Born into a family that's become synonymous with Texas barbecue, John Mueller could never break away from the call of smoking meats. In a 2013 profile in Texas Monthly,
Mueller described his job title.
“I don’t say ‘pitmaster.’ I say that I ‘cook."
It's a modest title that doesn't do justice to the body of work that filled most of Mueller's life. He passed away this week at the age of 52, as first reported Thursday evening by Daniel Vaughn of Texas Monthly
and confirmed by John's sister, LeAnn.
Mueller's childhood was spent in the restaurant his grandfather opened in an old gymnasium in Taylor in 1959. Louie Mueller Barbecue has long been a standard-bearer for Central Texas barbecue, with John's dad Bobby taking over the restaurant in 1974 and elevating brisket to an art form.
Alongside his brother and sister, John worked in the restaurant as a child, moved to cutting meats for customers as a teenager, then to manning the pits himself after college under his father's guidance.
In 2000, for reasons that Mueller himself could never articulate, he sold back his share of the family business and struck out on his own. The next year, he opened John Mueller B-B-Q 40 miles to the west in Austin, which quickly earned a reputation for barbecue excellence, while John earned a reputation for his oftentimes abrupt nature. Mueller limited the amount of meat he cooked so nothing would go to waste, which lead to sellouts as the popularity increased.
In 2004, the business was doing so well that Mueller had a handful of employees, including a young man by the name of Aaron Franklin who was eager to learn everything he could about barbecue. Mueller put Franklin to work chopping onions. When Mueller's new landlords informed him in 2006 they had other plans for the building, Mueller closed up shop.
Shortly after John Mueller B-B-Q closed, the unemployed Franklin raised enough money to buy Mueller's old pit and set about on his own barbecue journey, which seems to have worked out well for him.
Mueller spent the next five years out of the business, only to return in 2011 with a barbecue trailer operation called J. Mueller BBQ, a joint venture with sister LeAnn. After a year in business with his sister, Mueller split, with the trailer becoming La Barbecue, which is still a staple of the Austin barbecue scene.
Such would be Mueller's mode of operation, popping up at a new place, then moving on in a year or so. Six months ago, he landed in DFW, where he teamed up with Hutchins' BBQ to bring his wealth of knowledge to the McKinney location of Hutchins, which had just reopened after a fire. Our own Lauren Drewes Daniels caught up with Mueller and Trey Hutchins
in September, where the duo talked about the two families' long barbecue history.
Mueller's reputation as the "dark prince of Texas barbecue" may have been well earned, but his temperament mellowed over the years. Despite his nomadic nature, there's no denying his influences in some of the biggest names in Texas barbecue. For a man who only called himself a cook, John Mueller's legacy will be that of a man who pursued barbecue excellence for most of his adult life.
Mueller is survived by three sons, Robert, Johnson and Andrew Mueller.