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March 22, 2001

The chef de mission

Most know Charles Oakley isn't afraid to get dirty on the court. Few realize, however, he can roll up his sleeves and dish it out with great aplomb in the kitchen as well

Dave Feschuk
National Post

The fourth of five parts

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When business is booming at Charles Oakley's favourite post-game hangout, the Toronto Raptors forward is always sure to get a table. But it's not simply his status as a multi-millionaire athlete that earns him speedy seating -- it's also his penchant for pitching in with the cooking.

"When we're busy, Charles actually goes in the kitchen and asks Jean-Paul, the chef: 'Hey, you need some help?' " says Doran Major, one of the proprietors of Muse Bistro and Wine Bar in Toronto's theatre district. "And he's not kidding. He can put on a real cooking exhibition."

Oakley has carved a 16-year NBA career with elbows as sharp as Ginsu knives. But while he is well-known for slicing rivals, it is a rarely reported fact that his culinary skills are as keen as his court sense. Witness the Super Bowl party he held for friends and teammates in January: No pizza boxes darkened the door of Oakley's condominium in Toronto's tony Yorkville neighbourhood; the bachelor host prepared a menu that included barbecued pork chops, fried chicken, potato salad, string beans, black-eyed peas and rice.

And witness Muse Bistro's Charles Oakley evening a couple weeks back, wherein the Raptor commandeered the kitchen of chef Jean-Paul Michaud to conjure a five-course meal for 46 regulars, among them Toronto Argonauts coach Mike (Pinball) Clemens and Raptors guard Chris Childs.

The centrepiece was Oakley's famous meatloaf. ("It's famous in these parts -- it's not like regular meatloaf," says Lebert Williams, another Muse Bistro proprietor.) But there was plenty more on the menu. There was baked chicken. ("It was marinated 24 hours in jerk seasoning, but not too spicy, with lots of garlic," Michaud says.) There was a seafood platter with shrimp, clams and mussels, not to mention Oakley's favourite post-game dish, Chilean sea bass.

And there was still more: a creamy corn dish and a bowl of chicken noodle soup topped off with apple pie la mode. But folks kept eating, giving Oakley an end-of-the-night ovation when he emerged from his six-hour stint in the kitchen.

"Everything disappeared," says Danny Khani, the resident sous-chef. "There was nothing left over."

When news of Oakley's culinary skills are met with a hint of amazement, he almost seems offended.

"It ain't the first time I cooked," he sniffs.

Indeed, hospitality is something of a family hobby: When the Raptors travel to his hometown of Cleveland, the entire team is treated to a hearty spread by Oakley's mother, Corine. When Oakley is in New York City, he often entertains friends and family at Little Jezebel, the restaurant he owns with, among others, hoops legend Julius (Dr. J) Erving and actors Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes.

And when Oakley was being courted by the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks in his free-agent summer of 1999, he invited Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy for lunch at his home in the Big Apple suburb of White Plains, N.Y.

Van Gundy, who arrived to find Oakley had prepared a six-course spread, left confused about who was wooing whom. "My wife doesn't even cook like this," the coach said.

Few professional athletes cook like Oakley, who has been nicknamed Chef by former teammate Kevin Willis, and who credits the 20 years he's spent living on his own for his knack in the kitchen. But two decades of doing it his way have made him an exacting consumer.

"The first time I ever took him out for a meal, he sent his meal back," says Dave Robbins, his coach at Virginia Union University. "It wasn't cooked properly or it had onions on it or something -- he gets his meals right."

Says Bo Bailey, a college friend: "He made me drive back to McDonald's over a burger once -- he said it wasn't cooked all the way. I was laughing, but I went back. You didn't mess with him and his food."

This is part of the Oakley ethic. Since he considers no job beneath him -- since he's been known to help out with a meal in friends' kitchens or with a sponge at one of the car washes he owns -- he cuts slack for neither the burger flipper nor the gourmet master.

But Oakley isn't necessarily a nightmare customer; he's also known as a generous tipper.

When the Lakers discussed his free-agent interests back in '99, for instance, they housed both him and his agent, Billy Diamond, in penthouse suites in Beverly Hills. But when it came time to check out, Oakley plunked down his credit card for both rooms, even though it was understood the Lakers would be splurging.

"It was unbelievable," Diamond says. "He didn't want the Lakers to think he was using them; that he had no intention of signing with them and was just coming out there for a good time ... He's always lived by that kind of principle."

He has always lived as a bachelor, too, and friends suggest Oakley -- as good a house husband as he would make -- isn't likely to get hitched any time soon. He has a son in Tallahassee, Fla., also named Charles, whom he sees often in the off-season. But matrimony, Robbins says, is something of a long shot: "I kid him sometimes: 'We're looking forward to the wedding,' " the coach laughs. "And he'll grumble: 'I haven't met the right one.' He's not real talkative about that. I would say he's set in his way. And if I was a betting man, I would say probably the odds are 70-30 that he won't."

Says Warren Williams Sr., Oakley's godfather: "Oh, he'll get married. He just needs to find the right woman."

What Oakley doesn't need is a recipe book. He says he cooks mostly from memory -- from the wisdom he's gleaned from his mother and the chefs at his favourite restaurants -- so the secrets of his famous meatloaf promise to remain his alone.

"I know how food should taste," he says. "I know how food should be prepared, how it should be served ... It's simple. I know what I like."

OAKSPEAK:

On a low-ball contract offer from management

"It's like bringing eggs to a barbecue."

On a failed comeback

"It's just like having a cookout, cooking a lot of food, having something left. You have a cookout and you hope you eat up all the food."

After two straight losses this season

"Right now, we're down to our last piece of cake. It's kinda hard, so we've got to find a way to get it back right, get a new Duncan Hines and make a fresh one."