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New York Knicks’ Charles Oakley Will Be Cooking Up A Storm At New York Produce Show And Conference

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, October 27, 2011

The New York Produce Show and Conference is a serious event where serious people come to educate themselves, network and work toward both personal development and enhancing the bottom lines of the organizations for which they work.

Though a life well-lived requires some ice cream, or at least frozen yogurt, along with the main course and, fortunately, for those who love their work and the produce industry, there are lots of opportunities to provide some fun while we all fight the battle.

How is this for some fun: A superstar athlete turns out to be focused on cooking, and he is going to come to the New York show, do a cooking demo with students from culinary schools serving as sous chefs, talk us all through recipes as he prepares them, offer up samples and then sign autographs and have his photo taken! What a treat.

We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

Charles Oakley
Retired Basketball player
Assistant Coach for the Charlotte Bobcats

Q: Produce industry executives will certainly be intrigued to see you cooking up a storm at the upcoming New York Produce Show. Your fans know you as a powerhouse on the basketball court, but may be surprised to discover you also have a talent for cooking, an affinity for fresh fruits and vegetables, and you’re a take-charge kind of guy in the kitchen. What sparked this passion?

A: It goes back to growing up as a young boy down South in Alabama, where my grandfather was a farmer. It wasn’t a big farm for commercial use, but he would plant all the produce we needed. We grew a range of vegetables from sweet potatoes and yams to peas and a variety of greens like okra and collards. And my grandmother canned fresh peaches and other fruits to store up for winter. In fifth grade, I returned to Cleveland, where I was born, but Alabama has remained a constant in my life.

As I got older and went to college, my experience with food wasn’t very good. I was real picky and didn’t see anything I liked in the cafeteria, so I survived on a steady diet of Burger King and McDonald’s.

Then as a rookie by myself in Chicago, I started cooking this and that, small things. The biggest thing then was that as rookies a lot of us didn’t go home for the holidays. I’d cook Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner for everyone. A lot of people knew I could cook, but when they saw the whole spread with the Cornish hens and collard greens and all the sides and dressings, they were taken aback. One time a TV crew filmed me buying 50 pounds of ground turkey for my turkey burgers.

Q: That sounds like quite an endeavor…

A: I think cooking is easy in my range of what I do best. I’m not cooking like a European chef, but I’m told my food has a twist to it. I like to prepare healthy, delicious comfort food without a lot of fat.

Photo by Shanee Williams

My real interest in cooking really took off when I got to New York. I was living and practicing in Westchester. I got tired and didn’t want to eat out all the time, and I began experimenting and getting creative with my home cooked meals.  

As my basketball career took off in New York and Toronto, I was starting to do more and more cooking on the side. In Toronto, I even did a few T.V. cooking shows. I’d invite the team over for Monday night football and a bite to eat. It got to the point where basically the whole team would hear I was cooking and they would all come over.

I knew guys on the team that were picky eaters like me. If we were going on a flight for an out-of-town game, I’d bring food to the locker room beforehand to hold us over. I had requests for my meatloaf turkey sandwiches. 

In Atlanta, the guys would get together to play golf, and I’d whip up breakfast for everyone.  

Q: How would you describe your style of cooking?

A: I’m picky about food and need to know what’s in it and how it should taste. I like to focus on the freshness, whether fish, meat or vegetables. Sometimes it’s just a matter of seasoning a little bit and cooking on low. I’ll sauté cherry tomatoes and chop up basil to sprinkle on top. I’m not the gourmet chef that puts caviar in my mashed potatoes, but I’ll replace the butter with olive oil, or add sage to the pineapple juice. I’ve got a real keen sense when it comes to flavors.

Q: Did you ever get professional training or is your talent intrinsic?

A: I seem to just have a flair for it. I pick up on things and instinctively have a sense of how food should taste. People ask me, can you give me that tilapia recipe; I can, but it won’t taste the same. I’ll say, the measurements are close enough.

Q: Tell us more about your passion for cooking.

A: People are often surprised to learn how dedicated I am to cooking and that it’s not a gimmick. I did an Oakley Café Show about four years ago, shopping it to different networks. That caught a lot of people off guard, who just knew me as a professional basketball player. 

I went on TV live in Cleveland to do a cooking demo, and also taped a show there. On a station in Atlanta, they had me making salad, spring rolls, chicken, broccoli and rice, and a peach cobbler for dessert.

I cook at people’s houses, some are celebrities, and no one has gotten sick yet! Often I tell them to go do the shopping; you pick the main ingredients and I’ll make something good.

Cooking is not about what I like to eat; it’s about what you like to eat. I can cook whatever you want… fried chicken, cod fish, barbeque ribs with my homemade sauce, Italian string beans, red cabbage, brown rice with corn and red and green peppers, fried corn off the cob, a banana pudding for dessert… you name it. 

Q: Do you ever use a cookbook or just improvise as you go?

A: I like to improvise in ways to bring out the natural flavors of the food. I don’t want to saturate it with onions, and I’m no fan of butter. My barbeque sauce is healthier because I use a tomato base and not ketchup with all that sugar.

My thing is cooking simple and healthy. I’ll make vegetable omelets with spinach and asparagus in the morning, a salad and lump meat crab cakes in the afternoon, and fish and collard greens in the evening.

Photo by Shanee Williams

I’ve got a knack around food and the kitchen. I know how to blend. I think garlic can be used too freely and overwhelm the dish. I went to a restaurant in Tribeca, where the chicken is marinated overnight in garlic and it’s much too powerful. I don’t want to go overboard with spices. I want to use them thoughtfully. I look to enhance the natural flavors. Sometimes people get too creative. I prefer to stay more traditional with my own twists. Flavoring food with olive oil and a little wine and fresh herbs can often be the best approach.

I’m a focused cook. My mindset is, get it done. I don’t want to be in the kitchen all day. I’ve put together huge buffets with so many components and then realized it took me less than an hour.

I enjoy cooking. I’ve done parties for 100 people. Spike Lee was always saying we should cook together when I came to town. I did something with him on the east side of Manhattan last year. He invited 30 or so people for dinner at a restaurant, so I arrived a few hours early and prepared the whole meal in the kitchen for all the guests. 

One time I cooked a birthday party feast for my dear friend Michael Jordan. I always go back to Alabama to cook Mother’s Day dinner and enjoy visiting and making her favorite breakfasts. 

Q: I understand your heart extends beyond family and friends to charitable work as well. Could you describe some of the projects you’re involved in? 

A: I’m able to utilize my cooking for charitable causes. I was in Boston last year for a charity event to help abused kids. They auctioned me off and a family that lived in New Hampshire was the highest bidder, so I flew out there and cooked meals for all their friends and family. It was great fun.

I’ve been in Charlotte, Cleveland and New York to cook for shelters during the holidays, and I’m trying to set up something in New York for this year. Most of the time, it will be turkey, string beans, maybe I’ll make yams, but mostly I just want to be there to show I care.

I was recently in Charlotte, and there were people with a van serving tons of people in need. They were so goodhearted. I’ve always had the desire to do that. We’re looking to develop a similar concept, where we could drive an 18 wheeler to different parts of the country preparing and giving out food to the homeless. And we could go back month to month, so it wouldn’t just be a one-time event. I’d like to get sponsors and to find food distributors that would be willing to supply ingredients.

I also like doing the Stedman Graham Charity Golf Tournament. At last year’s event, I cooked at the 8th hole. We had 45 pounds of meat, and I only made turkey sliders. It was the most popular item. My turkey burgers have an unexpected flavor but people find them delicious.

Q: What are your attitudes about healthy living, athletic performance and eating well?

A: You just can’t eat bad food every day because in the long run, it breaks you down. Breakfast is a key thing, but not those heavy Southern breakfasts with all those eggs, grits and bacon. I do eat collard greens for breakfast though.

In college, I didn’t eat healthy but it wasn’t a really big deal, except after awhile that fast food makes you feel bad.

Trainers say keep away from this and that, but at the end of the day, you have to eat right not just in front of coaches and trainers but at home too. Most players in the league have chefs and assistants cooking for them. I don’t know if that makes you stronger or weaker. When you cook for yourself, you know exactly what you’re eating and you have more control.

Q: I hear you’re a tough patron at restaurants…

A: I’m the worst person to go out to eat with; I’m just so picky. I ask the chefs a lot of questions, and want many alterations. A lot of chefs don’t want to change their dish.

I have a hard time going out sometimes. At a basic restaurant I’m usually disappointed with the selection, especially when it comes to produce options.

Q: What are your favorite vegetables?

A: I like quick and healthy; I do a lot of broccoli, carrots, and zucchini. I’ll toss in mushrooms. Collard greens are good but they take too long.  I just started eating beets and avocados in the past few months. I’m trying a few different things.

Q: What got you interested in trying beets and avocados for the first time after all these years?

A: I was curious when I saw them incorporated in salads. I like to put grapes and strawberries in my salads. I go to Whole Foods a lot, and I’m always talking to the produce people there. One lady teaches me things, but she also gives me a hard time. She’ll say, don’t get that for dinner because it’s bad for you. I try to eat healthy four or five times a week, but I like my fried chicken.

My advice to kids is, try to eat a lot of fruit. Personally, I’ve always been a picky eater. I never ate a hotdog in my life, just the baked beans. I don’t eat whole eggs, and just started eating egg whites a few years ago. When I was in school, I’d end up eating cereal and donuts. It’s tough growing up when you go for lunch and the choices aren’t appealing. Many families don’t cook at home anymore and go out to eat fast food.

There are so many different foods, and all this talk about organic. My thing is if food is fresh and good, that’s what matters. I feel comfortable in the kitchen cooking fresh vegetables. They’re good for your body. I have my days though. I love potato chips and munchies. I’m trying to cut back on bread. I’m bad when I go to a restaurant. I’ll eat two baskets of bread with olive oil or balsamic vinegar before the meal arrives. I believe it’s all about moderation.

Q: Do you have any new projects in the pipeline?

A: I’m working with Shanee Williams, my publicist, and restaurateur Brad Johnson, an owner and operator of trend-setting venues on the East and West Coast, to open a New York City-based restaurant. Since it’s still in the development stages, we don’t want to talk about the concept yet, but we’re hoping it will be ready next summer.

I can tell you that I’ll be real hands-on in developing the menu items and it will have my signature touch. I’m looking to do more cooking shows and charity events, and I’m also assistant coach for the Charlotte Bobcats, so I’ll be keeping active in and out of the kitchen. 

It is a great story because it shows that good cooking is accessible to many and that one doesn’t have to be a trained chef to cook good food.

There is a message for the industry in noting that new products aren’t necessarily new items. To a well-traveled man such as Mr. Oakley, his exploration of beets and avocado is just beginning. Maybe we sometimes forget that many things old are new to someone else. There is probably a lesson there for our marketing and merchandising.

If anyone is interested in supporting Mr. Oakley’s dream of an 18-wheeler serving as a mobile cooking station to help the hungry, you can e-mail us here and we will pass it on.

Plus, we want first dibs on reservations at the New York restaurant that is in the planning stages. Come 2012, hopefully, a whole group from The New York Produce Show and Conference will be there to sample some of Charles Oakley’s produce-centric recipes.

If you would like to see Charles Oakley cooking up a storm, please register for The New York Produce Show and Conference right here.

Hotels are available at the link.

Travel discounts galore can be found here .

And opportunities to sponsor and exhibit at this incredible event can be found here.

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