At age 33, Chef Darnell Ferguson is a rising star among television chefs. But, even more important to him, he’s a chef in his own right who oversees culinary operations at his three restaurants – including Superhero Chefs, which opened in April of 2019 in downtown Tuscumbia.
His TV appearances are fun – he’s a natural on camera, with a big smile, an easy laugh and a competitive streak – but they’re also helping him build his name and his brand, driving customers to his establishments. And his story is an inspirational one that he hopes will appeal to other young people of color who might never have considered a career as a chef.
For a brief time in his early 20s, Darnell was homeless and living in his car. Even after going to culinary school against the odds, and after being part of a select group of chefs who cooked for Team USA in the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, he made some bad decisions, became a drug dealer and almost didn’t live up to the potential he knew was there his whole life – even when no one else did.
Born in Philadelphia, Darnell grew up in Columbus, Ohio, a scrawny kid who loved playing football but knew he’d never make a career out of it. When he was in high school, he discovered Emeril Lagasse’s cooking show “Emeril Live,” where the famous chef, backed by a live band, performed for the audience like a showman, using his signature phrases like “Bam!” and “Kick it up a notch!”
“Emeril inspired me,” says Darrell. “I liked watching cooking.”
His junior year, he switched to a vocational high school, where he would attend classes for a couple of hours, then spend the rest of the day immersed in the culinary arts. One of his teachers “was impressed with me,” he says. When he was assigned to cut a potato into various sizes, she praised him for doing it like he’d been doing it for 30 years. She didn’t realize he had never used a chef’s knife before.
“I’d never had those reactions,” he says. Her encouragement “meant everything” to him.
Darnell grew physically during that time, too, sprouting from 5′9″ to 6′3″ in one year. When he returned to his former high school for homecoming, “They didn’t recognize me.”
He and others from the vocational school were recruited by Sullivan University in Louisville, Kentucky. No one in his family had the credit to obtain loans to pay for school, he says, so he received grant money to go to college.
When he needed money, he did the easiest thing: He sold drugs. He justified his actions by telling himself that if he didn’t do it, someone else would. “I was just lazy,” he says. “I wasn’t good at going to school and working.”
Then, in 2008, he had an opportunity to travel to Beijing, China, along with 20 other student chefs, to cook for Team USA. Working in China for three months was “a life-changing experience for me,” he says. “That’s what got me to what I am today.”
While he was there, Darnell commemorated the historic experience by getting a tattoo of the word “Superchef” – a name he’d been called a couple of times by then. It was now his official nickname, permanently inked on his arm.
But when he returned to Louisville, he went right back to selling drugs – and started getting arrested for it. He went to jail six times.
The last time he went to jail, where everyone who worked there knew him, he realized he had become “everything they told you not to become in elementary school.” He reminded himself how good he was at cooking, resolved to “focus 100 percent” when he got out and vowed he would never go to jail again. He also started going to church, which was something he’d never done in his life.
Even though he found himself evicted and lived in his car for a while, Darnell knew he had made the decisions that led him there. In 2012, he decided to try offering breakfast food at a local gyro shop in the mornings. Then a couple of other chefs let them do pop-up restaurants in their kitchens.
“No one had ever seen that before in Louisville,” he says. “From there, it grew into my own restaurant.” He called it SuperChefs, which the Cooking Channel named among its Top 12 best breakfasts in the country.
In June, despite the coronavirus pandemic, he opened Stadium, a “sports bar for foodies,” in Gahanna, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus.
Last year, he started Superhero Chefs in Tuscumbia, backed by Larry Lewis, a Huntsville businessman and Tuscumbia native. At first, he admits, he needed some convincing that the Shoals city was a good fit for a restaurant location. But when Darnell did a tasting for the mayor and city council, “they loved it,” he says. “There was a definite vibe. I love the people there, love them to death. It’s a good place with good people.”
Housed in a historic building with hardwood floors, brick walls and high ceilings, the restaurant is family-friendly to suit his own lifestyle – he and his wife have seven children ranging in age from one to 13. The family lived in Tuscumbia for the first year of the restaurant’s operation.
One side of the building is devoted to the restaurant, which specializes in decadent breakfasts in his “urban eclectic” style, like the bestselling Banana Pudding Granola-Encrusted French Toast. Other popular items on the menu include “supercakes” and the Roll Tide burger, topped with hot crab spread and pulled pork with a sweet and sour glaze. Comfy booths line one wall, each with a superhero icon – Superman, Black Panther, Incredible Hulk, etc. – mounted on the wall.
On the other side, the sophisticated bar area is villain-themed. Even the cocktails are named for the bad guys.
Darnell tries to do “a lot of younger hiring,” he says. “I want to train them up and show them how to do things the right way.” His goal is to inspire others to succeed, to be the kind of mentor he never had. And he’s using his TV fame to help accomplish that.
‘I want to dominate food television’
Darnell’s TV career started with a call from a local journalist, who wrote about him after his first restaurant opened in Louisville. The story of how he went from selling weed to owning restaurants went viral, and soon a producer from “The Rachael Ray Show” called.
He went on her show in 2015, and she surprised him by introducing him to his hero, Emeril. “It was one of the coolest moments I’ve ever experienced,” he says. The show sent Darnell to New Orleans, where he got to cook with Emeril and eat at all of his restaurants.
Soon afterward, he was invited to be on “Guy’s Grocery Games” with Guy Fieri on Food Network. At first, he was nervous about going on the show because “I was afraid of losing,” he says. “But when I went there and he talked to us, I realized how lucky I was to be there.” Even if he went home, the publicity would give his career a boost.
Besides, he’d been planning for his close-up for a long time. He had made 90-some-odd videos of himself cooking, even filming a TV pilot, in hopes of being on TV one day like Emeril.
After winning on that first episode, he went back seven more times and lost in the finale. He also appeared on “Beat Bobby Flay,” then won “Food Network’s Thanksgiving Challenge.” At the network’s “Tournament of Champions” in March, he beat Alex Guarnaschelli, an “Iron Chef” winner and the number one seed, in the first round.
And he’s just getting started. He recently signed a contract with a production company to develop some of his own TV projects.
“I want to dominate food television,” he says – following in the footsteps of his idol. “Ever since I saw Emeril on TV, I felt like that’s what I could be: a chef who’s on TV. I wanted to do it the way he did it. I believed in him. He was one of the best chefs in America before he was on TV. You’ve got to prove yourself first.”
With plans for future restaurants in Huntsville and other locations, this ambitious Superchef is about to kick it up several notches. As his own superhero Emeril would say: Bam!