An Inside Look at What It's Like to Be a Chef of an MLB Team
We recently caught up with Blue Jays executive chef Nigel Batson to get the ins and outs of his job, and to find out what players from Josh Donaldson to Jose Bautista enjoy eating.
Photo by Daily VICE
They spend more than half the year at the ballpark, training, playing and perfecting their craft. For the Blue Jays, success not only comes from a combination of hard work and discipline, but also in the form of a healthy eating style. The man responsible for the latter part is the team's executive chef Nigel Batson, who's in his eighth year with the organization.
VICE Sports recently caught up with Batson and some Blue Jays to find out what an MLB chef's job is like, and what the players enjoy eating.
One of the first things we wanted to know is where does one start when planning hundreds of menus to feed million-dollar, high-performance athletes?
"I do things a bit backwards," says Batson. "I start with the vegetables, so maybe it's broccoli one day, beets another day, glazed carrots. Then, I pick my starches—rice, gluten-free pasta, couscous, quinoa, spaghetti squash, stuff like that and keep going from there."
We'll leave it to your imagination when it comes to the length of his shopping list but no matter how hard he plans ahead, there's always a curveball.
"Every day is a special request. Sometimes I get them through text messages," Batson says.
One of the biggest challenges, Batson finds, is accommodating the taste buds of players from around the world.
"I have a lot of requests for things like papaya in a smoothie," he says. "It's something that's easy to get in the middle of the summer but in the start of April, in Canada, it can be a little harder."
Sushi seems to be a grab-and-go staple for most guys on the team, being served every other day during each homestand. Along with a wide spread of fruits, veggies, shakes and cereal, Batson makes sure the players have plenty to choose from.
"They're here for six months and would get bored eating the same thing every day. Guys eat really well at home and they want to be able to eat the same way here," he says.
In an effort to make things easier for everyone, Batson hands out food preference cards at the start of the season, giving players an opportunity to specify likes, dislikes and pregame-meal preference. These nuggets of information help him better prepare meals throughout the season.
Batson's days often include last-minute trips to the store to make sure one of the Jays' stars has exactly what he needs to swing a hot bat.
"Josh Donaldson came in and asked for a couple slices of pepperoni pizza before the game, 'because it gives me knocks,'" Batson says. "When your MVP asks you for anything, you jump. You jump as high as you possibly can. So I ran. These guys are low maintenance, especially Josh, so when he does ask for something you want to make sure you do it for him."
While the fans might never see him around the ballpark, Batson is usually the first to arrive and last to leave.
"There's something magical about the fact that I'm underneath the stands and I can hear 50,000 people going crazy upstairs," he says. "That gets you going, it's special. When you see what goes on behind the scenes, it makes you an even bigger baseball fan."
Wondering what baseball's biggest sluggers like to load up on before and after a game? We got the lowdown...
Josh Donaldson—His favourite pregame meals are a tuna melt, a buffalo chicken wrap with hot sauce, or cheeseburgers. He eats a lot during the day but not much postgame. And, according to Batson, his postgame ritual includes a big glass of 2% milk with oatmeal cookies crumbled inside.
Edwin Encarnaction—Chef Nigel tells us he's a bit of a picky eater and loves when his mom is in town so she can make him home-cooked meals. He also loves eating a big plate of watermelon, especially on a hot summer day.
Jose Bautista—He loves Batson's signature crepes. "He came in one day and asked if I could make crepes so I took the pancake batter and thinned them a little," Batson explains. "I figured I'd do a dozen just to start it off but ended up going through two massive bags of pancake mix to make 40 or 50 banana Nutella crepes. Usually nine times out of ten he'll go with some egg whites with vegetables and then a few crepes on the side."
Joey Bats' Soup
For Bautista, comfort trumps superstition when it comes to his game-day appetite.
"I like making sure that I'm happy and have a full tummy. Happy person," Bautista says. "I don't really associate success or failure with the food that I eat but I do like having a good attitude and feeling good about that. I think those two correlate."
In terms of Batson's culinary skills, Bautista couldn't say enough good things. He's appreciative of the extra effort Batson puts in to make sure the guys are well taken care of.
"I think he dug up an old family recipe to make me lentil soup," Bautista says. "I told him I had been eating it a lot in the offseason last year and when we showed up for the season this year, he started making it for me."
The kitchen area also plays host to a ping-pong table so with a clubhouse full of professional athletes, the competition on and off the field is fierce. Batson likes to get in on the ping-pong action. While his game could use some fine-tuning, Bautista credits his favourite chef for always being a good sport.
"He has the ability to not lose badly," Bautista says. "He's not great. He thinks he is but he's definitely one of the ones who needs to work on his game. He hasn't beat a lot of people, but he tries."
You might be surprised to learn that Kevin Pillar has been crowned a champion in the Blue Jays' kitchen—a rib-eating champion.
"I do look forward to rib day and I have been known to eat 51 ribs. It's a record right now and I challenge anyone to try to beat that," Pillar confidently says.
When it comes to game-day rituals, Pillar keeps things simple, but throws in a treat from time to time.
"I'm not superstitious," he says. "I eat fairly healthy to begin with so the transition here isn't too tough for me. I do like dessert so I definitely indulge in the offseason and when we're on the road."
When asked about his favourite ballpark concession item, he didn't hesitate for a second. "Dodger dog, that's what I grew up on."
The Joe Biagini Sandwich
Within his first week in The Show, Joe Biagini made a name for himself both on and off the field. He made an entrance in the kitchen with a special request that left him with his very own sandwich.
"You get spoiled," he says. "You don't want to get used to it but you also don't want to go back to the old stuff."
His signature sandwich is made up of balsamic, olive oil, prosciutto, salami, and provolone cheese with banana peppers. Rumour has it, the sandwich made the "Special of the Day" board after receiving rave reviews.
"Sandwich Man has been thrown around a few times in the clubhouse," Biagini says. "The scouts were a little nervous about me being able to make the transition from baseball player to sandwich connoisseur, but I just have a great appreciation for good sandwiches."