It’s the “Break Up Meal” episode of the TV show Mad Good Food, and chef and host Derrell Smith ’10, G’13 stands in a bathrobe in the kitchen. He is down in the dumps over lost love—and needs comfort food to lift his spirits. “Everybody loves mac and cheese,” says the former Syracuse University football star turned culinary entrepreneur. “It’s the ultimate crowd pleaser…the ultimate comfort food.” Better yet, he adds lobster to the mix. By episode’s end, Smith has enlivened his wardrobe, shared recipes and rebounded, thanks to his own advice and cooking. “Treat yourself,” he says.
For the self-taught chef, Mad Good Food is the place where he showcases his tantalizing eats, dishes tips on life and cooking, and provides plenty of entertainment. “Mad Good” means “very, very good,” Smith says, attributing the phrase to Black culture, which he wants to respect and honor on the show through stories about his upbringing and experiences. He calls himself “Uncle Rell,” talks lovingly to his herbs and dances with delight as he savors his creation’s flavors. The show premiered in April on the streaming network Tastemade and features eight episodes, including ones devoted to Mother’s Day, Juneteenth and summer cookouts. “Ever heard of a low-country boil?” he asks. “Don’t you fret—because I know all about them.”
I never thought on my first day on campus that I’d be this connected to the school, but Syracuse is just one of those places. If you meet somebody who went to Syracuse, they love that school so much, and I’m one of them.—Derrell Smith ’10, G’13
Smith tailors each episode around a personal story and rustles up a feast for family and friends, then creates two solo meals with the leftovers—a bonus for the single person that also eliminates food waste. “I still don’t feel like a celebrity,” the Los Angeles resident says. “But it feels good to have a platform to tell my stories. As the show grows, I feel the stories and things that we’re able to communicate will be very impactful. I’m very excited about that.”
Smith is also the CEO of 99EATS, a virtual culinary brand that he founded with the mission of spreading love through food. As an entrepreneur, he often draws on his interdisciplinary Syracuse education, having earned a bachelor’s degree in information management and technology from the School of Information Studies with a marketing minor from the Martin J. Whitman School of Management. He later added a master’s degree in advertising from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
Today, he shares his insights and experiences as a member of the Whitman School’s Young Alumni Advisory Council and Syracuse Athletics’ alumni advisory board. He has also served as a judge for the Invent@SU program, providing feedback to students who design, prototype and pitch original devices. “I never thought on my first day on campus that I’d be this connected to the school, but Syracuse is just one of those places,” he says. “If you meet somebody who went to Syracuse, they love that school so much, and I’m one of them.”
’Cuse Conversations: Derrell Smith '10, G'13
Smith shares how he serves up love and soul through his dishes, how the strong females in his family brought out his culinary skills, the role Syracuse University played in his career as a chef, why he ties in social justice issues to his cooking, how he felt right at home the first time he stepped onto the Syracuse University campus, and why he is proud to be Forever Orange.
Early Influences in the Kitchen
Smith’s epicurean success didn’t occur overnight, but he sure started with a good foundation. He grew up in West Philadelphia, the son of two pastors and the eldest of seven children, and learned to cook from the women in his family. He fondly recalls the ritual of Sunday suppers and how his grandmothers inspired his love for food and bringing people together around a table. Their generosity taught him about the power of food to heal and build community, he says. “There’s nothing like grandma’s food—it was an extension of her. So that’s the approach I bring—my food is an extension of me, and when you eat it, I want you to feel like you were loved at that table.”
By the time Smith was in high school, the family lived in Delaware, where he was named the state’s 2006 Gatorade Football Player of the Year. He accepted an athletic scholarship to Syracuse and excelled on the gridiron and in the classroom. Recruited as a running back, he shifted to linebacker and was a three-year starter and two-time All-Big East conference selection. He led the team in tackles in 2009 and 2010, was a captain of the 2010 Orange squad, and collected scholar-athlete accolades, including being named to the National Football Foundation’s Hampshire Honor Society in 2011. He was also the guy teammates and friends counted on to whip up a meal.
The Makings of a Meatball Master
Following graduation, Smith embarked on an NFL career and worked during the off-season on his Newhouse master’s degree. Hungry one day, he rummaged around the fridge in his Syracuse apartment. There was meat for meatballs, and he threw a bunch of stuff together to create a sweet, spicy, creamy, tomato-based sauce. He impressed himself with his performance and—recalling the delicious meatballs of a girlfriend’s grandmother—thought he was onto something.
Fast forward: In his second season with the Houston Texans, Smith was playing fullback in practice and took a numbing hit to the head. It compressed the fourth vertebrae in his neck and ended his football career. On the rebound, he completed his Newhouse degree and landed a job at an advertising agency in New York City. His meatballs and sauce became popular office fare—an incentive for coworkers to work late on projects—and he continued perfecting his recipes. In 2016, he won the Brooklyn Meatball Takedown competition. A year later, when his job was eliminated, he launched 99EATS and began a catering service featuring Amazeballs—his branded meatballs (with a logo that pays homage to his grandmothers)—and that special concoction now billed as OG (“Original Grandma”) Sauce. “I would watch people eat it, and they will literally start licking the bowl—they’ll take their finger around it to get all of the sauce,” he says. “It’s just the perfect balance.”
Smith’s offerings were a hit at Brooklyn’s Smorgasburg outdoor food market, and his client list blossomed to include such notables as Buzzfeed, Twitter and the Barclay Center. And Smith would make thousands of meatballs—beef, chicken and tofu—by himself daily, then serve them with the sauce and a choice of seven toppings. “I’m a meatball master, absolutely. I could make them in my sleep,” he says. “Imagine for five years you sell different types of meatballs with only one sauce, and each time you come back, the crowds get bigger. That’s how good these things are. The meatballs are the best you will ever taste.”
Because I was able to learn from the best professionals in the world, I learned what it takes to be the best at what you do.—Derrell Smith ’10, G’13
Smith capitalized on the Amazeballs’ mania and kept on cooking. That success led to teaching a class in 2017 at Bed Bath & Beyond’s new kitchen studio in Brooklyn, and he soon became the resident chef. Along with expanding his repertoire and learning to critique food from a chef’s perspective, he got comfortable in front of a camera. The how-to classes were filmed and edited, and Smith posted the series on his YouTube channel. “I’d never done content in my life, so I was able to practice and hone my presentation skills,” he says. “It’s almost like theater—it’s live, and there’s not much margin for error.”
Smith eventually struck up a relationship with Tastemade. Through the network, he hosted episodes of the series Make this Tonight, cohosted the series Taste-off (a 30-minute meal challenge) with chef Zoe Kelly, and created videos for Disney and other entities. During the early days of the pandemic lockdown, he produced Cooking with Uncle Rell, a series of cheap, easy and tasty recipes for those stuck at home.
As an entrepreneur, Smith combines hustle, dedication and professionalism with the experiences he acquired in football, in his studies and in advertising. At heart, he considers himself an inventor, a creative person who understands consumer behavior and knows how to evoke emotions through his brand. “Because I was able to learn from the best professionals in the world, I learned what it takes to be the best at what you do,” he says. “Every day that I wake up and have to be the CEO, I remember all of those lessons and experiences, because I went through them.”
In bringing Mad Good Food to life, “the challenge was creating something from a thought,” he says. For Smith, it’s part of his entrepreneurial journey, one that he believes requires a strong mission, because following any dream is not easy. And the lesson for traveling that path and achieving success? “You just can’t stop,” he says. “I’m motivated. Unstoppable. That’s who I am as a person—if I’m dedicated to something, it gets my all.”