HEART&SOUL THE MAKING OF A CELEBRITY CHEF
BY SCOTT ANDERSON
Shreveport-based Chef Darrell Johnson won season 10 of Food Network’s “The Great Food Truck Race.” Before that, he competed on the networks “Cutthroat Kitchen.” He also competed in the Louisiana Food Prize and the World Food Championships. He is a culinary school graduate and a food industry veteran.
And it all started in his great-grandmother’s kitchen in New Orleans.
“She was my first chef,” he said. “She was a very Creole lady. She was an amazing chef. Everybody in the neighborhood came to her house to eat.”
“She loved food. Had a passion for it. We were really, really close. I was the kid at 5 years old on a stool stirring the big ol’ pot of gumbo. She really kept me out of trouble. New Orleans wasn’t a safe place at the time, growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when it was really chaotic. For me, cooking was my peace. It was what kept me calm.”
Johnson said his great-grandmother not only kept him safe during some rough years in the Crescent City, she also gave him one of the credos that continues to guide his work in the kitchen — food is an art.
“Art is subjective,” he said. “Somebody put their heart on a plate. It’s so creative. Everybody’s food is so creative. It’s truly an art form. It’s one of those things where you take what you want out of it and get what you put into it. Not a science.”
Johnson continues to honor his great-grandmother by keeping her traditions alive in his kitchen.
“I do the etouffee, I do the Creole, the red beans and rice, all the traditional New Orleans dishes,” he said. “I take it and I elevate it a little bit, but the root of it is what she taught me.”
While he has added his own flair to several of her recipes, there’s one that still falls short in his mind — his favorite — that gumbo he used to stir on great-grandmother’s stove.
“I do a really amazing gumbo; it still never touches hers… ever,” he said.
Cooking became Johnson’s escape from those mean streets of his childhood. It was not his only way out. He also was an accomplished athlete and had scholarship offers. Some of his peers chose that route. Others from the neighborhood found their own paths, too. He knew if they could follow their dreams out, so could he.
“Anthony Mackie, who is Falcon on The Avengers, he went to my high school. Li’l Wayne grew up in the same block as me. So many people around me did great things. But there was also some people who did some negative things. For me, I decided to keep myself safe.
“I fell in love with cooking. No matter what’s going on, when I cut the stove on, my soul gets calm. It’s one of those things that gives me peace. I knew I could make a great living at it, and do something I love that’s a part of my heritage.”
Johnson went from his great-grandmother’s kitchen to Commander’s Palace, where we worked under Emeril Lagasse, who further inspired Johnson to make his way in the kitchen.
Johnson then traveled to Paris, where he studied for 10 months before returning to Louisiana.
“It came full circle from being the kid at my great-grandmother’s stove to working for world-renowned chefs,” he said. “That gave me the energy and the pride to know I could do it.”
Those qualities in Johnson shined through in his work. It’s what caught the attention of Gregory Kallenberg, executive director of the Prize Foundation, when he invited Johnson to participate in Food Prize.
“The Louisiana Food Prize prides itself in elevating the food culture of Northwest Louisiana,” Kallenberg said. “We look for the best and brightest who can help our area become a food capital. Darrell Johnson was an obvious choice for us to pick as a Food Prize Golden Fork Chef. He has the talent, the swagger and, from the moment I was able to hang out with him in his kitchen as he hustled around making his Golden Fork dinner, I knew he’d be a superstar.”
As his confidence in the kitchen grew, Johnson set his sights on another goal — television.
“I had been trying to get on Food Network for years,” he said. “In 2008, I auditioned for ‘Hell’s Kitchen.’ I made it all the way to the finals. But I didn’t feel comfortable with the process. So, I backed away.” He never gave up, though. He competed in the World Food Championships and traveled, perfecting his skills and building his reputation. Seven years later, in 2015, he charged back into the fray on “Cutthroat Kitchen.”
“It was a great show,” he said. “I loved it. I should have won. I finished second, but I got bamboozled. I got hoodwinked. It was a fried food episode. I was the only guy from the South. I said, ‘I got this.’ I made the final round, and the judges went a different way. But I still feel like the champion.”
The loss did take a toll on Johnson’s psyche, he said. He was forced to close a restaurant, Crescent City Bistro, in Shreveport. He moved to Atlanta, where he opened a wing restaurant and a pizza restaurant to support his family.
“I was in a state of depression,” he said. “Me being a chef, my relationship with food is different. I weighed 360 pounds, I was Type 2 diabetic, with blood pressure through the roof. I was hospitalized for a week. Just in a bad place.”
“My wife said, ‘We’re going to do this show.’ I’m like, ‘They’re not going to call us.’ They called my phone the day I got out of the hospital and said, ‘Hey, this is Food Network.’ I’m like, ‘Whatever,’ and hung up the phone. She called back and said, ‘No, this is really Food Network. Please don’t hang up.’”
Johnson didn’t hang up. The more he listened, the more he believed it could happen.
With no previous food truck experience, Johnson, his wife and a sous chef he had hired only a month before went to work.
“That was part of the show — you could never had done a food truck before,” he said. “There were some episodes with veteran food truckers, but they didn’t do great ratings. The whole purpose of the show was taking people who never had the experience and putting them through the wringer.”
His hand-me-down truck was held together with twist ties, he said, and the burners often wouldn’t light. The whole experience taught him to think on his feet.
“It was a challenge, but I loved every minute of it,” he said.
Johnson said it was hard work and a great team that propelled him to victory on “The Great Food Truck Race.” After the victory, he wanted to take the winnings and invest in another restaurant. It was his wife, “the supreme marketer,” who suggested a different direction.
“She said, ‘Hey, we won a food truck show. Why not get a food truck?’ We got the food truck and wrapped it and branded it like the show, and went right into it.”
But NOLA Creations, with its 40- item menu, is no ordinary food truck.
“Food truck food is normally a lowered- down version of quick service, because you want to turn and burn,” Johnson said. “Chef’s food takes time. I want them to have that food that looks good and taste good.”
Johnson knows it was his passion for food and his enthusiasm for fitness that led him to accomplishing his goals. He also combines those loves to help others through his business.
In addition to the food truck, NOLA Creations offers cooking classes and a food services program for things like summer camps and senior living centers. He also consults with clients on meal preparation and meal planning.
He offers low-carb and vegan options. He also is working on a vegan Cajun cookbook. Johnson developed his own line of low-sodium spices as well.
“You put them on the bottom of your shoe and it still tastes good,” he said.
The key to success in all of it he said is balance, even with foods that are traditionally “bad for you.”
“Balance is one of the strongest principles in the universe,” he said. “Understanding how food relates to your body. Number two, you’ve got to make sure you have it in moderation. If you want a cookie, eat a cookie. One cookie won’t make you fat, just like one salad won’t make you skinny.”