The first stop is Tony’s Market for steak tips. But, Tony DeBenedictis, who’s run this butcher shop in Roslindale for 48 years, is all out of steak tips. So, Lester Esser asks for two sirloins. As DeBenedictis cuts and trims two large slabs, Esser changes his mind. “Make it three,” he says. “I’m cooking for the athlete today.”
Lester Esser is a personal chef. On Monday afternoon, he might be making a week’s worth of dinners for a client in Hingham. On Saturday evening, he might be setting up a grill in a stranger’s backyard for a BBQ party. But, twice a week, Esser knows exactly where he’ll be…cooking over-sized, healthy meals in the suburban kitchen of a New England Patriot.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect, but he’s very friendly,” Esser says of his newest (and hungriest) client, Patriots offensive tackle Nate Solder. “He seems to enjoy the food, which is the most important thing.”
Last season, in his rookie year with the Patriots, Solder was listed at 6-foot-8 and 319 pounds. But, in the wake of veteran left tackle Matt Light’s retirement this May, the job of protecting star quarterback Tom Brady was placed firmly on Solder’s broad shoulders…which were deemed to be not quite broad enough.
To pack on a few pounds while maintaining his commitment to healthy eating, Solder did what a lot of pro athletes do. He hired a personal chef.
We arrive in Foxborough while Solder is finishing up an unofficial off-season workout at the stadium down the street. Esser lets himself into the athlete’s kitchen using the keypad on the garage door and starts setting up.
“This is personal chef light today,” he says as he pulls equipment out of his white van parked in the driveway. There’s a cooler filled with food, a roller suitcase stuffed with pots and pans, a box of pantry items, a bag of cleaning supplies, and even utensils lined up in a toolbox with a bumper sticker that reads, “Love people. Cook them good food.”
By 12:30, Esser has started his food prep, and by 2:00, Solder is back from the stadium. It might be an understatement to say he’s ready for lunch. “Oh, extremely hungry,” Solder says. “And just to have all these smells makes it so much worse.”
While some clients hire Esser for just a few meals a week, the goal today is to fill Solder’s entire fridge. The menu includes breakfast items like ployes with sausage, steel cut oats with dried fruit, and chia seed pudding. Then there’s heartier fare like steak kebobs, wild rice, broccoli rabe, and Cornish game hens with apricot glaze.
Unlike most clients who aren’t home while Esser is working, Soder returns from the weight room hungry. So Esser also makes him a hot lunch of baked cod with olives and spinach, stir fried vegetables, roasted garbanzo beans and whole wheat pasta with chorizo, mounded high on a plate that looks big enough to feed three.
As the jumbo sized containers pile up on his counter, Solder admits it won’t be easy to make it through the “really big portions” Esser is leaving behind. “That’s my challenge,” Solder says. “To clean the refrigerator out before he comes back.”
Solder’s 6-foot-8 frame is solid and imposing…and completely lacking in the spare tire commonly found on members of the offensive line. The 24 year old Colorado native’s high school coach told the Boston Herald that Solder eliminated sugar from his diet…in middle school. Healthy eating is a commitment Solder maintains, even though there might be easier ways to pack on the extra 10-20 pounds the team was looking for this off-season.
“I’ve always thought that nutrition is important,” Solder says. “And the biggest thing for me is just having meals constantly because it’ll be 3:00 and I don’t want to go out to a restaurant, but I want to eat something that’s hearty and fills me up.”
“You try that chord I taught you?” Esser asks as he plates up Nate Solder’s enormous lunch. Solder started playing guitar as a way to fill the long, sedentary hours between training sessions, but he’s still pretty new at it. Luckily, his personal chef can double as a guitar instructor.
“You play in punk bands, what do you do?” Esser asks. “You work in the kitchen being a dishwasher.” Over the years, Esser played in bands called Primitive Romance, Death in Venice, and the curiously named gothic country and western project Why Fat Man Why. He also worked in plenty of kitchens, where he found that he “had the knack” for cooking.
Even today, Esser looks more like a rocker than a chef, dressed in a black chef’s jacket and black skinny jeans with two silver hoop earrings in his left ear. A black and white striped bandana is tied over his unruly salt and pepper hair.
Esser won’t be cooking for Solder in July and August, as Solder prepares to go into Patriots’ training camp as a presumed starter for the first time. But, that doesn’t mean Esser’s not on the job. He’s meeting with the Patriots’ new nutritionist to make sure the slightly heavier Solder has everything he needs when the season begins in the fall.