John Woods embarks on a delightful new adventure

Woods retires from First Choice Catering and produces YouTube cooking videos

For more than 30 years, the names John Woods and First Choice Catering have been synonymous with delicious food in DeSoto County. From cooking catfish at a local grocery store he owned, to traveling the world to experience different cuisines, and then operating one of the region’s most successful restaurant businesses, diners knew that when John Woods was in the kitchen, the dining experience was going to be delicious.

But at the age of 66 and with 33 years in the culinary business behind him, Woods said it was time to pass the baton, or the dipper so to speak, to someone else.

John Woods (Bob Bakken/DeSoto County News)

“It’s a young man’s thing, especially the catering, because there are so many hours, so physically demanding, so mentally taxing, and I just thought it was about time,” Woods explained. “I paid my dues and thought it was time to pass it on to someone else to benefit from what I have accumulated.”

First Choice Catering remains with Apollo Garcia and Jim Chandler, who recently opened EBD Bakery in Southaven, taking over the commercial client list.

“I’m going to stay with them through December to help them through the transition to make sure everything goes smoothly, helping them learn the ropes, so to speak,” Woods said.

As he moves away from the restaurant business, Woods is now entering the video world of cooking. He started posting videos that offer cooking tips. The first video came about after someone challenged Woods to start making cooking videos.

“The first video I did was about catfish because catfish is my forte and that’s how I got started,” Woods said. “Now I have 35, 36 videos online. I have one that came out this week that got 4,000 views in a short time. It’s mostly how-to videos, not just recipe videos, but these are recipe and how-to videos I have a few other ideas that I’m throwing around right now.

It was catfish that launched Woods in DeSoto County more than three decades ago and it was catfish that established him among the region’s elite chefs.

“When I started, Dale Graham and I were pretty much the only game in town,” Woods said. “He had Dale’s restaurant and I had a grocery store called Catfish Corner. There were very few places you could go for a full service meal. People still remember me from the Catfish Corner days. It was a big problem here in his day.

For Woods, the grocery store called Catfish Corner moved into First Choice Catering. If you were served a meal at a DeSoto County event, it may very well be from First Choice Catering.

But Woods calls his start in the business his work with the Smithsonian Institution, cooking for their annual American Folklife Festival. It was the catfish that brought it closer to the Smithsonian.

“Each year they would focus on countries around the world at the festival,” Woods said. “The first year I went there, I was asked to do catfish representing the state of Mississippi. They liked the work I was doing so they started calling me back.

In fact, they kept reminding him over and over again. One year he was cooking authentic cuisine from the countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Another year was in Bermuda, and the following year Woods was cooking both Tex-Mex from the Rio Grande Valley and Romanian staples and specialties.

“I was with 30 Romanian chefs for two weeks cooking at the (National) Mall, which was fascinating,” Woods said. “It went very well.”

Again, it was Woods who returned to the festival with the charge of providing the best food in Tibet. In each case, he made a point of studying, researching and cooking the foods of the countries he represented to ensure that the end product was an authentic and appropriate representation of the nation. In the case of Tibet, Woods even got a photo op with the Dalai Lama.

“I went to New York and found a Tibetan restaurant that served Tibetan food,” Woods said. “I even got a photo of the Dalai Lama bowing down to me.”

Another event Woods cooked for is considered the biggest July 4 event at the U.S. Embassy in Canada.

“I went to Mississippi catfish and it was huge with 7,000 people,” Woods said. “Another year I went back there and had a barbecue and went over there with barbecue competition teams and had a barbecue there. This holiday is followed by people all over the world.

One of the main things Woods has taken away from his duties at the Smithsonian and the embassy is how food can bring people together.

“Food literally unites people around the world,” Woods said. “We can have 20 people from different parts of the world sit at the table and eat together and find common ground through our ability to eat together and find common ground, all through our ability to sit down and supper, dine and wine together. Food is a powerful unifying agent, I think.

John Woods on the kitchen set for his new project, All Things Food, a cooking YouTube channel. (Bob Bakken/DeSoto County News)

As Woods moves away from the restaurant business, video is where he will put much of his energy. He starts a YouTube channel called “All Things Food with John Woods”. He does freelance work and works at the Windyke Country Club, helping them with their banquets. He also assists other restaurants in the county when they need extra help and he still travels as a guest chef around the country hosting mostly themed events.

You may find him on television in the future as he would like to host a cooking show on Mississippi Public Broadcasting or anyone else who might be interested.

“I think Mississippi has a rich culinary heritage,” Woods said. “We have a mix of a lot of different cuisines here and it’s limitless on what I could do in this format. So I want to pitch this to someone to pick up on a public TV channel or one of these other stations, Roku or something like that.

Another idea would be to interview chefs and restaurant owners to highlight their stories in a program he called “A Taste of DeSoto.” The name is a spinoff from the popular “Taste of DeSoto” charity event he helped organize.

“I’m going to tour different restaurants and interview different chefs and owners and make a video about their history, how they started, what they do and how they deal with the challenges of COVID-19,” The Woods revealed. “I hope something happens very soon.”

Helping the next generation of chefs, Woods served as an assistant professor of cooking at Northwest Mississippi Community College and also attended the West Campus Culinary Program at the DeSoto County Schools Career Tech Center (CTC). A scholarship program has been developed for CTC-West students who travel to the North West and not just to learn the culinary arts.

He would also like to rejuvenate DeSoto’s taste, as he knows DeSoto County has been good to him.

“I’ve had two businesses here, Catfish Corner and First Choice Catering, and they’ve supported that, and they’re now supporting my new business,” Woods explained. “I already get a lot of subscribers from DeSoto County.”

Woods says that when a person cooks, they give themselves. Not only do people love to cook, they cook to love people. John Woods showed and continues to show a lot of love to the people he cooks for.