Many people start out grilling meat and slow cooking barbecue on their patio and it evolves to a hobby when they begin cooking competitively with family and friends. Everyone who’s achieved significant success on the competitive barbecue circuit has faced the ‘what’s next’ scenario, considering the possibility of transitioning their pitmaster prowess to something more. For John David Wheeler barbecue began as a hobby and it evolved to be an outlet for serving the community, teaching others about the craft, and an activity he could enjoy with his son, John Dalton. While he is known to the barbecue world as a decorated world champion pitmaster, the elder Wheeler has plenty of other personal and professional pursuits that define him as an entrepreneur, public servant, family man, business owner and philanthropist.

Wheeler started cooking barbecue in 2000 and participated in his first contest that year on a whim, in Tunica, Miss., where he said he borrowed a smoker and proceeded to score miserably compared to other competitors. He vowed to never let that happen again.

“I got the total crap beaten out of me,” he said of that first competition. “That’s when I said, ‘I’m going to do this and I’m going to be good at it.’”

Since then, he estimates he’s cooked in about 300 contests and won grand championships in about 65 of them including two at the famous Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. Nowadays he cooks alongside his son on a team of culinary professionals after two decades of success competing on a team he started, Natural Born Grillers. In 2011, he was also instrumental in launching Operation BBQ Relief, a non-profit disaster relief program that provides hundreds of thousands of barbecue meals to people impacted by devastating storms each year. For decades Wheeler has also volunteered his time and expertise to support local sports teams, including his daughters’ softball teams, by feeding players and families barbecue meals and supporting fundraising campaigns whenever asked.

A native of Salt Lake City, Utah, Wheeler now lives, works and plays in and around Southhaven, Miss., where he also serves as an alderman for the city of about 60,000 residents. He’s even considering running for mayor in the future.

Wheeler, a home builder and owner of Wheeler Homes and Design, realized the need to temporarily pivot when the housing market tanked in 2008 and 2009. Because of his passion for cooking barbecue, he opened a restaurant, Memphis Barbecue Co. in Horn Lake, Miss., in 2011. That eatery is still open nearly 14 years later and his business partners in that venture, Pete and Melissa Cookston, known for their pitmaster proficiency (Melissa is a previous Memphis in May Grand Champion) are still involved with the restaurant.

“We always say the best barbecue in Memphis isn’t in Memphis,” he said. His involvement in the daily operation of the restaurant is limited today, compared to the 120-plus hours per week he spent there during the first year after it opened. He happily passed the reins to professional operators who handle the heavy lifting today.

“I don’t have the restaurant gene,” he said. “It takes a special type of people to do that,” he said.

The pitmaster-led team tried opening restaurants in North Carolina and Georgia, but they have since closed, presumably, Wheeler said, because diners in neighboring southern states were slow to support a Memphis-based barbecue joint in their hometown states.

“We don’t do anything extravagant,” he said, “we mostly just do the staples, and we think we do them very well,” he said of the eatery’s basic menu.

Pitmaster Wheeler and son receive award(Left) John David Wheeler and his son, John Dalton, joined New York City-based Ribdiculous Bar-B-Krewe in 2023 and took home Memphis in May grand champion honors. (Source: Memphis in May)

Keeping the fire alive

Through the years Wheeler has passed on his knowledge to newcomers to the competition barbecue world, both on his teams and in helping other teams trying to master the art of cooking low-and-slow barbecue. At 58 years old, teaching and sharing his expertise is a point of pride.

“That’s how I learned,” Wheeler said. “I learned from the old guys. There wasn’t internet when I was starting up; it wasn’t on every channel you wanted to look at. You had to go find a guy, you’d have to go ask him the questions and you’ve got to go watch him. You’ve got to put in the work, and I think that’s the best way to do it.”

By following and making friends with the people who’d succeeded as competitive cooks, Wheeler learned by watching them cook and watching how they presented their boxes for the judges and learned all the secrets he could. It was part of the process.

Wheeler was the head cook of the successful team the Natural Born Grillers for 20 years before retiring the team in 2022. That team was the grand champion at the 2008 Memphis in May annual cookoff, held on the shore of the Mississippi River at Tom Lee Park in the famed city. Over the years, Wheeler has won hundreds of barbecue cooking ribbons and trophies, including first place honors in the rib category twice, in 2010 and 2012 at Memphis in May.

Wheeler and his son joined Ribdiculous Bar-B-Krewe in 2023. The New York City-based team was founded about 14 years ago by a group of chefs led by Shane McBride and Damon Wise, all with the common link of working with Chef Tom Collichio’s Crafted Hospitality group of restaurants and a love for getting out of the kitchen to create world class barbecue on the competitive barbecue circuit. It wasn’t just coincidence that Ribdiculous Bar-B-Krewe were grand champions at Memphis in May in 2023, led by then-21-year-old John Dalton’s efforts to cook the team’s first-place rib entry.

Learning from winners

Before winning any blue ribbons or grand championships, Wheeler said he learned from old pros, including longtime Memphis in May competitor, George Holder who led a successful team known as PyroPigmaniacs. Other mentors were American Royal Barbecue Hall of Fame recipients, Pat Burke and the late Mike Mills, who together led Apple City BBQ to many grand championships, including Memphis in May three times.

“They were the main influences in the competition world,” Wheeler said. “I asked a lot of questions and they got tired of me. Two of the three of them are still alive and I still ask them questions,” he said.

He said that while access to a wide range of cooking technology and tools are available today compared to 20 years ago and the thousands of instructional videos available on the internet might flatten the learning curve for newcomers, there is no substitute for experience. During his early years on the competition circuit, it wasn’t uncommon for Wheeler to be traveling the country to participate in cookoffs 30 weekends per year.

“You’ve got to put the time in. I don’t care if you’ve watched 1,000 videos, you still have to cook it; the meat’s got to be on time, on temp, it’s got to be seasoned right. I think the internet has made some people kind of overdo it.”

He said it’s not necessary to mix multiple rubs and blend many different sauces in pursuit of complex flavors and multiple layers.

“I still use the ‘KISS’ technique – keep it simple. So, I think less is more.”

Wheeler is also a longtime believer in using Ole Hickory Pits’ smokers and relying on Seaboard Foods’ Prairie Fresh Prime pork products and Agri Beef’s Snake River Farms brisket to give him a competitive advantage.

“Even if I cook one (brisket) at my house, I’ll order a Snake River Farms,” he said. “I fell in love with them years ago and it’s just what I’m comfortable with. I know what I’m getting every time and I’ve never had one let me down.”

Sharing expertise online

Looking ahead, Wheeler said he plans to simplify how he shares his knowledge and tap into more opportunities to teach others the finer points of barbecue cooking by posting videos online and hosting virtual cooking classes. In the past, he would teach others in a one-on-one setting, either traveling to someone’s location or meeting them in or around Southhaven.

“Those days are about to be over,” Wheeler said.

He said the trade-off of teaching online versus in person is that it’s harder to learn as much or as fast in a virtual classroom compared to live interaction.

“They’re not going to learn as well of course,” he said. “You just can’t, and you can’t show every step on a video. I don’t know how to anyway.”

Another endeavor he plans to finally pursue is developing his own line of rubs and sauces, something many people have encouraged him to do for years. Wheeler said he will do his part to get the products launched for his son and then pass that business on to him to manage as he develops his future in the barbecue world.

“It’s something he loves and wants to do,” he said. “If you can help your kids out, you’ll do it however you can.”