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From the NFL to Food TV Star: Derrell Smith’s Trail-Blazing Journey

Image used with permission by copyright holder

The day Derrell Smith was fired from his corporate advertising job, he wasn’t surprised. “My entire department (in New York) was focused on one client,” said Derrell. “So, when they left the company, I knew I was going to be let go.”

Derrell is no stranger to overcoming obstacles. After college at Syracuse University, he played for two years in the NFL. Unfortunately, a neck injury during practice forced him to retire from football. Despite this setback, Derrell never lost his spirit. Instead, he went back to college, got a masters degree and transitioned to the corporate world.

But Derrell is also a trail blazer, evidenced by his unique resume. After he was let go, Derrell didn’t look for another job in the industry. Rather, he dove headfirst into something completely different — food. He started with meatballs, a recipe he had been perfecting since his college days. As a college football player, he often cooked for teammates, experimenting with different recipes and creations. Even in the NFL, Derrell practiced perfecting his recipes during his free time. Sometimes, he would make the same dish across an entire week, tweaking it until he felt satisfied.

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Amazingly, his meatball gambit was a success. In 2016, his recipe won first place at a meatball competition. Since then, it’s been a nonstop journey into the food world. He is currently the CEO of 99EATS, a virtual culinary brand. In 2019, he started Amazeballs, a meatball concept centered on spreading love through food. His new cooking show, Mad Good Food, recently debuted this April on Tastemade. The food in the show is diverse, ranging from braised lamb with couscous to spicy meatballs.

Food has been a lifelong passion for Derrell. He grew up in a culinary family. Both mother and grandmother were excellent cooks and he was constantly surrounded by a combination of community and hospitality as a child. Because of this upbringing, he gained the muscle memories of cooking and flavors that still drive his food today. “I have the patience and wisdom when it comes to cooking,” said Derrell. “The other day, I made tomato soup with juice because that’s what I had in the kitchen. Cooking is a concept. People, they get caught up in details that don’t matter in the beginning. If you want a steak with a crispy exterior, how do you accomplish that? Think about the end product. Then, work backwards.”

It’s this combination of life experience and knowledge that gives Derrell a unique perspective on food. “Food is like art, it’s how I express myself,” said Derrell. “The best way to describe my style would be a hybrid of ODB and Method Man (from the Wu Tang Clan). I’m a character like ODB. But I’m also poised, calm. Like Method Man.”

Perhaps it’s this unique outlook that makes Derrell a charismatic food entrepreneur and personality. Although Derrell had an accomplished advertising career, he always felt like an outsider in the corporate world of New York City advertising. At times, the alienation was jarring.

“Coming into work, there weren’t many Black people,” said Derrell. “When a Black person is killed by the cops, there’s a universal pain that everyone in the community feels. It feels like no one is listening or learning from past mistakes. We call a loved one and tell them to be safe. But when I walk into an advertising company, I have to put on a mask to fit in or I get labeled as an angry Black man. I was tired of feeling that feeling.”

Image used with permission by copyright holder

It’s this focus on telling his story and spreading positivity that’s at the root of Derrell’s food mission. On Mad Good Food, Derrell is all about teaching people how to cook while also incorporating his personal story and a sense of community. The show also takes an interesting approach to the cooking show format. On each episode, Derrell first makes a large family meal. Then, he uses those same ingredients to make a completely different and smaller meal for individuals.

For Derrell, his ultimate goal is to start a dialogue alongside his food. “I want to include everyone,” said Derrell. “Through my actions, my partnerships and content, I want to bring in people from all genders, all religions. Where we can talk about all kinds of issues. My mission is to spread love through food. Solve real problems. And to heal people through my food.”

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Hunter Lu
Hunter Lu is a New York-based food and features writer, NYU graduate, and Iraq veteran. His fiction has appeared in The Line…
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