Hidden Maryland: A peek inside the Orioles’ (healthy) clubhouse kitchen

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The latest installment of Hidden Maryland takes you behind the scenes of the Orioles’ clubhouse kitchen, where this season the team is working with a new chef to offer more nutritious and delicious food options to its players.

Hidden Maryland

O’s revamp food service for players in hopes of providing more nutritious options

By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

“Clubhouse” is the perfect word for the space where the Orioles dress before games.

The banter, exchanged from chairs that ring the spacious room, tends toward the pleasantly juvenile. And it’s rare to walk in and not see players hooting their way through games of pool or pingpong.

For many years, the food matched the high-school-cafeteria tone. Players had to settle for platters of cold cuts or trays of carb-heavy dishes. But this year, the Orioles have opted for a more serious, nutrition-conscious approach behind the orange door with the metal kick plate, which leads to the team dining area at Camden Yards.

That space is now the province of chef Jenny Perez, a true believer if there ever was one. Perez was the choice of club vice president Brady Anderson, who has spurred the nutrition overhaul.

Her gospel is one of fresh fruits, brightly hued vegetables and heart-friendly cooking oils. She will not be satisfied until even the most entrenched junk-food addicts are converted.

“It’s because they’ve never been exposed,” she said of the few nutrition-skeptical Orioles. “Once they’re exposed to the brightness, the color, the freshness, it’s a matter of time.”

On a recent evening, one of the nonbelievers (she won’t name names) took one portion and then another of Perez’s lasagna, layered with strips of zucchini rather than heavy white noodles. “That made my day!” the ever-beaming chef said.

Except for the retired jerseys on the wall with names like Robinson and Palmer, the dining space — open to only players and staff — looks like any workplace lunchroom. There are refrigerators stocked with juice and soda, racks of Utz and Sun Chips, multiple coffee pots. But the items on the buffet counter are clearly cooked with love — platters of plump shrimp nestled in stir-fried vegetables, a heaping tray of black beans and rice, bright pink strips of salmon topped with handmade pesto.

“Here, try this,” Perez said before a recent home game, placing a dollop of her pesto on a visitor’s tongue. “There’s no cheese, but you don’t miss it.”

She was right. Notes of fresh basil exploded on the tongue.

“Delicious,” said pitcher Jason Hammel, depositing his empty plate in the wash rack.

A glimpse behind the counter offered a sense of how Perez keeps the Orioles players coming back. The shelves were lined with pink Himalayan salt, Calimyrna figs and barrel-aged mango white grape balsamic vinegar. Perez is a stickler for using interesting salts and oils that, she argues, obviate the need for butter and cream. She rises early to scour local farmers’ markets for her ingredients.

“See how green and nice and ripe everything is,” said first baseman Chris Davis, one of the team’s leading health nuts. “It’s made by real humans.”

Davis used to bring his lunch to the ballpark every day because he regarded the team-provided options as “atrocious.”

“I think this is something everybody loves,” he said of Perez’s revamped menu.

The change began because of another of the team’s most nutrition-conscious players, Brian Roberts. The second baseman met Perez a few years ago, when he regularly bought kale salads and quinoa from the Agora Market in Fells Point, where she cooked. He mentioned her to Anderson.

Perez remembers the day Anderson showed up, looking for “Brian Roberts’ chef.”

“I guess that’s me,” she said.

Anderson, who became the club’s vice president of baseball operations in February, hired Perez to cook privately for him. As it turned out, however, the former Orioles outfielder saw a growing need at Camden Yards.

In his day, most players ate away from the clubhouse. But Anderson saw the new generation arriving earlier for games and taking more meals at the ballpark. Players often eat a midafternoon lunch when they arrive, grab another bite an hour before the first pitch and eat a postgame dinner in the clubhouse.

Given that, Anderson did not see enough healthful options.

“I’m not as fanatical about nutrition as people think, but I just believe you should eat quality food,” he said recently, standing in the tunnel leading to the field.

At age 49, Anderson still shags fly balls with the club’s outfielders and can keep up with 21-year-old Manny Machado in vigorous games of pingpong. So he carries credibility on health issues.

With the encouragement of the Angelos family, he asked Perez to lend her talents to the Orioles’ kitchen. She started work in June. The club also works with nutritionist Sue James, whose other clients include the Ravens.

It’s all about choices, Anderson says. There’s no use in shoving kale and lentils down players’ throats.

“If they want hot dogs, they’re going to have hot dogs,” he said. “But the opportunity to eat well is here, and that’s what’s important.”

Players such as Davis and Roberts shifted eating habits on their own.

As a 21-year-old in the Texas Rangers’ minor league system, Davis got up to 265 pounds and felt lethargic. “I basically ate and drank whatever I wanted, didn’t really care about it,” he said. “I grew up in the South, where we put gravy on everything.”

He roomed with current Orioles teammate Taylor Teagarden, who told him, “Man, you’ve got to change your diet.”

Davis did, replacing fried foods, bread and dairy with lean meats, egg whites and breakfast smoothies of kale, spinach, bananas and almond milk. He might splurge and have pancakes once a week.

“As much as we expect out of our bodies every day, I just think you want to do everything you can,” said Davis, who leads the major leagues with 46 home runs.

Roberts also relies on green smoothies to get him going. “I’ve seen a lot of changes here in the last year,” said the 13-year veteran, looking over the clubhouse. “I think in general, baseball has probably been behind the curve. But I think the guys in here are starting to understand the benefits.”

He lists outfielders Nick Markakis and Adam Jones as the most nutrition-resistant Orioles. Jones is known for tweeting images of hamburgers and other foods Roberts would deem “nonbeneficial.”

The second baseman grinned when asked if Jones would ever change. “You never know,” Roberts said. “But I’d be surprised.”

childs.walker@baltsun.com | twitter.com/ChildsWalker


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