Keith Rudolf’s first order of business upon becoming the Phillies’ head chef was removing the kegerator from the clubhouse. “I thought I was gonna get my head torn off, but nobody seemed to notice,” he says. The 44-year old then experimented with other changes. Ruffles turned into avocado oil chips. Reese’s became Justin’s. Ultimately, his corner of Citizens Bank Park stopped looking like an extension of its concession stands and became just what the Rudolf had envisioned: the world’s fanciest dorm room, albeit one that’s being used by new millionaires who occasionally have to be reminded not to add ketchup to their Bolognese.
Not so long ago, sports stars would drink alcohol at halftime and spit tobacco in post-game interviews. And while some teams like the Dodgers and Mariners had their own chefs, most baseball players paid for catered pre-game meals through their union dues. But when the players re-negotiated their contract ahead of the 2017 season, they decided they no longer wanted to foot the bill, regardless of who they played for. That was just fine with Major League Baseball, which decided it was a way to get their elite athletes to stop eating like garbage. Each team then hired someone like Rudolf, whose job is part of the ongoing trend across professional sports toward keeping players under a more watchful nutritional eye to optimize their performance.
“The more they’re under our supervision the less they’re out in Philadelphia being 22 years old,” Rudolf says.
Sick of working 100-hour weeks in restaurants, Rudolf eagerly interviewed with the front office for the job and accepted it two weeks before the start of the 2017 season. Although it’s a dream position for a guy from Bucks County, it hasn’t been without its challenges. “When I first started, there were a lot of older guys who didn’t care about nutrition,” Rudolf says. “It was a little awkward at first. I made a lot of grilled ham and cheese sandwiches.” Players would bring in massive quantities of fried chicken and eat it right in front of him.
Rudolf compared notes with chefs from the Flyers and Eagles about how to meet his guys in the middle. That ultimately meant keeping boxes of Cinnamon Toast Crunch next to the granola, and making the dinner menu deceptively healthy rather than overtly so. A recent post-game dinner sounded like something that could give a medieval king gout — barbecue pork ribs, roasted lamb chops, grilled chicken legs, and roasted chicken wings. But it also came with spiced salmon and grilled vegetables, for health.
It’s been important for Rudolf to create a place where the guys “can hang out and feel extremely confident.” Given that many of them are in their early 20s, that has meant continuously playing MTV’s Ridiculousness on one of three flat-screen TVs. He also tries to mix things up by bringing in high-end catering three or four nights a week. “When someone says ‘foodie,’ I just hear ‘douchebag,’” he says. Still, recent caterers have included Fishtown favorite Laser Wolf, and in the past, he’s brought in dinners from 1225RAW, Kensington Quarters, and Ember & Ash.
Although Rudolf doesn’t let restaurateurs post anything about their visit to the clubhouse on social media, he lets them pitch the team on their place. And given that none of the players are actually from the Philly area, Rudolf enjoys letting them learn about the restaurants that he likes. He turned formerly landlocked Oklahomans onto Royal Izakaya and sent some of the Latin players to check out South Philly Barbacoa. A running list of what he calls “Philly’s Phinest Restaurants” hangs by the door.
Rudolf’s in the clubhouse six days a week cooking, prepping, or receiving massive quantities of produce from Whole Foods. But he’s also an IRL Yelp for the Phillies players. “If the guys are off on a Monday, I’m gonna be fielding questions all weekend like, ‘I have family in town and want to know [whether] to take them to Pat’s or Geno’s,’” he says. “I tell them that would be like visiting Rome and going to McDonald’s.”
Even if there’s no more fast food, there is still some room for treats under Rudolf’s reign. There’s a cubby in the team’s locker room filled with Sour Patch Kids, Nerds, and Hi-Chews. Team favorite Miller Lite is still on deck for those who really want it. “Instead of letting them help themselves, we dish it out and bartend,” Rudolf says.
Meanwhile, the kegerator has returned to the clubhouse. These days, though, two kinds of kombucha and cold brew come out of its taps.