Otito Ogbonnia’s hands, beaten up from years of striking blocking sleds and fighting off offensive linemen, drop delicate pools of fresh strawberry puree into a creamy white batter. Relative to the UCLA defensive lineman's massive hands, the spoon Ogbonnia is holding looks like something used to feed babies. He drags it through the red puddles, gently swirling them to create a whimsical pattern. Ogbonnia pauses to inspect his work.
When Ogbonnia is not mauling offensive linemen, he’s here, leaning over the kitchen counter of his studio apartment in a UCLA graduate student housing complex or peering into the half-sized oven to check on his latest culinary creation.
The senior nose tackle is UCLA’s top chef.
What started as youthful curiosity is now a deep passion for Ogbonnia. He orders spices from Indonesia to master cinnamon rolls, writes and rewrites his own recipes in his quest for perfection, then delivers his dishes to teammates, coaches and trainers at UCLA to unite the team through a language 300-pound men speak and understand even more fluently than football: food.
The day teammates savor the most is Thanksgiving, when Ogbonnia supplies a home-cooked meal for players who can't return home for the holiday. Talk of the dinners elicit bright-eyed expressions and salivating mouths.
Roasted duck. Cornbread with a sage honey butter glaze. Ham. Ribs. Stuffing. 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.”
This culinary tradition like no other continues 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 was not finalized as of Monday, but offensive lineman Atonio Mafi, who had the honor of choosing the food, requested bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin. The delectable dish was smoked on Ogbonnia's balcony at 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, didn't anticipate that their shared interest in food would turn into a team tradition. As sophomores, they just wanted to cook good food and didn't want to burden any of their local teammates' families with an extra mouth to feed.
Ogbonnia responded by making 10 different desserts, including pies, cobblers and cakes. Gaines, who specializes in soul food, came with such classics as fried chicken, mashed potatoes and ribs. They borrowed quarterback Chase Griffin's kitchen for extra cooking space to make enough food for about 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 in. One big football family.
"It helps bring the team together and make it a real family," Ogbonnia said as the sweet smell of strawberry cheesecake filled his apartment. "Anytime you eat with your teammates, it really helps you make a deeper connection.”
Ogbonnia is a quiet giant. By his own admission, he's not very social, but perks up when discussing anything related to cooking. He’ll make almost anything his teammates request, even if it feels like a burden.
Last year, when Gaines spent Thanksgiving with his girlfriend, Ogbonnia didn’t want to repeat the feast solo. He was set on just taking a nap after practice. Until receiver Kyle Philips insisted.
The trouble of picking through half-stocked grocery store shelves to meet a same-day request dissipated once 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 that we have here, that’s how he shows he loves his guys as a leader,” Gaines said.
On the field, Ogbonnia is one of UCLA's most experienced players. The lineman who signed with Chip Kelly's first recruiting class has not missed a game for UCLA, appearing in 42 straight contests.
For his first two years at UCLA, the dual-sport athlete split time between football and track, where he excelled in the shot put. Ogbonnia placed 10th in the NCAA championships as a freshman and won the Pan American U20 championships. But bouncing between fall football and the spring track season made it difficult to perfect either sport. He chose football and the results are showing with 19 straight starts. Along with five tackles for loss and two sacks this year, Ogbonnia’s 29 tackles are the most among UCLA defensive linemen.
Becoming a consistent force for the Bruins, who will play in their first bowl game since 2017, didn’t come easily for Ogbonnia. As a freshman, he got chewed out by former defensive line coach Vince Oghobaase when another assistant coach noticed Ogbonnia skipped a drill.
Now Ogbonnia is leading each drill. Ogbonnia, whose introverted, hard-working nature probably led him to the kitchen as a child in the first place, doesn't speak often, but earns the attention of his teammates 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 football field, he wants to be great in the kitchen,” Kelly said. “You watch his work ethic, his attention to detail, especially out here at practice sessions, it rubs off.”
Ogbonnia learned his work ethic from his parents, who maintained high standards for their four children. His father held traditional Nigerian values about gender roles, so Ogbonnia's two sisters were expected to do house chores like cooking while he and his brother did yard work, and all four were expected to excel academically.
But when his father was working and his mother was resting, Ogbonnia snuck into the kitchen to cook eggs or simple pasta dishes. He watched his mom cook and showed her what he could do. Slowly, he started taking control of the kitchen and cooked dinners for his family by freshman year of high school.
His mother made traditional Nigerian dishes that his father loved, Ogbonnia made lasagnas, crab cakes and burgers.
“Little things that I thought were easy and were fun to make,” he said.
To feed his passion, Ogbonnia took basic classes that sparked his interest in baking that has now become his main culinary focus. Though Ogbonnia can use his strength to plow through opponents on the field, he appreciates the elegance and dexterity of baking. Gaines, who will work with Ogbonnia on the Thanksiving feast this year, loves Ogbonnia’s strawberry cheesecake the most.
The version Ogbonnia prepared in his apartment recently was light and creamy with a spiced graham cracker crust he made with a mini-food processor. Although the budding chef bucked tradition by baking the cheesecake without a water bath, the cake stayed soft and fluffy thanks to his method of cooking at a relatively low 300 degrees.
Making a cheesecake is comparatively simple, Ogbonnia said. After 10 tries and at least five different types of cinnamon, he recently perfected his cinnamon roll recipe. Next, he hopes to ascend to croissants and other French pastries where elite chefs can show their talents through delicate techniques.
The same way he practiced pass-rush maneuvers and run-stuffing tactics, Ogbonnia wants to perfect how to laminate croissant dough and pipe perfect choux pastry.
“Anything that’s meticulous, monotonous, those are the types of baking styles I like,” he said. “Things that require complexities, things that are extremely detailed, I think I’m kind of like that on the field.”
Ogbonnia is eager to eat his way through the world and study cuisines from France, Italy, Brazil and Japan. He’s determined to fit the travels between any future NFL opportunities.
The 6-foot-4, 320-pound lineman has an NFL body but hasn’t generated significant 2022 draft interest yet. Enrolled in UCLA’s graduate transformative leadership and coaching program, Ogbonnia could return for another year with additional pandemic eligibility, so he’s not hanging his helmet up for a full-time chef’s hat just yet.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.