WKU defensive end tackles culinary arts

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Allie Hendricks

C.J. Marria begins his weekly meal prep Thursday night, Nov. 11, 2021. Marria was gifted a cutting board (right) from his mom inscribed with with title, Chef C. He uses it as decoration and a way to plate the food he cooks.

Wyatt Sparkman, Football reporter

The breakout performances of Houston Baptist transfers Bailey Zappe and Jerreth Sterns have dominated WKU Football’s spotlight all season. What fans may not know is that defensive end CJ Marria has been cooking all year too – not just on the field, but in the kitchen as well.

Marria, also known as “Chef C,” has taken advantage of the Name, Image and Likeness Law that was passed on June 24 via executive order by Governor Andy Beshear. The law requires all Kentucky colleges to allow their student athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness.

“I thought it was a genius idea,” Marria said. “I thought it was something that was well overdue, just for college athletics. I thought it was something that probably should have been around, but I was excited about it.”

The NIL law has allowed Marria to become a private chef, cooking meals out of his apartment to cater small events like anniversaries, birthday parties and game nights. His number one customer is his roommate, Lichon Terrell.

“When he cooks, it’s just him in his zone,” Terrell said.

Marria developed his love of cooking back home in Jonesboro, Georgia, watching his grandma cook. His grandparents grew up in “down south Georgia,” and his grandma cooked for holidays and family get- togethers. Seeing his grandma prepare meals for hours really stuck with him and built a connection between food and family.

“How I grew up, we associate food with family,” Marria said. “Food was always a happy thing. So family reunions, with holidays, I saw the connection with food.”

His grandma is one of his biggest supporters, and he still asks her about different recipes and different meals.

Marria started cooking around ninth grade when he would get home from football practice while his mom was at work. His mom would go to the grocery store every week to buy him things to cook when he got home.

The first meal Marria was confident in making by himself was breakfast.

“My mom on the weekends was like ‘you want to make breakfast this morning?’ and I was like ‘yeah,’” Marria said. “Sausage, bacon, eggs, grits, just whatever breakfast food we had. That was probably the first thing that I completely got on a plate and heard it’s pretty good.”

Once he started making more complicated dishes, he would post his food on social media. He said the support he received got his wheels turning about potentially starting a cooking business. He finally got the chance to start his business once the NIL law passed in the summer.

C.J. Marria’s Cajun pasta with jumbo shrimp and lobster tail rests on his kitchen counter. (Allie Hendricks)

“It started with just me making wings,” Marria said. “I used to make wings every week. It started with just my teammates. They would come by, give me $10 and I would make them a wing plate.”

With Marria working by himself and still balancing school and football, he can only take on small orders for around 20 people.

“I make time to cook because it’s something I enjoy doing,” Marria said. “So of course football and school, that comes first, and then as of right now cooking is third on my list.”

“When I do have free time, I’m in the kitchen,” Marria continued. “It’s kind of hard right now during the season of course but I try to cook at least once a week just to get in the kitchen and make something, just to have stuff to post on Instagram, different content [to] put a little money in my pocket during the season.”

He uses his Instagram page, @chefc_kitchen1, to promote his business. His posts have garnered attention from more than just friends and family.

“I ended up getting a NIL deal from my Instagram page,” Marria said. “I reached out to a couple companies, and I ended up getting to deal with Slap Ya Mama Seasoning. That was my first big step as far as my cooking, my business, my page and all that stuff. Once I did that, it just continued to grow.”

Marria is appreciative of the opportunity that Slap Ya Mama gave him. The company sends him different products and he promotes them when he posts his meals on social media.

He said his best seller would be his wings, but due to wing shortages in stores, his pasta has become his hot ticket item.

“I haven’t made wings in a while,” Marria said. “I know my folks be mad at me about that one, but it’s hard because they don’t have any.”

A lot of Marria’s teammates have sampled his food and have continued to come back for more.

“CJ’s food is bustin’, as we say in the south,” WKU linebacker Jaden Hunter said.

WKU defensive coordinator Maurcie Crum said hasn’t had Marria’s food yet because every time he tries to order, Marria is sold out.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Crum said. “He keeps saying ‘I got you coach, I got you coach.’ I guess I’m late on social media. So by the time I see it and call him he’s like, ‘I’m out.’ So it goes fast. It goes fast.”

Marria took on an internship with the Fresh Food Company on WKU’s campus over the summer. He worked under their head chefs and said it was “probably the most I’ve learned.” After he finishes his collegiate career, he plans to go to culinary school.

“Culinary school is definitely my next step after college, just to refine my skills and just take the next step as far as becoming a chef, a real chef,” Marria said. “And not just somebody that can cook. I throw the chef in front of my name a lot, but I know I’m not there yet. But I’m gonna be.”

Football reporter Wyatt Sparkman can be reached at steve. [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @wyattsparkman3.