Awakening the superhero within.
By Darnell Ferguson as told to Garin Pirnia
Darnell “SuperChef” Ferguson—his parents didn’t give him a middle name, so he legally gave himself one—grew up in Columbus, Ohio, but moved to Louisville in 2005 to study culinary arts at Sullivan University. In 2015, at the age of 28, he opened his first brick-and-mortar SuperChefs, a daytime breakfast spot with superhero-named dishes, in Louisville, Kentucky. In 2019, he opened a SuperChefs in Tuscumbia, Alabama, and this month he will open the sports-themed Stadium in Gahanna, a Columbus suburb. Fergusan has regularly appeared on Food Network shows, including the Guy Fieri-hosted Tournament of Champions and Ultimate Thanksgiving Challenge, and he recently released his own comic book.
This is nothing new to me, as far as being a Black man. This is 100 percent the only thing I’ve known. There’s always been a sense of power over us, and we just submit to whatever. This is how I’ve lived my entire life. But people who never really cared, because it’s a Black issue in general, have been asking questions. Right now I have my white friends calling saying, “What can we do? We don’t want to overstep. We don’t want to say anything wrong.”
We’re trying to focus on what the problem is and not make it anything different than what it is. I think it’ll bring change to the police force, for sure. I’ve been talking to a lot of cops lately, and I feel bad for them, especially my Black cop friends. It’s just a very hard time to know what the problem is, and know your people’s experiences, and know you have to tell your sons what they need to do to make it home when they get pulled over.
Literally, it’s a fear to get pulled over by the cops. People don’t understand that fear. Three days ago, I was driving from Ohio to Kentucky, and it was pitch black. And I almost got pulled over, and my heart fell to my feet. I’m like, it’s the last place I want to be. I’ve been in situations where cops overstepped everything. It doesn’t matter what you do or what you say. This is going to be a bad experience for you. And they’ll tell you, “You’re lucky you made it home tonight.” I’m the lucky one who gets to live.
This is what’s going on, on a daily basis, especially for Black men. Before, no one listened. We just complained. Now that people are seeing it, people are listening. That’s the key—that people listen. Then we can go a whole lot further. The change is going to come when our white friends stand up. In my opinion, the protests have been one of most beautiful things to happen in the country, because it’s been dim since we’ve had this president. The protests have brought light to a really dark place.
My entire life, I dreamed of being something I’d never seen one of my people be before. You know how it is to grow up and think you’re going to be the first Black chef, but you’ve never seen one before. I went to culinary school for it. Still, never ran across one. They didn’t bring one in for me to see. So I’m just thinking, like, sheesh, I think I may be the first Black chef ever. It was so hard for me. At first I couldn’t get into school, because I couldn’t get anyone to cosign for a loan. Then Sullivan University figured out a way that I could go to night school to start, and then once I had enough credits, they could transfer me over to day school. I love Louisville. It’s one of the best places to live.
When I went to college, I started to learn. I read Jeff Henderson’s book, Cooked. He was the first-ever Black chef de cuisine in Las Vegas at Caesars Palace. That’s what really inspired me to say, you know what? I’m going to go way further than I ever thought I’d go. My restaurant is a possibility for kids. It’s a possibility for adults, too. It’s not too late for you.
We hire high schoolers in front of house so we can show them how to have a proper job. We don’t fire them at the first, or second, or third time they mess up. Our whole motto for our company is that we’re a revolving door. People come in here and spend money, and we go back out to the community.
Even though I’ve gotten to experience a level of success that a lot of people of color don’t get to experience in my field, I make sure that I look like them. I make sure that I don’t change everything, and I look like someone that they can relate to. That’s why I keep my tattoos showing. That’s why I keep my braids. That’s why I wear my hats, because those are all things that resonate with my people, and I want them to know that hey, I’m going to still represent us no matter where I go.
You never see a Black fat chef on TV as far as a host. Because if you’re going to be Black on TV, you better look good. I have to. My manager, who is white, is so funny. He told me, “Darnell, you know you have to do more than other people do. You need to smile right. You need to talk better. You need to be funny. You have to look the part. When they see you, they have to think, ‘That’s a good-looking man.’” He doesn’t sugarcoat what’s going on and what he has been exposed to. He knows it will be much harder for me because I’m Black. I can’t be average and make it. I have to be great in almost every aspect of life.
I tell people all the time, there’s no reason in this world why I shouldn’t be judging right now on Food Network. I’ve been on Food Network more than almost anybody else. I’ve won more shows, been on the biggest shows they’ve ever had. I’ve been able to do some of the biggest things—Rachael Ray, everything—and I’ve seen people judge on Food Network who no one’s ever heard of. I’m like, what do I have to do to judge? I haven’t judged one time. They always want me to be the contestant because I am a good contestant.
If it weren’t for Guy Fieri, though, I probably wouldn’t be on all these shows. Guy’s a big supporter of mine. When I got on Tournament of Champions, I got on because of Guy. Guy’s the man. That’s my guy—no pun intended. Rocco DiSpirito—super cool dude. I call him for advice, and he just flushes it out for me.
When people look at the SuperChefs, people don’t even see the changes over the years. Nine out of ten people will never see the changes until I tell them about it. We started off superhero-themed. But if you look into our concept a lot more, you will know that I’m the superhero now. Because now I’m showing people, hey, we’re the heroes. We’re the superheroes in our lives.
I try to tell kids—just make sure you make it home. At the end of the day, we want you to be alive, and we want you to be respected. Cops can disrespect you, but if you come back home, at least we can try to fight this. But if you’re dead, we can’t fight. Because what they’re going to say is their word against yours. The body cameras weren’t on. It never ends.
I have six kids—three boys, three girls. When you’re raising them, you have to make sure you give them something to be proud of, especially when you’re Black. Because there’s going to be so many times that they’re going to feel less than. You have to make sure it’s embedded in their DNA racially who they are, because the world will tell them something different. It’s crazy that we will care more about a dog being murdered than we will about a person being murdered.
Through a Bible study I was doing, I noticed how many kids who went home really had nothing to eat. I’m not supposed to be just a great chef. I’m supposed to do something with these kids. So how can I tie the two together? I started asking people, and they’re like, “Have you heard of Blessings in a Backpack? This is what they do.” So I ended up joining the board. Then I got involved with Children Shouldn’t Hunger, which shows kids how to grow the food. Let’s teach them how to grow food, that way they’ll never go hungry.
Food is the best correlation to life that you’ll ever find. In life, the same with what’s going on now, what we do is take every ingredient that we have, and we create a right recipe. I use food as my tool when I’m talking to kids—food you can physically see. I feel like food has the power to do a lot more than what people may think.