Feb. 3—Nysier Brooks is 7 feet tall. He looks like an NBA player, and could wind up being one.
But what he really wants to do the rest of his life is cook.
The University of Miami senior center is happiest hovering over a stove, in his apron, whipping up cajun catfish, lemon-pepper fried chicken, mac and cheese, lamb chops with honey-lemon glaze, and his original creation, the salmon cheesesteak, a twist on the traditional Philly cheesesteak.
Brooks dreams of becoming a chef, owning a restaurant, and teaching culinary skills to disadvantaged youth, as he has been doing through an internship with Empowered Youth, a non-profit mentoring organization for at-risk kids, mainly referred through the juvenile justice system. They have a culinary program, which allows Brooks, 24, to combine his love of cooking with his deep commitment to serve the community.
During the pandemic quarantine, he posted live cooking demonstrations on his Instagram account. Known for his engaging personality, Brooks has been urged to do a cooking show someday, and maybe name it “The 7-Foot Chef.”
Word about his cooking has gotten around the Hurricanes athletic department. Brooks has cooked for teammates and other UM athletes.
“One day I do plan on being able to be fortunate to own a restaurant or something where I can be in the kitchen working, have some people working for me, and giving back to the community by training young people to get jobs in kitchens,” Brooks said. “There are a lot of people in the world who like cooking and this can be their outlet.”
Brooks grew up with 10 siblings and cooked for them while his mother worked multiple housekeeping jobs. His grandmother taught him how to cook from the time he was tall enough to look over the stove into the pan.
“My grandma taught me how to make eggs and I started experimenting on my own,” Brooks said. “I learned how to cook fried chicken, and I love it, but can’t have it anymore because I have to stay fit now. But when family events come around, I try to show out.”
Since he joined the Hurricanes in 2019, he has been sharing his love of the kitchen with inner-city young men. The Empowered Youth program in 2010 launched a Culinary Career Track, which offers culinary class once a week taught by a professional chef.
There is also a culinary arts employment program that takes place in Wynwood, where students are trained in everything from taking orders to table settings to working in food trucks. About 90 percent of the students go on to work in the Miami hospitality industry.
Brooks did such a good job at the internship that the director of the program wrote to UM and requested that he continue another semester.
“We try to teach the kids how to have skills to work in a restaurant, but also life skills, like how to interact with people,” Brooks said. “Some people may have a little hostility in their voice when they order at a restaurant, and certain kids don’t take that the right way. Like if someone ordered tacos with no avocado and you bring it with avocado, the customer might say something insulting. We teach them that’s not a big deal, don’t let that intercept who you’re trying to become. It’s a nice program. I really love it.”
Brooks said the program is also expanding his culinary skills. Last week, he learned how to make fettuccine pasta from scratch and how to make beignets.
“We’re teaching kids it’s fun to be in the kitchen, it’s time to get away from whatever’s going on,” Brooks said. “That’s how I am when I’m at the stove. I just throw the music up, some R&B love songs, sit back and have fun. Tuesday night we were teaching the kids to cut, slice, chop, and keep everything clean. If you’re in a restaurant, this is how it works, this is the pace you need to learn.”
He said cooking provides a release from the pressure he feels on the basketball court.
“When I’m on the court, I’m moving with aggression, trying to dominate,” he explained. “When I cook, I’m chill, I’m relaxed.”
Brooks loves grocery shopping and urges teammates to eat healthier, more economically, and to meal prep for the week. “Some guys walk into the store, go straight to the snack aisle, and I’m like, ‘You haven’t even seen the real food yet, the fish, the vegetables.’ We’re athletes, we need to move, have energy. When quarantine started, I cooked all my own food. It was cheaper and my energy level was much higher.”
UM recruited Brooks in high school, but he chose Cincinnati. UM coach Jim Larranaga and assistant Adam Fisher called to wish him the best, even though he chose another school. Other coaches questioned his decision, and he never forgot it. After a coaching change at Cincinnati, he transferred to Miami.
The Canes (7-10, 3-9 ACC) have struggled this season with a rash of injuries. Brooks averages six points, six rebounds, and brings loads of energy.
“He plays like he cooks, with energy and emotion,” Fisher said. “He’s a huge, positive leader for us. His ability to stay positive and bring energy to practice when the energy’s low picks everyone up. He always claps and cheers for others.”
“Nysier is all about helping others,” Larranaga said. “He is special and will be a major contributor to society. He already is.”