The Nats and nutrition

June 6, 2013
Nationals clubhouse chef Faisal Sultani. (courtesy fo Clubhouse Cuisine)
Nationals clubhouse chef Faisal Sultani. (courtesy fo Clubhouse Cuisine)

Faisal Saltani has been the Nationals’ clubhouse chef for the past two seasons, and every day he’s charged with the task of feeding a team full of hungry athletes. It’s not an easy task, but Sultani, affectionately called “Bear” by the players, puts a lot of thought and research into each day’s menu.

“Variety and health consciousness are the two biggest things I think about,” he told me. “The last thing I want the players to do is get bored with what we’re serving them.”

Sultani, who also runs a catering company called Clubhouse Cuisine, gets input from the players, and pays attention to what they like and what they’re less receptive to in order to keep the menu attractive. He knows which players have dietary restrictions, and caters to others who simply have food aversions. If a particular dish has an ingredient that he knows a player doesn’t like, he’ll set aside some without that ingredient so that everyone feels included in the meal. But not every request gets honored.

“If they tell me that they want something unhealthy, 99 percent of the time I’m not going to make it,” he told me. “I’ll just tell them, ‘Come on. You know better than that.’ Sometimes I’ll try to find a solution in the middle.

“It’s finding a balance where they’re satisfied,” he continued. “And they don’t eat junk food when they leave the clubhouse. Or they don’t stop on the way in and get something from somewhere else, thinking that day’s food is going to be boring. I always want to keep them excited about what’s coming next.”

Sultani posts the clubhouse menu on his blog each week, available to anyone interested in what their favorite athletes are eating. Tuesday’s meal before the Mets game included grilled chicken parmesan, buttery orzo, grilled asparagus and carrot salad. In the past week, fish tacos, braised short ribs and beef carbonado have made menu appearances.

“I think the overall outlook is that we’re able to eat healthy on a daily basis,” said Tyler Clippard, who told me that he has seen an improvement in the food quality. “That’s helping us get through a grueling season, and nutrition is a big part of that. The variations of what Bear does to make it taste good, even when the food is healthy, is pretty good.”

While Sultani and the Nats have fallen into a pretty good food rhythm, it took a while for the relationship between the chef and his players to evolve.

“Last season when I started, they were real hesitant to eat,” Sultani told me. “There was no trust. They didn’t know me, so for my first two months I was kind of figuring the whole thing out. Slowly they trusted me, they trusted the food and they knew that it was good. And then they became more receptive and more open to eating more variety.”

Sultani told me that he hasn’t made many things that the players weren’t eager to eat, although a coq au vin last season didn’t go over well, mostly due to the dish’s heaviness on a 110 degree day.

“They’re real simple eaters, but as a group they’re pretty easy to please,” said the chef, who considers it an educational process for everyone involved. “They’re learning and eating things for the first time. I made for them cous cous and they were like, ‘What is this?’ A lot of the guys knew what it was, but some didn’t. So they’d try it and were like, ‘Oh, it’s delicious.’ Now they get excited to see it.”

Sultani was reluctant to speak about particular players’ eating habits, but Ryan Zimmerman, who listed sushi as one of his favorites, said there are few things offered that he wouldn’t be willing to try.

“Having Bear in there, the food they make is unbelievable, and to know you’re going to come in here and get nutritious food is great,” said the Nats third baseman. “I eat lunch here every day, just because I know we’re going to have a good meal and it’s healthy. It makes it easier to eat well when you have guys like that.”

Adam LaRoche is another Sultani fan, so much so that the first baseman invited the chef to cook for his family on his ranch in Kansas during the offseason. And this season in the clubhouse, Sultani has been serving beef from LaRoche’s cattle.

Using high-quality ingredients is important to Sultani, and thanks to nutrition education, the players see the value in it as well.

“The last three or four years, I’ve really started taking care of myself a bit more,” Zimmerman said. “I think from age 20-24, you really don’t have to worry about much. You can do whatever you want and eat whatever you want and you don’t really notice. Not that I’m old, but as I’m getting older, you have to learn how to take care of your body, especially the amount of games we play. It’s a grind.”

Sultani considers the Nats food program one of the best in the league, and credits the team’s commitment to nutrition for his ability to offer a high-quality menu to the players.

“You know, it’s an evolution,” he said of the continuing effort keep players healthy. “This year we added a little more, and it grows every year.”

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