Kenyan rugby player turned TikTok star cooks to fight depression

A former Rugby Sevens international, Ombachi reinvented himself to become a social media star with a global fanbase in just a few years.

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“Done!” — the catchphrase punctuating former rugby player Dennis Ombachi’s cooking videos is as famous as the balcony of the Nairobi apartment where he films himself in action.

A former Rugby Sevens international, Ombachi reinvented himself to become a social media star with a global fanbase in just a few years.

He has 2.3 million followers on TikTok and 1.4 million on Instagram.

Known as “The Roaming Chef”, Ombachi produces dynamically edited videos — shot against the backdrop of the Kenyan capital’s skyline and featuring his trademark monosyllabic commentary — that have earned him the 2022 TikTok award for best African content creator.

It was fitting recognition of his quest to recover his footing after a battle with mental illness.

Feted in his East African homeland for scoring the winning try that took Kenya’s Rugby Sevens team to the Rio 2016 Olympics, Ombachi played the global circuit for a decade, also participating in two World Cups in 2013 and 2018.

But a leg-ankle fracture in 2017 was a turning point.

“It took a toll physically and mentally,” the 33-year-old father-of-two said in an interview with AFP.

“I… made up my mind that this is not something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

– Demons –

It was then that his demons confronted him.

“The depression is something that has always been there, even before I started playing rugby,” he said.

“But it manifested itself more… (during the) later years of my career,” he explained.

He rattled off a list of symptoms — “being socially withdrawn”, “drinking a lot”, “self-harm” — the evidence still visible on his forearm — and “two suicide attempts”.

He was hospitalised several times, before being diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2018.

The diagnosis was initially hard to take but proved to be “a blessing” in retrospect.

“It was able to answer a lot of questions about my life, my personality, my actions, my behaviours, my reactions.”

Cooking has been Ombachi’s constant companion, ever since his trips to Hong Kong, Dubai and Las Vegas for rugby.

“I was good in sports. I was successful,” he said.

But away from the stadium, he felt “a bit empty”.

“Cooking sort of kept me sane, kept me (going) through my depressive periods.”

Inspired by the food he ate during his travels and the videos of British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, he experimented with recipes, ran a culinary blog and offered his services at parties — giving rise to his “Roaming Chef” nickname.

– ‘Don’t outshine the food’ –

Following the Covid-19 pandemic, the decline of his sporting career and the birth of his first child, the self-taught chef turned his full attention to creating videos.

Success, initially on TikTok, came in 2021.

His videos now garner up to 54.6 million views and his balcony has assumed iconic status, playing host to the African 100-metres record holder Ferdinand Omanyala and Afrobeats star Davido.

Ombachi’s secret is to keep the videos “short (and) snappy”.

“No background story like ‘My grandmother taught me this, when I travelled to here’,” he said.

“Make the food the story. Don’t try and outshine the food.”

In 90 seconds, Ombachi strives to show every step of a recipe, whether Kenyan or foreign, by applying Ramsay’s principles: “Use your eyes, nose, taste. Understand the different flavours, how they work together, how they combine together.”

Even his trademark catchphrase “done!” comes from a phrase he heard Ramsay use, which he “unconsciously” picked up.

– ‘Walked the journey’ –

In 2021, Ombachi went public with his diagnosis on what was then Twitter (now X), in a bid to “end the stigma” surrounding mental illness in Kenya.

The country ranks sixth among African nations affected by depressive disorders, the World Health Organization said in 2017.

“I had already walked the journey… I thought ‘It’s time to tell my story. And maybe I can help one or two people’,” he said.

Today, Ombachi, who continues to see a therapist, plays down his struggle, saying: “I’ve never been more happy and productive in my life.”

Besides filming videos, he stages culinary events with food brands, supermarkets, embassies and others.

His dream is to host Gordon Ramsay — a man he has never met but who he regards as his “mentor”, celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck or former US president Barack Obama on his balcony.

He also hopes to open a restaurant as a “legacy” for his children.

“Not now. But it’s the end goal.”

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© Agence France-Presse

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