Celebrity chef and Columbus native Darnell Ferguson recounts his culinary journey that led to Food Network roles and a new 'sports bar for foodies' opening in Gahanna this weekend
When Darnell “SuperChef” Ferguson was growing up in Columbus, he loved to cook, and when he thought about his future career, he had one goal in mind.
“I thought I was going to be the first Black chef,” Ferguson said. “Do you know how stupid that is? But I had never seen a Black chef in my life. Even when I got to college! You know how long it took me to see a Black chef? I had to graduate college before I'd seen one. … It was so hard for me to become something I had never seen before.”
After graduating from Briggs High School, Ferguson headed to Sullivan University in Louisville, Kentucky, to get his Culinary Arts degree and pursue his dream. There were plenty of bumps in the road along the way, but eventually Ferguson opened up three pop-up breakfast spots in one summer in Kentucky. He dubbed the new concept SuperChefs and opened the first standalone restaurant in Louisville in 2015, then later expanded to Columbus with Downtown and Gahanna locations.
A fire took out the original location of SuperChefs, and then Ferguson cut ties with the Central Ohio locations of SuperChefs. But somehow, it all turned into a launching pad for the next phase of his career. “I wanted to focus on doing food my way. I had partners, and I really wanted to have free rein to do whatever I wanted, culinary-wise. I didn't have that in Columbus,” Ferguson said. “As soon as I separated myself from the Ohio restaurants, Rachael Ray called me.”Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter
After going on TV with Rachael Ray, Ferguson appeared with Guy Fieri on “Guy’s Grocery Games,” which led to even more Food Network opportunities, like “Beat Bobby Flay” and the “Ultimate Thanksgiving Challenge,” which he won. In March, Ferguson competed in the Food Network Tournament of Champions, seeded as the No. 8 underdog in the East bracket with a first-round match-up against former “Iron Chef” winner Alex Guarnaschelli, a No. 1 seed. Ferguson won.
“When I beat Alex, that changed everything for me,” he said. “You beat an Iron Chef, you kind of go into a different realm of notoriety. … Now I'm getting calls to judge here and there. They're trying to create concepts around me. It’s just a blessing.”
While juggling restaurants in Kentucky, Alabama and Atlanta, Ferguson is focused on new restaurant Stadium, which opens on Saturday, June 27, at 101 Mill St. in Gahanna’s Creekside development. Ferguson refers to Stadium as “a sports bar for foodies.”
"There's no bar food like this in the country. … Everything about it is so chef-driven,” he said. “You’ll definitely see the food and be like, ‘Oh, that's SuperChef right there.' My food has a distinct look to it. It looks like food porn.”
Stadium’s menu is themed like a football game, with a pre-game (cocktails), first quarter (appetizers), second quarter (salads), third quarter (wings), fourth quarter (pizza, pasta, sandwiches) and overtime (desserts). Much of the menu is tapas-style and shareable.
“Our salads are not some old rinky-dink salad that’s got lettuce and cheese on it. These are actual creations,” said Ferguson, noting the “Wedgie” salad with egg, smoked brown sugar, honey mustard, cotija cheese, candied bacon and more. “I even did a hot dog just to show people what a chef-driven hot dog could look like. We call it the Bigg Dogg. You have this crazy Grippo’s flavored popcorn on top of a deep-fried hot dog that l put this smoked dark ale mustard on top of, and then I have a spicy barbecue sauce on the onions.”
Ferguson’s Stadium partner, Mifflin High School grad James Dawson, designed the space with an industrial sports bar feel and plenty of TVs.
Given the times, Stadium has two big hurdles ahead of it. For one, the restaurant is opening during a pandemic, requiring loads of safety and sanitation measures, not to mention a reduced capacity. And two, Stadium is a sports-themed restaurant, and there are still no live sports. But Ferguson seems incapable of pessimism. To SuperChef, any negative can become a positive.
“This could actually benefit us, because what happens is, we open restaurants, and they get so, so busy from day one, and the restaurant never has a chance to perfect itself. We have the opportunity to take it slower, and in the beginning, you really need that. It's better to let them get their wings underneath themselves first, and then by the time [late] July hits and the NBA opens back up, we're just soaring,” Ferguson said. “Obviously, numbers-wise, it's not the same. But the benefit of it is that my staff will be able to get comfortable before they get that really busy rush.”
Besides, even when sports start back up, fans will be rooting for their teams in front of screens, not in person. “You can't go to the stadium and watch it,” he said, “so come to Stadium and watch it.”