Serge Ibaka is holding a plastic cup half-full of dried, roasted crickets. He's shaking it, actually, showing it off, standing behind a lacquer kitchen island, wearing a customized apron and chef's hat. He leans toward the camera, just a few feet away, as he empties the bugs into a small french press.
"Crickets. Yes, you heard that," he says. Ibaka's been eating them since his childhood in the Republic of Congo and remains an advocate for them today. Often, he will note their high protein content. "Crick-uts," he repeats, his heavy accent pouring through.
On this March evening, Ibaka is preparing a meal for his newest teammate, Jeremy Lin. "Special menu for Jeremy," he says with great deviousness. He knows that Lin detests tofu, so tonight's entree will be a stinky, fermented variation on the soy product, which as it sizzles on a nearby stove, makes Ibaka grimace.
"Oh my God," he says. The sour odor wafts past him and fills the entire room—a rented kitchen near Toronto's downtown core. A half-dozen film crew members are struggling, too, but everyone persists, determined to capture the bond that can form over one daring meal.
Since July, Ibaka has brought a number of Raptors teammates to his table for an extraordinary array of dishes: lamb brains, cow heart, pig's head, worms. His show, How Hungry Are You?, tests the appetites and courage of guests in a most unusual way. On a recent episode, Ibaka surprised Kyle Lowry, a Philadelphia native, with a bull testicle Philly cheesesteak. "You feed me so much on the court," Ibaka told his point guard. "I have to feed you something good, bro."
All season, the show has been an easy off-court chemistry builder, a nice asset for a team under duress. At 57-24, this is perhaps the modern Raptors' best roster, but it's also the most unstable. Roughly half their players are new following a busy summer and trade deadline; their coach, Nick Nurse, is a rookie; young players have forced their way into bigger roles; veterans have received diminished ones.
Meanwhile, age 29, Ibaka is hard at work, serving up a signature season. He is there if the team needs 30 points or if it just needs 30 minutes of no-frills ball. He is approaching a career high in scoring at 15 points per game and shooting over 50 percent from the floor, leaning on one of the league's most reliable mid-range games. Maybe he's not the same menace he once was around the rim—he averaged 3.7 blocks per game at age 22—but he protects it just fine and looks spry doing so.
So, as Lin goes for the stinky tofu—trying it timidly at first and then a little more comfortably, to Ibaka's delight—he wonders if there is something mysterious propelling the big man.
"It might be the cooking show," Lin suggests.
No, not quite, Ibaka says.
"It's the crickets."
Ibaka's passion for cooking developed in his native Republic of Congo, as a child. He first learned how to cook by watching his father, who would prepare many of the same dishes that Serge now tries on his show. But the family did not always have a kitchen stocked with ingredients, like Ibaka has today. Ibaka recalls that, as a child, he sometimes had to wait outside restaurants for customers to finish, so he could eat the leftovers. "We come from different places, different cultures, different foods," Ibaka says, referencing his NBA guests. "Some foods you may say, ‘Oh wow, this is not food.' People actually eat that somewhere. I just want people to really understand that and really appreciate it."
Ibaka's perspective is appreciated in Toronto, where the roster is especially diverse. This season, the Raptors have represented England, Spain, Cameroon and Lithuania, to name some countries, and Lin is the league's only Asian American player. Ibaka likes to inquire about his teammates' backgrounds in a sort of casual way. "I'm not really good at asking people questions in interviews," he says. "I just try to have fun, to talk."
In the fall, Ibaka hosted the Raptors' youthful bench mob: Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright. Ibaka prepared lamb brains, to be spread over toast like butter. Powell and Siakam both recall the food as "terrible," with Siakam adding that: "He only got two ingredients, salt and pepper; that's it. Not enough seasoning."
Regardless, the episode served a larger purpose. "I can tell after that moment, I can really see the difference, just connect us, the guys really can see what kind of person I am," Ibaka says. "The way I invited them to my show at my place created a good chemistry."
His teammates felt the same. "It's not just eating nasty food," Siakam says. "It's about eating nasty food but also bonding and talking about important things, which is cool."
Powell has noticed how such extracurriculars can help unite a team. "It's just team bonding," he says. "We're always supporting each other off the floor, and I think that helps us on the court when we're going through tough things—not fragmenting, staying strong together because you're always gonna support your fellow teammates."
And this team has had no shortage of reasons to fragment. Over the past five years, during what might be considered the Lowry Era, Toronto has always made the playoffs and then exited ingloriously. In 2014, they dropped a Game 7 at home to Brooklyn in the first round. Over the ensuing four years, they were eliminated via sweep three times—twice at the hands of LeBron James.
Then came the really hard part: July's trade, which sent DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a draft pick to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. For whatever the Raptors' shortcomings had been, one could not deny their unity, led by the special connection between DeRozan and Lowry. That went out the window. And then, in February, more pieces went flying, as Jonas Valanciunas, CJ Miles and Wright—noted locker room chums—were sent to Memphis for Marc Gasol, who on many nights replaces Ibaka in the starting lineup.
Some players in Ibaka's position—accomplished, a full-time starter since 2011—might pout about such a demotion. Instead, Ibaka welcomed Gasol and his brother Pau into his kitchen for a little cow's heart. The younger Gasol has known Ibaka for years; they both played in Spain as teenagers. Yet, he was impressed by the way his old friend ran his show. "I never saw that version of him," Marc says.
Ibaka leans on his alter ego during How Hungry Are You?: the Mafuzzy Chef. The moniker is emblazoned on Ibaka's apron and hashtagged on his social media posts. What it means, Ibaka won't say. "A lot of people asking me about Mafuzzy," he says dismissively. Ibaka has a sort of coy sense of humor; he is suave and a little skeptical. "It's personal, top secret. Mafuzzy, man. I am Mafuzzy Man, original man, 100 percent pure, man." (The song "Mafuzzy Style," written by the French-Congolese singer DADJU about Ibaka, has cleared 56 million views but provides little clarity.)
You only have to watch one episode of How Hungry Are You? to appreciate Ibaka's commitment to the character. His effort is admirable; each episode runs about 10 minutes long but requires a few hours to tape. Ibaka prepares notes for each interview and side-eyes them during his conversations. He retapes lines until his pronunciation is sound or until everyone in the room is laughing (he constantly scans the room for reactions). In each episode, there are charming scripted scenes. During the Lin shoot, for instance, Ibaka's film crew urged Ibaka to say that his salt and pepper—which were in fact American-made—were imported from Vietnam and Iceland to prove "what a worldly guy" Serge is. And so Ibaka spent several minutes trying and trying again to nail the delivery, sometimes stumbling over the very last syllable—"Ice…ah!"—before cracking up and turning his head against the fridge in frustration.
He weighs seemingly small decisions, deliberating with those in the room. Should he film a quick bit in which he opens a window, freeing the kitchen of the tofu's awful odor? Naw. That would look too much like a cheesy Food Network segment, he thinks, and decides against it. "He's confident running the show," Marc says.
He has big plans for it moving forward—new recipes and new guests. For instance, he would like to host his old Thunder teammates, James Harden, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The latter two have, at least, a slightly frosty relationship, but Ibaka's not worried about that. "End of the day," he says, "when you do something, you have to do something where you bring people together. You can't do something where you separate people."
Ibaka's good nature was on display in one of the show's first episodes, which aired over the summer. Right after DeRozan was traded to San Antonio, Ibaka flew out to meet DeRozan in California to serve him worms and talk shop. "Tell me, bro, how you feel, bro?" he asked early on, which digressed into an argument about how many points DeRozan would drop on Ibaka in their first matchup. "I'm gonna block everything," Ibaka countered. And then he returned to the trade itself, probing DeRozan again. "Tell me a little bit, bro. How did you feel about everything? Because I've been there before." DeRozan was dealt after nine seasons in Toronto; Ibaka's first seven were in OKC.
"It was tough when I heard the news, I'm not gonna lie to you, bro," Ibaka tells DeRozan in a poignant moment. "... Your vibe, the way you lead the team, what you did for the team the last two years I've been in Toronto, it was just amazing."
Still, like any good journalist or curious host, Ibaka made sure to get both sides of the story. Recently, he cooked for Leonard; the episode airs Thursday as the Season 2 finale. Ibaka used the opportunity to address the long shadow of Leonard's impending free agency, which covers the team's magnificent season, its title hopes and everything beyond. Nobody knows what Leonard, who is famously reserved, has in mind, and he hasn't shown a willingness to talk about it.
Well, the Mafuzzy Chef figured he might as well try. There's a certain power and charm that he wields, after all, standing there decked out in Mafuzzy merch. He feeds, he connects, he disarms.
"He's my friend, my teammate, so I just asked him," Ibaka says now. "A lot of writers already asked that question, but it's different the way I ask it. I just turned to him: ‘My friend, you coming back next year or what?'"