New Orleans chef Darrell Johnson has made a name for himself by serving up mouth-watering plates of Cajun cuisine for more than 25 years.
Now the Le Cordon Bleu grad and season 10 winner of The Food Network’s “Great Food Truck Race” is looking to bring a taste of the French Quarter to every order as part of his new jazz-themed pop-up shop series in Atlanta.
“I want [guests] to experience the full gamut of NOLA Creations, from the sweet to the savory, from the spicy to the not so spicy,” Johnson, who owns the NOLA Creations food truck, told Atlanta Black Star. “And I want them to really enjoy themselves and have a full experience.”
Kicking off in the metro Atlanta suburb of McDonough on Thursday, Sept. 5, Johnson and his team will serve up the eatery’s best meals as part of a five-course dinner “fit for a king or queen,” according to a press release for the event. The successful restaurateur said McDonough is just a start, and that he plans on taking his food truck to various parts of the Atlanta metro area to share his culinary treats with the city.
For Johnson, his fervor for food has always been strong, thanks in part to the teachings of his great-grandmother. He praised her as the “best cook on the block” in his native New Orleans and called it an “honor” to learn under her.
Several years later, Johnson would go on to train with another master cuisinier: celebrity Chef Emeril Lagasse.
Johnson recalled being just a dishwasher at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans when Lagasse, 59, took over as executive chef in the late ’90s, and Johnson eventually worked his way up to saucier, or a sauce cook.
As luck would have it, he got a chance to impress the chef with his culinary prowess and now, Johnson’s savory eats have earned him the title of “Best Food Truck in America.” He said the popular Food Network contest proved grueling for he and his family, who worked side-by-side as a team.
The seasoned chef, who previously appeared on the network’s “Cutthroat Kitchen” in 2015, said he was done with food competitions after coming in second place. But it was his wife who pushed him to give it another shot.
“I was focused on my career and focused on my food,” he explained. “But she said I’m applying [for you] anyway.”
With their unique New Orleans flair, chef Johnson’s team took home the top prize and walked away from the competition with an extra $50,000 in their pockets. They also made history by becoming the first all-Black team to win first place.
“I always tell people [that] if you do it for yourself, you’re gonna run up against something that’s bigger than you,” said Johnson, who started his business with the stove out of his own kitchen. “So I did it for my family, people that are connected to me, for people in my community. And we were the first African-American team to win it all.”
The cook added that the best prize of all was the recognition earned for NOLA Creations.
“One of the greatest things we won was our name,” he said. “When you’re on a show like that, it gives you that validation. And that’s what restaurants need. Somebody’s got to co-sign and say, ‘yes, this restaurant is great.’”
With his cash award, Johnson said he hopes to expand a college program he launched with a few Louisiana universities, allowing aspiring student chefs to work under him for college credit. The certified executive chef said he is also working to develop a culinary camp for kids, where students will learn the basics of cooking and, at the end of the two weeks, host a banquet-style dinner for their parents.
Additionally, Johnson is working on securing his own brick and mortar restaurant back in Louisiana that’s slated to open its doors on New Year’s Eve.
The chef, who has a self-published cook book and a line of low-sodium seasonings, made it clear that running a business isn’t for the faint of heart. For those hoping to own their own eatery one day, he offered these nuggets of advice.
Firstly, know your product.
“Know your niche, and know your lane,” Johnson added. “What happens is people get too creative and have a menu of 100 items, but only five of them are pretty good. So have that niche locked in, and that’s your brand.”
The restaurateur also stressed the importance of “hustling” to turn your dreams into a reality. He said the restaurant business is undoubtedly hard, but if it’s your passion, you’ve got to love the ups and downs that come with it.
“It’s never gonna be a right time. If you believe in you and you’re willing to work for it, that’s the key,” he said.
Last but not least, “trust the process,” he said.
“Don’t expect to open up one day and you’ve got a million dollars in the bank. It’s a process; you have to build organically and grow.”