When not dunking basketballs, Serge Ibaka, the Toronto Raptors forward, can be seen tormenting his teammates and other friends on his YouTube show How Hungry Are You?, including former teammate and reigning NBA Finals most valuable player Kawhi Leonard, to whom he fed beef-penis pizza. But the Republic of Congo-born Ibaka is a wiz in the kitchen, and has the chef’s toque to prove it. In town during the summer for a fundraising event at the Food District at Square One in Mississauga, Ont., where hundreds lined up amidst food stalls, restaurants and twinkling lights to meet their new hero, Ibaka talked to The Globe and Mail about the role food plays in forming relationships.
How does your Congolese heritage tie in with your love of good food?
Where I come from, food is very important, because it’s not every day that you get food. When I would go to bed, I’d pray to God, please tomorrow, let me have food. As a kid, I was so tall I needed to eat so much, and I was always hungry. My daughter now is the same way, growing every day. Growing up, my dad used to love to eat and love to cook Congolese food for us, like chicken and rice. And then every Sunday, he’d cook us something special, like a cow head. It was huge. He’d get it from the abattoir. Or some Sundays he’d buy the offal, some Sundays the feet. But it was always special. That’s where everything started because I was young and watching my dad cooking.
Do you cook a lot like your dad? And do you wing it or use recipes?
A lot of the time, it’s based on what’s in my fridge, and other days, if I’m creating something new, I have to look at recipes. I know how to cook foods from my hometown, like fumbwa [a stew made of spinach, peanut butter and smoked fish], but you come here and things are different so you have to learn.
I love How Hungry Are You? You make stinky tofu for your [former] teammate Jeremy Lin, and bull testicle cheesesteaks for Kyle Lowry, seemingly as a way to get to know them better. Why do you challenge them rather then dishing out something like, say, fumbwa?
Ah, because fumbwa is good. It’s so good. But if I give it to them, they’ll just eat it and enjoy it. There are a lot of shows out there that make good food. For me, I want to do something different. One of the things I love about this is we’re not just challenging them, we’re learning about foods from other parts of the world. Like I said earlier, when I was young, food wasn’t plentiful so we had to eat certain things. Maybe it looked bad but the food was good. For me to show the world that you may not like this, but in Jamaica they eat this and in Africa they eat this and in Asia they eat this, so if those people from Jamaica watch me eat the food they eat, they will be happy. People from Africa, they will love it.
Earlier this year, you and the Serge Ibaka Foundation teamed up with the Regent Park Community Food Centre to serve healthy meals for people living in the east Toronto community. What prompted that?
Toronto is home for me. I have a lot of friends here now. I have a foundation, and I love to give back to Africa. Everywhere I go, I like to help. I have an orphanage in the Congo and went home this summer to help the kids out there. And now in Toronto I like to help the kids here, too. I know how important food is, so that’s one of the big reasons. Since my first year with the team, I tell them we have to do something. I always feel that. Not because I have to but because I love it. I can’t just be here in Toronto and not give back to those kids. It would be like something is missing.
What’s the story behind your chef’s toque?
That was a Father’s Day gift from my daughter. She told me she has something for me. She told her mom she was scared a little bit that I wouldn’t like it, but of course I loved it so much. She was surprised that I was so happy.
Any thoughts on a career in food as a side hustle?
You never know, man. I always say about life, you never know. I love doing the cooking show, it’s so much fun. Besides basketball I need something to enjoy life in a different way, and this is giving me that. Now I’m really willing to go deeper. In the fall, I have a chef [Grant van Gameren] who’s going to be coming to my house twice a week to help me up my game.
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