going to cost you everything.”
If you have designs on becoming the next great American pitmaster, check out the very tutorial videos that helped Tay Nelson on his journey to BBQ glory.
Header image courtesy of Amanda Harley.