After spending months collecting information from all of the restaurants featured in our Bracket Battle: Best College Eats tournament (not to mention sampling every single recipe that came out of the test kitchen), I wanted to figure out how something like the Fat Darrell — a huge sandwich loaded with mozzarella sticks, chicken fingers, marinara sauce and French fries — came to be. Who thinks of piling all of the best late night snacks together in one sandwich? A hungry college kid, that’s who.
Late-night inspiration came to Darrell Butler at Rutgers University in the form of the Fat Darrell sandwich, which was named as the Best Sandwich in the country by Maxim magazine in 2004 and has been featured on Paula’s Party, Man vs. Food and even The New York Times.
I recently caught up with him to find out more about how the Fat Darrell came to be.
Cooking Channel: How do you think the Fat Darrell sandwich is going to do in our Campus Eats bracket?
Darrell Butler: If this gets announced ahead of time, I think it will do really well. It’s been popular at Rutgers for a very long time, and expanding out. Now it’s at Temple University, West Virginia University. It’s at different colleges already and I’m still trying to expand it. I think it’s going to do pretty well. It has a lot of media exposure already.
CC: Do you think your sandwich has an advantage over all of the other college-town eats because it has been featured on shows like Man vs. Food was named Best Sandwich by Maxim in 2004?
DB: That can’t hurt; there are a lot of imitations out there, so clearly it’s made an impact nationwide. With that said, I don’t know some of the other competitors so I’m not going to get all cocky and insist that it’s going to win. But all things considered, I think it should do pretty well.
CC: How many Fat Darrell sandwiches have you eaten in your life?
DB: Me personally? Oh god. When I made the thing, I lived off of them in college so I had a billion of them. But I mean, there is lot of pressure whenever I go back to those trucks or when I make an appearance anywhere, because I have to eat them.
People want to hear me order myself. So let’s say a couple hundred? Every TV spot I do, I mean there was this one show that wanted a shot of me eating the sandwich, but they never told me to cut, so they kept having me eat the sandwich over and over again. I’d say a couple hundred conservatively, but who knows, it could be even higher.
CC: What time of day did you create the sandwich?
DB: That was late night. It was after a frat party that got broken up; it was a horrible party. So I wanted some change. I was a little frustrated that day — I got yelled at in class, I had gone to this horrible party. I had a very frustrating day so I didn’t want the same thing anymore. It was a little creative inspiration.
CC: That was the R U Hungry grease truck?
DB: It has different owners now, but yes, it was the R U Hungry Truck. That was way back.
CC: I know it was ’97 that you created the sandwich. What year of college was that for you?
DB: I was a sophomore. It was the second semester of my second year, January of 1997. I guess you could say sophomore or junior, it can go either way, because I finished the next year.
CC: When you ordered the sandwich, did you think that the Fat Darrell would gain this type of attention?
DB: I definitely didn’t expect to still be talking about it now. I mean, I was just hungry. I didn’t want to spend the full amount on the individual ingredients. I basically hustled the guys behind the counter. But it turned out to be a win for both of us, because they’ve made probably thousands of dollars off this thing. So it all turned out okay.
CC: How has the creation of the Fat Darrell affected your career path?
DB: I majored in journalism and psychology. And I’m also a personal trainer. Anything media-related, it kind of all ties together. Before this started I thought it was a passing moment in my life. It ended up opening more doors. The Fat Darrell gets on Good Morning America and Fat Darrellcan go to Food Network, but Darrell Butler can’t necessarily get hooked up yet. Ideally I want to start a travel or food show on Cooking Channel or Food Network, or another network out there and will have to transition to acting from the sandwich, because most people know me through that.
CC: What kind of future do you see with the sandwich and for yourself?
DB: With the sandwich, my goal is to expand it nationwide. There are some imitations out there, but nothing really beats the original. I’d like to take it nationwide. It’s already in one stadium and it’s at three colleges. I’d like to have it accessible to everybody across the country, the official version, not some of these cheap knockoffs that are out there. I definitely see it expanding out — nationally, internationally, who knows.
For myself? I could easily see myself doing stuff for the Cooking Channel or Travel Channel, stuff like that. But my goal is doing things like that. At the same time, my day job is as a personal trainer. It sounds kind of funny, because I made this really fattening sandwich. But there is a healthier spinoff that once I get the first version out on that, I want to put the other version out simultaneously. I also want to show that you can have certain things in moderation. You can still be fit and not necessarily … it doesn’t have to be one or the other.
CC: You just touched on this, but how do you feel about the imitations?
DB: A lot of places don’t give credit where it’s due. It started at Rutgers. I mean, if you want to sell a Fat Darrell you have to contact me. As far as the actual grease truck sandwiches, some people think that Monmouth University is the place where it started. Some of the history gets kind of lost, but it started at Rutgers and it is a Rutgers-based sandwich, even though there are these other imitations out there.
I don’t really like the way some of these people are making knockoffs and not giving credit where it’s due. Or doing it the wrong way; the worst thing for me is making knockoff versions with bad ingredients.
CC: What’s your culinary background?
DB: I like food. I have always experimented with food. When I was little I would mix and match with the Big Gulp cup and mix all of the flavors, and figure out how to not overpower the Dr. Pepper. I’ve always put chips on my sandwiches and things like that. I’ve always made weird concoctions and experimented with things. I’m definitely no chef. If I had a show, ideally my plan would be to have a food-related show. But I would never market myself as a chef. I have a lot of good ideas. I’m pretty decent in the kitchen, but I would never market myself as a chef. I would leave that to a good team around me to help me out with that stuff. I’m a foodie more than a chef.