Serious Smoking

Interview with Jesse Johnson, organizer of the Wild West BBQ Shoot Out

From backyards to casino parking lots, barbecue competitions are a taste of (hog) heaven.

As owner of Great Western BBQ Events, Jesse Johnson produces barbecue competitions in the Utah area, including the upcoming 2018 Wild West BBQ Shoot Out scheduled Saturday, Aug. 25, noon-6 p.m. in West Wendover, Nev. Around 50 or so competitors are expected, of which about a third will be from Utah. Previous years have seen teams from Florida, Virginia and California, even Australia. The Shoot Out attracts a crowd of 3,000 to 5,000 coming to watch the competition and taste the results. To watch is free, but to taste the ’cue, prices range from $10 to $30 for a full slab of ribs.

Devour Utah: What are typical competitors like? Are they usually professional chefs in the food-service industry?
Jesse Johnson: They come from all walks of life—very few are food professionals. Most start as backyard pitmasters.

Are these competitions an expensive hobby for most?
Pitmasters will spend between $300 to $1,000 per competition, depending on entry fees, meat costs and travel expenses. If they win, a typical local competition has a $3,000 to $10,000 prize purse.

Why do they do it? What drives competitors?
The pure love of making barbecue way better than you can get at a local barbecue restaurant! And the chance to win—take home trophies and some prize money!

Is there a regional type of barbecue that is more apt to win at these events? (i.e., Texas, Memphis and Carolina styles)
Nope. Most teams do not change their flavor profiles event when they travel. Stick to the flavors that win. Cook the meats properly, to perfect doneness.

Who is asked to judge these events?
All are CBJs (certified barbecue judges), certified by the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KSBS). They have to go through a four-hour certification class to be a judge. We have judges that come from all over the U.S. and abroad but probably a little over half are from Utah.

What are judges looking for?
They judge on three criteria: appearance, taste and tenderness (with taste weighted the heaviest).

What style is most popular in Utah?
Utah likes sweet with a touch of heat on the backend.

Do competitors help each other out as the need arises? Or are they more likely to prank each other?
Absolutely both! LOL! The pro barbecue community is a fun, tight-knit group of folks who would give you the shirt off their back! We do a good luck toast at all events wishing everyone well after we play the national anthem at 9:11 a.m. on Saturdays. These folks are very patriotic!

If a novice pitmaster wanted to get started in competitive barbecue, what type of investment is required?
I started off with two UDS (Ugly Drum Smokers) at $200 each and built from there. Much of what you need, a beginner might have at home just to cook. You can build up your barbecue tools over time. You’ll need a 10 x 10 tent, a table, knives, etc. I didn’t even have a 10 x 10 tent at my first competition and won reserve grand champion (second place overall).

How can aspiring pitmasters learn more?
They can follow Great Western BBQ Events or Utah BBQ Org at They can come out to a pro-barbecue event and talk to the teams; most pitmasters are eager to help new folks. Or they can enter a backyard barbecue competition and start there. There are two to three of those per year in Utah, too.

Would a past winner be willing to share a recipe or technique?
Sure, but that would be called “shiggin’.” I also provide recipes when I teach at BBQ Pit Stop or at Traeger’s SLC worldwide headquarters.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *