How UCLA lineman Otito Ogbonia became the Bruins’ top chef

Otito Ogbonia’s hands, beaten by years of blocking sleds and fighting offensive linemen, drop delicate puddles of fresh strawberry puree into a creamy white batter. Relative to the UCLA defender’s massive hands, the spoon Ogbonia is holding looks like something used to feed babies. He pulls it through the red puddles and swirls them gently to create a whimsical pattern. Ogbonia pauses to inspect his work.

When Ogbonia isn’t munching up offensive linemen, he’s here, leaning over the kitchen counter of his studio apartment in a UCLA dorm, or peering into the half-sized oven to check out his latest culinary creations.

The Senior Nose Tackle is UCLA’s top chef.

What began as a youthful curiosity is now a deep passion for Ogbonia. He orders spices from Indonesia to master cinnamon rolls, rewrites and rewrites his own recipes in his pursuit of perfection, and then delivers his dishes to UCLA teammates, coaches and coaches to unite the team through a language that weighs 300 pounds Men still fluently understand football as: food.

The day teammates enjoy most is Thanksgiving, when Ogbonia offers a homemade meal for players who can’t go home over the holidays. The conversation about dinner made everyone smile and drool.

Roasted duck. Corn bread with a sage, honey and butter glaze. Ham. Ribs. Filling. No store bought mixes on this table.

“Probably the best Thanksgiving meal I’ve ever had, to be honest,” said recipient Ethan Fernea, who called Ogbonia’s macaroni and cheese “out of this world.”

UCLA defensive lineman Otito Ogbonia grabs ingredients to make a strawberry cheesecake at his apartment near campus.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

This culinary tradition like no other continues on Thursday, two days before the Bruins (7-4, 5-4 Pac-12) finish their regular season schedule against California at the Rose Bowl.

This year’s menu wasn’t ready on Monday, but the offensive lineman Atonio Mafi, who had the honor of choosing the food, asked for pork tenderloin wrapped in bacon. The delicious dish was smoked on Ogbonia’s balcony in his former apartment and served at last year’s dinner.

Ogbonnia, the Houston-raised son of Nigerian parents, and former roommate Jon Gaines II, an offensive lineman from Milwaukee, hadn’t expected their mutual interest in food to become a team tradition. As sophomores, they just wanted to cook good food and not burden the families of their local teammates with an extra mouth to feed.

Ogbonia responded by making 10 different desserts, including cake, cobbler, and cake. Gaines, who specializes in soul food, brought along classics like fried chicken, mashed potatoes and ribs. They borrowed the kitchen from quarterback Chase Griffin for additional cooking space to cook enough food for about 30 teammates.

Everyone walked into Ogbonia and Gaines’s apartment – which they shared with defensive lineman Odua Isibor and linebacker Adam Cohen – grabbed a plate and buried themselves. A big soccer family.

“It helps bring the team together and make them a real family,” said Ogbonia as the sweet smell of strawberry cheesecake filled his apartment. “Every time you eat with your teammates, it really helps you create a deeper connection.”

Ogbonia is a silent giant. He says he’s not very sociable, but he perks up talking about anything cooking-related. He’ll do almost anything his teammates ask, even if it feels like a burden.

UCLA defensive lineman Otito Ogbonia whips up a strawberry cheesecake in his apartment near campus

UCLA defensive lineman Otito Ogbonia says sharing a Thanksgiving meal “helps bring the team together and make it a real family.”

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

When Gaines was spending Thanksgiving with his girlfriend last year, Ogbonia didn’t want to repeat the festival alone. He just wanted to take a nap after training. Until recipient Kyle Philips insisted.

The hassle of browsing half-full grocery shelves to fulfill a request that same day disappeared when he saw the smiles on his teammates’ faces as they returned for seconds and thirds. He loves making others happy through food.

“The family unit we have here shows that he loves his boys as leaders,” said Gaines.

On the field, Ogbonia is one of UCLA’s most experienced players. The lineman, who signed to Chip Kelly’s first class of recruiting, has never missed a game for UCLA and has appeared in 42 consecutive competitions.

In his first two years at UCLA, the dual athlete split the time between soccer and athletics, where he excelled in the shot put. Ogbonia finished 10th in the NCAA championships as a freshman and won the Pan American U20 championships. But switching between fall football and the spring season made it difficult to perfect either sport. He chose football and the results show with 19 straight starts. Along with five tackles for loss and two sacks this year, Ogbonia’s 29 tackles are the most common defensive linemen at UCLA.

UCLA defensive lineman Otito Ogbonia uses a stand mixer while making a strawberry cheesecake

Otito Ogbonia started cooking for his family in high school: “Little things that I thought were easy and that were fun.”

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Becoming a constant force for the Bruins, who will play their first bowl game since 2017, has not been easy for Ogbonia. As a freshman, he was chewed out by former defensive line coach Vince Oghobaase when another assistant coach noticed Ogbonia skipping an exercise.

Now Ogbonia leads each exercise. Ogbonia, whose introverted, hardworking nature likely led him to the kitchen as a kid, doesn’t speak often, but deserves his teammates’ attention when he does.

“He wants to be great in everything he does; he wants to be great in the classroom, he wants to be great on the soccer field, he wants to be great in the kitchen, ”said Kelly. “You can see his work ethic, his attention to detail, especially out here during training, that rubs off.”

Ogbonia learned his work ethic from his parents, who maintained high standards for their four children. His father represented traditional Nigerian values ​​regarding gender roles, so Ogbonnia’s two sisters were expected to do household chores such as cooking while he and his brother did gardening, and all four were expected to excel academically.

But when his father was working and his mother was resting, Ogbonia would sneak into the kitchen to cook eggs or simple pasta dishes. He watched his mother cook and showed her what he could do. He slowly took control of the kitchen and cooked dinner for his family during the freshman year of high school.

His mother prepared traditional Nigerian dishes that his father loved, while Ogbonia made lasagna, crab cakes, and burgers.

“Little things that I thought were easy and fun,” he said.

UCLA defensive lineman Otito Ogbonia scrutinizes a strawberry cheesecake in his apartment near campus

UCLA defensive lineman Otito Ogbonia, looking at a strawberry cheesecake he just made, says he appreciates the elegance and skill of baking.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

To fuel his passion, Ogbonia took basic courses that sparked his interest in baking, which has now become his culinary focus. While Ogbonia can use his strength to plow through opponents in the field, he appreciates the elegance and dexterity of baking. Gaines, who will partner with Ogbonia for the Thanksgiving festival this year, loves Ogbonia’s strawberry cheesecake the most.

The version Ogbonia made in his apartment recently was light and creamy with a flavored graham cracker crust that he made with a mini food processor. Although the budding chef, contrary to tradition, baked the cheesecake without a water bath, the cake remained soft and fluffy thanks to the way it was prepared at a relatively low 300 degrees.

Making a cheesecake is comparatively easy, said Ogbonia. After 10 attempts and at least five different types of cinnamon, he recently perfected his cinnamon roll recipe. Next, he hopes to move up to croissants and other French baked goods, where top chefs can show their talent through delicate techniques.

Just as he has practiced pass-rush maneuvers and run-stuffing tactics, Ogbonia aims to perfect how to laminate croissant dough and make perfect choux pastry.

The finished product: UCLA defensive lineman Otito Ogbonia holds up a strawberry cheesecake that he baked in his apartment

UCLA defender Otito Ogbonia holds up the finished project, a strawberry cheesecake he baked in his apartment near campus.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

“Anything meticulous and monotonous are the types of baking styles I like,” he said. “Things that require complexity, things that are extremely detailed, I think that’s how I am in the field.”

Ogbonia is eager to eat her way around the world and study cuisines from France, Italy, Brazil and Japan. He is determined to adjust travel between any future NFL opportunities.

The 6-foot-4,320-pound lineman has an NFL body but hasn’t piqued significant interest in the 2022 draft. Ogbonia is enrolled in UCLA’s transformative leadership and coaching program and could return for another year with additional pandemic eligibility so he doesn’t hang up his helmet for a full-time chef’s hat just yet.

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