A large, silver metal trailer greets the Tulsa Drillers in the parking lot at every home and road game. The aroma billowing from within quickly reveals its identity.
Step inside and you’ll find a narrow kitchen marked by cleanliness and adorned by shining cooking utensils, a sturdy iron counter, packed refrigerators and blazing stoves. It gets toasty in there, even threatening 107 degrees on a recent trip to Little Rock, but chefs Rob Dowd and Tim Gant don’t mind.
Dowd has an extensive culinary background working at restaurants in New Jersey, Ohio, Massachusetts, California and Yellowstone National Park. Gant used to cook for Tulsa-area businesses like the Hyatt Regency Downtown hotel and The Club at Indian Springs. Now they’ve teamed up to man the Drillers’ mobile kitchen, providing outstanding nourishment to Tulsa’s minor leaguers at every stop.
“I think that the players deserve to have really good food, and I think it’ll make them play better,” Dowd said. “And then the spectators who come to watch a great game, they’ll get a better performance, because players are fueled better. It kind of just culminates into something really good.”
Dowd and Gant operate under Epic Epicurean LLC of Salt Lake City, owned by Los Angeles Dodgers affiliates head chef Rob Walton. Each Dodgers affiliate from Double-A on down has its own mobile kitchen, and Tulsa’s version four trailer towed by diesel pickup is the newest. Los Angeles is the only major league franchise currently providing meals on wheels to its minor leaguers. That’s concerning, considering the recent buzz around food disparities in baseball farm systems.
On June 1, Oakland Athletics minor leaguers shared photos of postgame meals from May, which included a meatless cheese, lettuce and tomato sandwich and a tortilla with miniscule fillings attempting to pass for a taco. Athletics president Dave Kaval later announced his organization terminated the third party vendor who made the “unacceptable” food.
This was totally unacceptable. When we found out several weeks ago we terminated the third party vendor. We apologize to our players, staff, and coaches. We will redouble our efforts to provide the best options for our team at every level. https://t.co/yPzVWiCx1D
— Dave Kaval (@DaveKaval) June 2, 2021
Recognition of players’ malnourishment went viral in 2020 when New York Mets minor leaguer Ty Kelly tweeted a photo of his Spring Training sandwich, consisting of one folded-over piece of meat and a cheese slice. Kelly noted an apple, yogurt and granola bar were the only additional foods he and teammates received. When they attempted to make salads at their home complex, they were denied because “lunch” had already been provided.
Actual lunch on the road at MiLB Spring Training. One slice of deli meat and cheese, an apple, a Gogurt, and a Nature Valley bar. When we tried to make salads at our home complex before getting on the bus, we were told it was not allowed because lunch was already provided. pic.twitter.com/KEfTjro3SK
— Ty Kelly (@tykelly11) February 11, 2020
“I think it has to be a concern for baseball, because if that organization is not at least making the best effort they can… that’s just telling the player that they really don’t care, in my opinion,” said Drillers manager Scott Hennessey. “… I just think baseball needs to do a deeper dive and make sure these guys are nourished and housed well.”
Large quantities of high quality food are never scarce in the Drillers’ kitchen. During meal-planning trips to Sam’s Club, Dowd and Gant will purchase so many groceries, cashiers often question where the party is. Simultaneously, they shop cost effectively by buying everything fresh, nothing prepackaged. Those groceries go toward a rotating 45-day schedule, so Drillers players and staff never eat the same dish consecutively. The menu is also customized to meet individuals’ dietary restrictions and tastes.
From two meals to a pregame snack, Dowd and Gant are always making something fresh. Shrimp stir fry and chicken piccata were among recent main courses. Dowd and Gant have noticed that steak nights are most players’ favorites. Hennessey couldn’t pick a favorite meal, acknowledging the selection is great every time. The Dodgers organization and Drillers chefs are trying to start a revolution in player sustenance.
“I have a feeling that after this year, teams are starting to see what happens when you do this,” Gant said. “It’s obviously showing on the field, I think.”
It’s easy to tell Dowd and Gant love their job as much as the Drillers love their food. Dowd keeps his menu sheets in a binder with pictures of the dishes as memories and ideas for future meals. Etched in dry erase marker on one of the trailer’s inner walls, Gant wrote an inspirational idiom from the charismatic football film “Waterboy.” “Bobby Boucher Jr. would like to remind you to stay hydrated,” it reads, invoking motivation from Adam Sandler’s lead character.
On June 27, when Drillers outfielder Jeren Kendall blasted a walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning to beat Springfield 6-3, Dowd and Gant were putting hot, fresh food on the table. In the Tulsa locker room, Dowd watched as Kendall’s teammates flipped off the lights and doused him in water, mobbing their hero in celebration. It was a big victory for Tulsa, but also for Dowd, whose cuisine the players were about to enjoy.
“The way that we approach it is, we work for the players,” Dowd said. “We have a mission to give them the best quality food and the best prepared food in a timely manner… when we do our jobs, we create great food, when it tastes awesome, there’s plenty of food to go around and they win, we get to say we’re part of that win too.”