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This Former NFL Player Now Makes his Hits on Tastemade

Mad Good Food season 3 with Derrell Smith ( Photo by Nick Agro / Tastemade )
Mad Good Food season 3 with Derrell Smith ( Photo by Nick Agro / Tastemade )

Derrell Smith is no stranger to tackling obstacles on and off the field. After a career-ending neck injury sidelined him from the NFL, he went back to school and earned his master’s degree. This led to a successful career in corporate advertising which lasted several years, but when a company-wide layoff put him on the sidelines (a little football pun), Smith repositioned himself to pursue his passion for food. Today he hosts Mad Good Food on Tastemade. We sat down with the football foodie to talk about when he started cooking, what makes his meatballs so special and how the skills he learned from football help him in the kitchen.

When did you first discover your passion for food?
I watched the women in my family cook, and I saw how they used food to heal family and people in the community. As a reward, they would let me lick the cake bowl. Fast forward, I’m playing football at Syracuse University and I began cooking for teammates and friends and that’s when I started practicing my craft.

Do you remember the first thing you cooked?
The first real thing I cooked were pork chops. I didn’t know what a broiler was, so I cooked them under a broiler, thinking it was like cooking in an oven. They came out chewy and charred like shoes. BUT the flavor was there!

Are there any skills you’ve brought off the football field and into the kitchen now as a chef and television host?
Professionalism! Being in the NFL and spending years working for some of the best advertising agencies in New York City gave me an opportunity to be around some of the best professionals in the world. I was able to soak up that wisdom and apply it to myself as a person and as a professional.

Your show incorporates the idea that a meal is more than just the food you’re serving. Tell me what “ingredients” you think are most important for creating this family experience centered around food and stories?
I have a theory that hip-hop has infiltrated food and most recently, food media. There are others like me from Ghetto Gastro to Kwame Onwuachi to Sunny Anderson to Carla Hall to Marcus Samuelson to Sophia Roe and Alexander Smalls and the list goes on. We are witnessing Black people and Black professionals use their platforms to present their authentic selves and authentic stories through the medium of food and food television. In doing so, the people whose stories have never been told can now relate to the images they see on their screens. Mad Good Food is my medium. Similar to a hip-hop recording studio, we get in the studio and put on a performance. Watching Mad Good Food is like watching a culinary jam session with delicious ingredients serving as the instruments: the culinary team is the drum, the camera crew is the piano and the producers are the bass. I’m Isaac Hayes going around the studio and experimenting with all of my instruments. “Boom tat, boom tat tat tat, pow!”

Mad Good Food season 3 with Derrell Smith ( Photo by Nick Agro / Tastemade )

Mad Good Food season 3 with Derrell Smith ( Photo by Nick Agro / Tastemade )

Mad Good Food looks really fun to make. Any behind the scenes antics you can share with us?
Based on my experience, I feel like we have one of the funnest sets to be on. Everyone in the studio just has fun and is inspired and empowered to experiment in the moment. In episode seven, I literally walked around the studio and handed out food to the crew, then dapped up the culinary producer who made the dish in the back. No nightmares, except for that one time I tried cutting onions super fast, like Gordon Ramsey, and spent the remainder of the day in the ER! That’ll be a story for another day.

Do you have any dream dinner guests you’d like to cook for?
Honestly, I want to be that fly uncle with a Hawaiian shirt and flip flops, manning the grill and drinking a beer while my friends drink beers, eat burgers and mingle in the pool overlooking LA at sunset. That is my dream dinner.

You’ve had some great success with your meatball brand Amazeballs. Tell us about how this started out.
That’s a long story! But, in a nutshell I developed a tomato sauce recipe called the “OG Sauce” while I was a graduate student at Syracuse University. When I tried it, I knew I had a winner!

Fast forward some years, I win a meatball competition in Brooklyn and create 99EATS with a mission to “Spread Love Through Food.” I made the logo in the likeness of the women in my family, because I want people to feel as though they just ate at their grandma’s house when they experience the brand. That feeling is called “Amazeballs”.

Shortly after starting the LLC, we were accepted into Smorgasburg while I still worked a 9 to 5. A few months later, my job had layoffs and I was a part of that wave. I decided to run my food company full time in 2017. Eventually we expanded to catering lunches at companies all over NYC, pop-ups at festivals and a small stand in Barclays Center. For six years I literally only served one recipe: Meatballs and the OG Sauce.

Moving to LA and getting a television show has given me the opportunity to transfer that same love I had put into catering into Mad Good Food. Now, I only make meatballs a few times a year and hand deliver them to friends and people who remember me from catering their offices in NYC.

Mad Good Food season 3 with Derrell Smith ( Photo by Nick Agro / Tastemade )

Mad Good Food season 3 with Derrell Smith ( Photo by Nick Agro / Tastemade )

Besides meatballs, what else do you love to cook?
Anything you want! I mean that.

Can you share your secret for the perfect meatball?
You have to add some kind of moisture to the ground meat. It could be a little milk with bread, a splash of water or what I like to use is ricotta cheese. Next, you need to add flavor and texture. White onion is a must in my opinion for texture, then whatever other seasonings you want to add plus one egg only. Mix the seasonings separate from the meat, then “fold” them into the meat, being gentle and making sure not to squeeze it. Allow it to rest so that the flavors meld for at least 30 mins and up to 24 hours (ideally).

Season the tops of the meatballs with a spice rub of choice, then bake at a high oven temperature to seal the juices inside of the balls as fast as possible. I bake my meatballs in muffin tins at 425˚F because it steams the meatballs and crisps up the tops. Simmer them in sauce for a few hours then serve. They taste the best reheated after allowing them to sit refrigerated in the sauce for three days.

When you look back on your life in the NFL and then the corporate world, did you ever think you’d have your own cooking show?
Absolutely! Being in the NFL, working at my dream jobs in advertising, creating a catering company in the likeness of the women in my family and now being a host and executive producer of a television show has validated my curiosity and imagination. Mad Good Food exists because I dreamed about it, worked towards it and made decisions and sacrifices along the way to get here. That is my practice — to dream and do and make sure when I get the opportunities to perform under the lights, I give people a product that tastes and feels like it’s taken years of practice.


Elizabeth Hazard

Elizabeth Hazard is a writer, producer and photography editor. Her work has appeared in various publications and she writes frequently about art, culture, fashion and history.



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