How UCLA lineman Otito Ogbonnia became the Bruins’ top boss

Otito Ogbonnia’s hands, battered by years of blocking sleds and fighting offensive linemen, deposit delicate puddles of fresh strawberry puree into a creamy white paste. Compared to the massive hands of the UCLA defensive lineman, the spoon Ogbonnia is holding looks like something used to feed babies. He slides it through the red puddles, gently swirling them around to create a whimsical pattern. Ogbonnia stops to inspect her work.

When Ogbonnia isn’t maiming offensive linemen, he’s there, leaning over the kitchen counter of his studio in a UCLA graduate student housing complex or peering through the half-size oven for check out his latest culinary creation.

The senior nose tackle is UCLA’s top chef.

What started as a youthful curiosity is now a deep passion for Ogbonnia. He orders spices from Indonesia to master cinnamon buns, writes and rewrites his own recipes in his quest for perfection, then delivers his dishes to his teammates, coaches and coaches at UCLA to unite the team through a language that 300-pound men speak and understand even more fluently than football: food.

The day teammates savor the most is Thanksgiving, when Ogbonnia provides a home-cooked meal for players who can’t return home for the holidays. Dinner chats elicit bright-eyed expressions and salivating mouths.

Roast duck. Cornbread with honey sage butter frosting. Ham. Ribs. Padding. No store bought mixes on this table.

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

UCLA defensive lineman Otito Ogbonnia grabs ingredients for a strawberry cheesecake in his apartment near campus.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

This unique culinary tradition continues Thursday, two days before the Bruins (7-4, 5-4 Pac-12) end their regular season schedule, against California at the Rose Bowl.

This year’s menu wasn’t finalized on Monday, but offensive lineman Atonio Mafi, who had the honor of picking the food, requested a bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin. The delicious dish was smoked on Ogbonnia’s balcony in his old apartment and served at dinner last year.

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

Ogbonnia responded by making 10 different desserts, including pies, cobblers and cakes. Gaines, which specializes in soul food, came up with classics such as fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and baby back ribs. They borrowed quarterback Chase Griffin’s kitchen for extra cooking space to prepare enough food for around 30 teammates.

Everyone came to Ogbonnia and Gaines’ apartment – which they shared with defensive lineman Odua Isibor and linebacker Adam Cohen – grabbed a plate and dug. A big family of footballers.

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

Ogbonnia is a silent giant. By his own admission, he is not very social, but prides himself on discussing all things cooking. He will do almost anything his teammates ask, even if it seems like a burden.

UCLA defensive lineman Otito Ogbonnia bakes strawberry cheesecake in his apartment near campus

UCLA defensive lineman Otito Ogbonnia said sharing a Thanksgiving meal “helps bring the team together and make them a real family.”

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Last year, when Gaines spent Thanksgiving with his girlfriend, Ogbonnia didn’t want to repeat the feast solo. He was determined to take a nap after training. Until receiver Kyle Philips insisted.

The difficulty of browsing the shelves of half-stocked grocery stores to meet a demand on the same day dissipated once he saw the smiles on his teammates’ faces as they walked back for seconds and thirds. He enjoys making others happy with food.

“The family unit that we have here is how he shows he loves his guys as a leader,” Gaines said.

On the pitch, Ogbonnia is one of UCLA’s most experienced players. The lineman who signed with Chip Kelly’s first recruiting class didn’t miss a game for UCLA, appearing in 42 straight games.

During his first two years at UCLA, the bisport athlete divided his time between football and track and field, where he excelled in the shot put. Ogbonnia placed 10th at the NCAA Championships in freshman and won the Pan American Under-20 Championships. But bouncing back between fall football and the spring track season made it difficult for either sport to be perfect. He chose football and the results are there with 19 consecutive starts. With five tackles for a loss and two sacks this year, Ogbonnia’s 29 tackles are the most important among UCLA defensive linemen.

UCLA defensive lineman Otito Ogbonnia uses stand mixer while baking strawberry cheesecake

Otito Ogbonnia started cooking for his family when he was in high school: “Little things that I found easy and fun to do.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Becoming a steadfast force for the Bruins, who will play their first bowl game since 2017, hasn’t been easy for Ogbonnia. As a freshman he was chewed on by former defensive line coach Vince Oghobaase when another assistant coach noticed Ogbonnia skipped a drill.

Now Ogbonnia is leading every exercise. Ogbonnia, whose introverted and hardworking nature probably drove him to the kitchen as a child, doesn’t speak often, but gains the attention of his teammates when he does.

“He wants to be excellent at everything he does; he wants to be awesome in the classroom, he wants to be awesome on the soccer field, he wants to be awesome in the kitchen, ”Kelly said. “You look at his work ethic, his attention to detail, especially here in training sessions, it rubs off. “

Ogbonnia learned her work ethic from her parents, who maintained high standards for their four children. Her father respected traditional Nigerian values ​​regarding gender roles, so Ogbonnia’s two sisters had to do household chores like cooking while he and his brother worked in the yard, and all four had to excel academically.

But when her father was working and her mother was resting, Ogbonnia would sneak into the kitchen to cook eggs or simple pasta dishes. He watched his mother cook and showed her what he could do. Slowly, he began to take control of the kitchen and cooking dinners for his family in his freshman year of high school.

Her mother made traditional Nigerian dishes her father loved, Ogbonnia made lasagna, crab cakes and burgers.

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

UCLA defensive lineman Otito Ogbonnia takes a close look at a strawberry cheesecake in his apartment near campus

UCLA defensive lineman Otito Ogbonnia, eyeing a strawberry cheesecake he just made, says he appreciates the elegance and dexterity of the baking.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

To fuel his passion, Ogbonnia took basic courses which sparked his interest in baking, which has now become his main culinary focus. Although Ogbonnia can use his strength to smash his opponents on the court, he appreciates the elegance and dexterity of baking. Gaines, who will be working with Ogbonnia for the Thanksgiving holiday this year, loves Ogbonnia’s strawberry cheesecake the most.

The Ogbonnia version made in his apartment recently was light and creamy with a spicy graham cracker crust that he made with a mini food processor. Although the aspiring chef has shaken up tradition by baking the cheesecake without a double boiler, the cake has remained moist and chewy thanks to its method of baking at a relatively low temperature of 300 degrees.

Making a cheesecake is relatively straightforward, Ogbonnia said. After 10 tries and at least five different types of cinnamon, he recently perfected his cinnamon rolls recipe. Then he hopes to climb into croissants and other French pastries where elite chefs can show off their talents through delicate techniques.

In the same way he practiced pass-rush maneuvers and stuffing tactics, Ogbonnia wants to perfect the way of laminating croissant dough and making perfect choux pastry.

The finished product: UCLA defensive lineman Otito Ogbonnia holds up a strawberry cheesecake he made in his apartment

UCLA defensive lineman Otito Ogbonnia holds up the finished project, a strawberry cheesecake he made in his apartment near campus.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

“All that is meticulous, monotonous, are the types of cooking styles that I love,” he said. “Things that require complexity, things that are extremely detailed, I think I’m a bit like that on the pitch. “

Ogbonnia is eager to travel the world and study the cuisines of France, Italy, Brazil and Japan. He is determined to tailor travel between all future NFL opportunities.

The 6-foot-4, 320-pound lineman has an NFL body but has yet to generate significant interest in the 2022 Draft. Enrolled in UCLA’s transformative graduate leadership and coaching program, Ogbonnia could come back for another year with additional pandemic eligibility, so he’s yet to hang up his helmet for a full-time chef’s hat.

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