The best time to ask a clubhouse attendant to grab a couple of Big Macs from the McDonald's up South Capitol Street from Nationals Park is not when the clubhouse chef is within earshot.
Last month's request from an unnamed member of the Nationals threw Faisal Sultani into action.
"Are you crazy?" Sultani remembered telling the attendant. "Do not go get him that burger."
Instead, the team's second-year executive chef, known in the clubhouse as "Bear" because of his large frame, made a Big Mac-style hamburger for the player. The ground beef, free of hormones and antibiotics and steroids, came from first baseman Adam LaRoche's E3 Ranch in southeast Kansas. And, for another day, fast food was kept out of the clubhouse.
"He loved it," Sultani said. "At the end of the day, the happier they are the easier it is for everyone else. If they lose a game, at least they know dinner is going to be good."
He mopped sweat from his forehead as he related the story, interrupted by sips from glasses of water and iced coffee. Sultani had just finished breaking down the last of LaRoche's shipment of 800 pounds of Black Angus beef. Two cows worth of steaks and roasts and filets crammed into two freezers at Nationals Park. That'll last two months. Maybe.
"Some days you can't keep up with them," the 35-year-old tasked with feeding the Nationals at home said. "Some days they're just there to eat."
That's not as simple as it sounds. The clubhouse is packed with diverse diets, dislikes, whims and quirks. Low sodium. No tomatoes. All organic everything. No mushrooms. Gluten free. No mayonnaise (garlic puree or mashed avocados instead). The pitcher who eats only a small bowl of unadorned spaghetti or linguine before each start. No onions. Dairy free. Various pregame protein shakes and smoothies. The list is committed to Sultani's memory after a litany of conversations, awkward glances and doctor's charts.
The clubhouse dining room is a haven of sorts, off-limits to media and the hub of food's role in the clubhouse culture. That's a natural extension of spending 11 or 12 hours in the same place each day 81 times per year. It's Sultani's domain, one he helped transform from a place that used disposable plates and cutlery for steam-table catered meals into one with actual plates and silverware where food is regarded as a crucial element of training.
"When he came in it was a huge help to us," reliever Tyler Clippard said. "Before it was the cookie-cutter pizzas and sandwiches and stuff like that. Over time, I think the organization saw the negative effects of not eating as well as we should be eating at home."
Sultani grew up in Fairfax oblivious to baseball, attended boarding school in England, then scored his first restaurant job at 192, an establishment in London's Notting Hill Gate. The nomadic life found direction at culinary school in New York City. Positions at top-shelf Washington eateries like Brasserie Beck, Marcel's and Vidalia followed.
All that led to the sandwich. Grilled cheese, to be exact. That was the first special request Sultani received from a player, after six weeks of players eyeing his food suspiciously. He'd never cooked a sandwich as a chef. Another request came for peanut butter and jelly.
"At first they didn't talk to me," Sultani said. "They didn't know me and they didn't trust. They'd just stare at the food. Now they're just eating machines."
These days, the chef arrives at Nationals Park at 9 a.m. for a 7 p.m. game. He's responsible for feeding 50 people, but makes enough food for 75. That's critical when beef stroganoff is served, a team favorite that requires 100 pounds of beef in one day. There never seems to be enough.
Each day's menu is posted on Sultani's blog so team nutritionist Leslie Bonci can check what's being served. There's lunch or breakfast with plenty of protein. A post-batting practice snack like lemon-pepper roasted drumsticks or grilled buffalo chicken wraps. Then postgame dinner and frequent to-go plates for players. On a normal night, Sultani is home by 11:30 p.m.
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.
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