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    In Year 3 at USC, ‘Chef Tahj’ Washington is cooking defenses like never before
    • October 27, 2023

    Over a flame, a spatula in hand and a red “Chef Tahj” apron draped across a lithe frame, Tahj Washington is an artist.

    His menu is varied, careful impressionistic strokes, everything from soul food to Louisiana and Italian-style meals. The crown jewel is his chicken alfredo, so gas, as fellow USC wide receiver Brenden Rice gushed, that mother Shanon Kuykendall prefers it to Olive Garden.

    The key is a flavor mix Rice simply calls the “Tahj kick.” And spices are Washington’s brushes, a jar in his kitchen filled with a blend of paprika and cayenne and parsley and secrets a good chef never reveals – “that’s all I’m gon’ give y’all,” he grins at the camera in one 2022 video posted to his YouTube channel. He blends colors within the canvas of his saucepan, carefully coating roasting shrimp in heavy cream and mixing to a light tan, paying close attention to regulate his desired pigment.

    He started cooking when he was 6 years old, Kuykendall working two jobs and raising Washington and a little brother within a large Texan family. She’d bring her sons and their cousins to the grocery store and tell them it’s on y’all this week, and kids being kids they all set off grabbing snacks.

    Except for Washington.

    “I just wanted to go for the ingredients,” he smiled, “to make something new.”

    He is beloved in the USC locker room, not just for his cooking, and in complete authenticity. Players’ eyes light up when they speak of him as a teammate: day in and day out, Rice said, “everything you want in a player.” Three years into his USC career, after a slightly messy transfer from Memphis, Washington is the old guard in a stuffed-to-the-brim receivers room, a sage senior in college speaking with a senior citizen’s wisdom.

    “Everybody got problems,” Washington said, simply, after Wednesday’s practice. “So just knowing how to deal with those, going through those, kinda help giving younger guys – that might not be in the position that they want to be in now.”

    He could have been an afterthought in 2022, when new head coach Lincoln Riley took the helm and transfers Mario Williams and Jordan Addison joined the fray. Washington could have been buried on the depth chart in 2023, as a slew of top recruits entered the mix. Instead, he’s been one of the steadiest members in a program in desperate need of stability, far and away USC’s leading receiver through eight games (30 catches, 609 yards, five touchdowns) after a 765-yard season last year.

    The reason is simple, as Riley explained in September: Washington is intentional. He takes incredibly detailed, thorough notes after meetings. He is consistent in his approach to his aspirations – overwhelmingly precise in the kitchen with head chef dreams, overwhelmingly precise on the turf.

    “I feel like he’s a guy that goes out on the practice field every single day with a mindset to go get better, and truly only worries about what he can control,” Riley said. “And doesn’t seem to give any thought to anything else.”

    ‘Humble Beast from the East’

    As a kid, Washington didn’t care much for burgers. Not for pizza. Somehow, not for chicken nuggets. When they’d go out to eat, Kuykendall said, he had more “expensive tastes.” The kid wanted seafood.

    On his YouTube channel “Chef Tahj,” where he has a cooking series titled “No Huddle Kitchen” – now sponsored by meal-kit company HelloFresh in one of the more genius NIL partnerships in college football – Washington has a video titled “Ramen with a twist.” That recipe started when he was young, when he couldn’t be satisfied with eating plain ramen noodles. He started adding cheese, Kuykendall remembered. Then hot links. Spending time with his grandmother, a longtime dietician, he learned recipes.

    The Cooking Channel stayed on the family television. At Marshall High in Texas, where Washington put up numbers but was largely recruited by nearby Southern and Midwest schools, he formed what Shanon called a “Breakfast Club,” where members would chip in and buy ingredients for meals Washington would cook.

    “That is, like, his happy place,” Kuykendall said.

    It all came, Kuykendall felt, from a dislike of simple foods. And to date, the kitchen appears to be Washington’s stage; the setting for flair, a flair absent from much of his football makeup. He operates with a deceptive lack of flash, the polar opposite from gregarious outside receiver Rice, perhaps his most demonstrative moment this entire season coming after a touchdown against Colorado when he gave a slight sprinkle-the-pot celebration in a nod to his chef persona.

    Even his forays into the NIL space in college – that HelloFresh partnership and a deal announced Tuesday with salsa company La Victoria dedicated to stocking USC’s food pantry for students struggling with food insecurity – have been carefully crafted.

    “We call him the ‘Humble Beast from the East,’” Kuykendall said.

    Washington originally arrived at USC, though, from what Shanon called a “conflict of interest” with Memphis after a breakout year in 2020. In March of 2021, the Daily Memphian reported that, according to Kuykendall, Memphis head coach Ryan Silverfield had allegedly called Washington “selfish.”

    “That really, as a parent, was like, ‘Wow, you don’t really know this kid at all – you don’t know him, to even say that? Wow,’” Kuykendall said.

    ‘He’s ready whenever his name is called’

    When Washington first started playing football, Kuykendall remembered, he’d get dressed for games the night before. Football pants. Shoulder pads. Trying to go to sleep with a helmet on his head. She had to wrestle a compromise out of him; he could keep the gear physically tucked under the covers with him while he slept.

    And earnest impatience has carried all the way to USC, where one of Washington’s “Achilles’ heels” was calming himself, particularly when it came to catching deep balls, assistant coach Dennis Simmons said.

    It was something he, himself, saw as an area of growth. So in the summer, Washington said, he got in work from a variety of sources – utilizing a Jugs machine, real-life quarterback Caleb Williams, even tennis balls – to hone technique on a variety of over-the-shoulder and deep-ball routes.

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    It has paid dividends, as this USC receiver room has plenty of playmakers in the flat and across the middle but has noticeably lacked deep outside threats. Rice filled that role more consistently in earlier parts of the season, and Washington stepped in on Saturday in an otherwise-disappointing loss against Utah with a 112-yard performance – including a full-extension diving 52-yard grab on USC’s second drive of the game.

    According to Pro Football Focus, Washington caught just two of 11 deep-ball attempts thrown his way in 2021, his first season at USC. That mark went to seven of 14 last year, and he’s been close to perfect in 2023 in a tangible example of dedicated improvement, catching six of eight such targets.

    He was used most consistently as a short-hit threat in 2021. Now, at 5-foot-11, he’s somehow morphed himself into USC’s most consistent deep-ball target.

    “There’s no questions asked – if Coach wanted him to go to running back and run the ball, he’d do it,” running back MarShawn Lloyd said earlier this season. “He doesn’t have no questions of blocking whoever, he doesn’t have no questions of what route to run – he’s ready whenever his name is called.”

    “And that’s why he’s doing so great right now,” Lloyd continued, “because he’s such a selfless player and he does whatever he needs to do to help the team.”

    ​ Orange County Register