Passionate chef with a big dream dies in Saco River

Dany Omba Mugeni met Abiodun Jerry Olubi in the same way many of his friends did: by eating food he had cooked.

She was dining at 207 Bar and Restaurant in Portland. Olubi was “Chef Jerry.” Friends said he liked to come out of the kitchen to talk to customers about their experience, explain the recipes and meet new people. Olubi, 38, had a passion for cooking and was working to open his own restaurant.

“He fed a lot of people, and he had a lot of friends,” Mugeni, his girlfriend, said. “He wouldn’t let someone stay without eating. You walk in the door, and he would say, here is the food.’”

Olubi drowned Sunday in the Saco River.

Police said a woman at Pleasant Point Park in Buxton saw Olubi fall into the river off a slippery rock outcrop on Sunday afternoon, and she believed he did not know how to swim. He did not resurface after going under water, and a dive team from the Maine Warden Service later recovered his body. Buxton Police Chief Troy Cline did not respond to an email or a voicemail this week asking for additional information.

Mugeni said he went out that afternoon for a meeting about his business plans, but she and others have learned little about the accident.

People who knew Olubi described him as generous with his talents and friendly to everyone. He was born in Benin, a country in West Africa, and later lived in Ivory Coast. Friends estimated that he came to the United States six years ago and moved to Maine at least two years ago.

Antoine Bikamba is one of the owners of 207 Bar and Restaurant, where Olubi worked as a chef last year. He said Olubi was skilled and professional, and he wasn’t surprised when his friend left the business to start his own venture.

“He was a really strong man who came to the United States with a big dream,” Bikamba, 49, said.

Olubi began catering, undeterred by the challenges of the pandemic. His clients included new Mainers who were quarantined at a Scarborough hotel because of  COVID-19. Jayde Biggert, a program associate at the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, said she worked with him to provide culturally appropriates meals to the families there. She remembered that he was eager to help and attentive to specific needs.

“Not everybody can just eat mac ‘n cheese and chicken nuggets,” Biggert said. “You need food that makes you feel connected to home, and he was just so understanding of that and accommodating and would ask me a lot of questions about the people at the shelter. … He would do everything he could to make that experience a little better.”

Clement Yombe, who lives in Auburn, met Olubi at 207 Bar and Restaurant. He remembered the friendly man who could start a conversation with anyone and felt like family to many. Earlier this year, Yombe told Olubi that he was finally going to see his mother in person after months of FaceTime visits because of the pandemic. Olubi immediately offered to cook a meal for the family reunion.

“Jerry was a community man,” Yombe, 48, said.

A memorial to Abiodun Jerry Olubi in his South Portland apartment. Megan Gray/Staff Writer

Olubi was both friend and competitor to Raphael Kabata, who also owns a catering business. Kabata said his wife hired Olubi to cater a surprise birthday party for him this spring because she knew his was the only food that could stand up to her husband’s professional scrutiny. In videos from that gathering, the table is laden with meat, seafood and other dishes.

“I will confess to you that he was a better chef than I was,” Kabata, who lives in Lisbon, said. “I was impressed the first time I tried his food because I thought I could learn from him.”

Marie Pineo, 55, lived downstairs from Olubi in South Portland. He introduced himself by bringing a loaf of brioche to her door, and they became friends over a shared meal. She said he wanted to create a restaurant where the local community could be together, whether they were trying African food for the first time or enjoying a favorite dish.

“He seemed to have this natural knowledge that food could connect him to people,” she said.

Mugeni, 42, said she and Olubi liked to cook together in the apartment they shared, and she avoided the kitchen for days after his death. She scrolled through photos on her phone of dishes he made: a lobster as big as her head, neat rows of samosas, a pink smoothie garnished with fresh fruit, He called her “my queen” and recently surprised her with a romantic getaway to a Portland hotel. She called him “an angel.”

“I’ve never met a man like that, and I don’t know if I ever will meet another one,” she said.

A GoFundMe for funeral expenses has raised more than $3,000 toward a $15,000 goal as of Friday afternoon. Mugeni said Olubi had relatives in the United States and in Africa, and she hopes to transport his body to Benin for a burial in his home country. His friends said they are planning a memorial service, maybe at the restaurant where so many of them met Olubi, when they hoped they would instead be celebrating the opening of his own place.

“The restaurant, everybody was waiting for that,” Kabata said. “Everybody now is lost.”

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