Darnell "Superchef" Ferguson flashed his high-wattage smile as he sat in his newest restaurant, Stadium, and talked about his passion: cooking.
But he wasn't just talking. He was checking his phone, answering a young chef's question about the presentation of a carryout order and hopping up to help several employees assemble a table in the Gahanna restaurant.
"He can do a million things at once, every day, and not drop anything. He's actually a machine," said James Dawson, co-owner of Stadium, which opened June 27, at 101 Mill St.
After overcoming some bad decisions in his younger days that resulted in time behind bars, Ferguson said, he has his life finally running like a well-oiled machine at age 33. Stadium is the fourth restaurant he has opened in the past five years. He is a regular contestant on Food Network shows. He has seven kids, and his wife, Tatahda, is expecting an eighth in September.
Engaging and enthusiastic, Ferguson emits a force field of positivity.
"Lord knows, he has personality," said his mother, Gidget Jennings, who raised Ferguson and his older sister, Gwendolyn, on the South Side and now lives in Pickerington.
Pegeen Cleary, Ferguson's former culinary arts teacher in Columbus City Schools, said, "He has always been larger than life. And that smile of his ..."
Ferguson credited Cleary as an early inspiration and mentions others who helped along the way. But at his lowest point a decade ago, it was his determination that pulled him out of a hole. He was living out of his car after a string of arrests for selling drugs.
"I had been taking the easy way out," he said. "Living in my car was probably one of the best things that ever happened, because I told myself, 'I'm not ever coming back here. I'm never going to go backwards again. I'm just gonna cook.' "
Ferguson began cooking as a high school junior in a culinary-arts class at the former Northeast Career Center in northeast Columbus. Cleary was impressed with her young student.
"I was always OK at sports, but no one thought I would be a superstar," Ferguson said. "But when I was cooking, (Cleary) thought I would be a superstar. So I found a niche, and I was like, 'I'm running with this right here.' "
Ferguson enrolled in the culinary arts program at Sullivan University in Louisville, Kentucky, and excelled there. He was one of about 30 students nationwide chosen to help prepare food for the U.S. Summer Olympics team in Beijing in 2008. That's where he was given the nickname "Superchef," which he recently made his legal middle name.
But on the side, he was selling marijuana and ecstasy to make ends meet. After his graduation, it caught up with him, and he was in and out of jail for about a year.
"I was like, 'I'm gonna do this to get me through college,' " Ferguson said. "That was a part-time job. It turned into a full-time job after college. It was a bad decision."
After his last incarceration -- for trafficking in 2009 -- he had lost his apartment, so he was couch-surfing and living out of his Pontiac Grand Prix.
But by that point, he had found new determination to succeed.
By 2012, he and a partner had opened a pop-up restaurant in Louisville focusing on Ferguson's specialty -- breakfast.
His menus feature brightly colored and creative combinations such as a red-velvet waffle sandwich with fried chicken and candied bacon served over eggs and topped with cheese and syrup.
"My gift is creation, design and execution," he said. "I have the ability to think of new menu items, and to put combinations together without having to really think about it."
A 2017 review of Ferguson's Louisville SuperChefs in the Courier-Journal newspaper said,
"The food at SuperChefs reflects the restaurant's bold and colorful design, and many of the dishes push flavor boundaries."
In 2013, Ferguson joined with Dawson and another partner, Ryan Bryson, to open SuperChefs in downtown Columbus and, later, a SuperChefs in Gahanna.
Ferguson opened his own place in Louisville in 2015 and a year later left the Columbus restaurants, which remain open. He has since expanded to Atlanta and Tuscumbia, Alabama.
When Dawson called him with the idea for Stadium -- an upscale sports bar with creative food -- Ferguson eagerly returned to his hometown market.
Meanwhile, he had become a regular on cooking shows, starting with the "Rachael Ray Show" in 2016. With his mother as a teammate in 2018, Ferguson competed on fellow Columbus native Guy Fieri's "Guy's Grocery Games" and won, and earlier this year he defeated renowned chef Alex Guarnaschelli on the Food Network show "Tournament of Champions."
He has made a point of giving back as well.
Ferguson in June came out with a comic book, "Becoming Super," aimed at helping kids learn to overcome a villain using their special talents.
Although Ferguson lives in Louisville, he often returns to Columbus and speaks to high school classes, Cleary said.
"The beautiful thing about him is he always remembered where he came from, and he's more than willing to help somebody or mentor somebody," said Cleary, who attended the grand opening of Stadium at Ferguson's request. "It has come full circle."
Ferguson said his goal is to be a role model for other kids, to be "the chef that other kids want to become."
"That's the ultimate, because I don't have all these skills in cooking just to be making money," he said. "This world is bigger than that."