When the Nationals are on the road, Sultani keeps busy with cooking classes and private events. He also lives in Los Angeles, and the cross-country commute gives him plenty of time to ponder menu options.
Repetition is one of the chef’s biggest obstacles. In 84 home dates last season, he served 120 different dishes. He’s loath to serve the same meal twice in a month. That doesn’t include frequent special requests. One player asked for salt-and-pepper catfish last season. Meatball subs and grilled chicken sandwiches are popular, too. The ability to order most anything, Sultani believes, helps hold fast food temptations in check and, at least, allows him to control what players put in their bodies.
He cooks nine meals at a time starting at 12:30 p.m. for a night game to avoid piles of food coagulating under heat lamps. Each of the “special needs” meals are made to order. Players drift in and out of the dining room. Some still insist on using disposable plates. Old habits are difficult to break.
The food has grown bolder, more adventurous as players opened up to Sultani. Influenced, in part, by his Lebanese heritage, the chef likes using cumin and Mediterranean flavors like olives and capers. Harissa-braised short ribs. Couscous. Tapenades. Moroccan-spiced chicken kabobs. Lentils.
There’s still room for full-fledged barbecue dinners and hamburger bars and LaRoche’s steaks with every trimming imaginable. Sultani figures 80 percent of the food is healthy, but he wants to stave off culinary boredom. Subtle, unadvertised changes keep things leaner. Skim milk in chicken pot pie. Rice milk to make gravy for chicken-fried steak. Low-fat mozzarella and no oil in chicken parmigiana.
All from scratch, whenever possible.
“The whole goal is for things to be fresh and vibrant,” Sultani said. “We try to avoid using anything processed. … I tell them not to eat things that start with W, X or Z or have a number after them. It’s probably not good for you.”
LaRoche noticed. That’s why he invited Sultanti to his “middle of nowhere” ranch to cook for five weeks before spring training. Each offseason, he tries to put on weight to prepare for the pounds he sheds each summer. The demands of ranch life and a propensity to forget to eat made that tougher than an overcooked rib-eye. Food, after all, matters.
“Nothing against my wife,” LaRoche said, “but she doesn’t compare to a professional chef’s cooking.”
•Rich Campbell contributed to this report.