From dishwasher to chef to TV

Marshalltown native to appear on Food Network’s ‘The Great Food Truck Race’ which premieres Sunday

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
Former Marshalltown resident Donnie Ferneau Jr., center, and his wife Meaghan, left, and sous chef Amanda Ivy, will be contestants on the latest season of “The Great Food Truck Race,” which premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on the Food Network. The television show, now in its eighth season, has seven teams of food truck novices traveling the South, competing for a grand prize of $50,000. Ferneau’s team, The Southern Frenchie, is based in Little Rock, Ark.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Former Marshalltown resident Donnie Ferneau Jr., center, and his wife Meaghan, left, and sous chef Amanda Ivy, will be contestants on the latest season of “The Great Food Truck Race,” which premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on the Food Network. The television show, now in its eighth season, has seven teams of food truck novices traveling the South, competing for a grand prize of $50,000. Ferneau’s team, The Southern Frenchie, is based in Little Rock, Ark.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Chef Donnie Ferneau Jr. has come a long way since his days washing dishes at Zeno’s. The chef, his wife Meaghan Ferneau, and sous chef Amanda Ivy, will be contestants on the latest season of “The Great Food Truck Race,” which premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on the Food Network.

The chef, who is the son of Don Sr. and Lindy Ferneau, spent his childhood in Marshalltown, graduating from Marshalltown High School in 1993. From a young age, he possessed an interest in cooking, and attended culinary school at Kirkwood Culinary Academy in Cedar Rapids. He then apprenticed under Philippe Forcioli, the former executive chef of the Orient Express. In his career, Ferneau has prepared meals for high-profile clients, including Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, Ted Kennedy, Warren Buffett and Eva Longoria.

In 2001, he made the move to Little Rock, Ark., and opened Ferneau Restaurant in 2004. He is a two-time winner of Little Rock’s Diamond Chef competition, among other accolades.

“It was widely successful, and I was able to put myself on the map with that one,” he said. “I sold the business in 2012, and opened Good Food by Ferneau in 2014. It was a health food concept, farm to table.”

He closed that eatery in 2015. From 2016-17, he served as executive chef for the exclusive 1836 Club, also in Little Rock.

In December 2016, he was tapped by the Food Network to compete in “The Great Food Truck Race.”

“They reached out to us through the Chef Ferneau Facebook page, and we got a message from the casting director. We didn’t know if it was real or not,” Meaghan said. “We had to act quickly. We had three weeks before [filming began].”

The television show, hosted by Tyler Florence, and now in its eighth season, has seven teams of food truck novices travel the South, competing for a grand prize of $50,000. In the first episode, the teams will be in the French Quarter of New Orleans for their first challenge: “Dough for Dough,” where they will create and sell their own version of a beignet. Their cooking abilities and business prowess will determine whether or not they will advance to the next competitions, each held in a different southern city.

This season’s competitors are: Braised in the South; The Breakfast Club; Mr. Po’ Boys; Papi Chulo’s Empanadas; Stick ‘Em Up; Wicked Good Seafood; and Ferneau’s team, The Southern Frenchie. The team’s name is based on their cooking style — a southern take on French cuisine. Ferneau and Ivy do most of the cooking, while wife Meaghan deals with customers, using her experience as a public relations representative.

The winner will be named in the season finale in Savannah, Ga., on Sunday, Sept. 24 at 8 p.m.

“It is like a game show with food. We didn’t know the schedule day to day. They did a good job of keeping you in the dark,” Ferneau said.

The chef is no stranger to television work. He appeared on the Food Network’s “BBQ Bliss” and on the Cooking Channel’s “Big Bad BBQ Brawl.”

The chef is busy launching his newest business venture: opening up a restaurant in the East Village district of Little Rock.

“We’re going big with this one,” Ferneau said.

What’s it like being a highly-skilled and nationally recognized chef?

“There’s a lot of pressure that goes with it, and the hard work, which pays off. You’re only as good as your last meal,” he said.

Ferneau said that while he doesn’t get back to Marshalltown that often, he still fondly remembers his days on the MHS soccer team, pheasant hunting, spending time on the family farm in Montour, and the impact working at Zeno’s had on him.

“I never got to make any pizza at Zeno’s, only prepping. I love Marshalltown; I have some of my best memories there,” Ferneau said.

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Contact Sara Jordan-Heintz at 641-753-6611 or sjordan@timesrepublican.com