It’s 4 p.m. on a recent weekday and three El Dorado Hills firefighters are hatching a plan, unhurried but focused as they pile into their shiny red fire engine and cruise over to the grocery store. Kids wave. People nod and smile.
They fan out once they step inside Nugget. Todd Bichel, an engineer, heads toward the produce section in search of arugula – organic if possible – strawberries, pecans and shallots for the salad he’s making. He’ll sauté the minced shallots and make a dressing from scratch. He’ll roast the pecans with a coating of coconut oil to give the salad some contrasting crunchy texture and color. With the other ingredients he’s thinking how the flavors will play together with the subtle note of pepper from the arugula.
At the cheese counter, Capt. Tom Anselmo is zeroing in on just the right cheese for the “Juicy Lucy” stuffed cheeseburgers he’s making with a two-pan cooking technique he created that steam-cooks the patties and melts the cheese without burning the surface. The young man at the cheese counter steers him toward a smoked mozzarella, which should pair well with the chipotle aioli Anselmo will put together.
Meanwhile, Robyn MacKenzie, a firefighter, is picking out an eggplant, onions, tomatoes and more for a roasted vegetable side dish.
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Grocery shopping, cooking and sitting down together as a team – and a family – are all part of the daily routine here and at firehouses large and small throughout the country. Depending on the events of the day, dinner time can be boisterous or solemn, playful or profound.
“At the table, a lot of things are said. It’s that camaraderie. We bond. We defuse.We do that sometimes through humor,” said Anselmo. “We see a lot of bad stuff. We’re supposed to be tough, so it’s hard unless one guy starts to talk about it. Then the others will join in.”
While many American families have largely lost their grip on regular sit-down dinners, firefighters have never given up on the tradition.
In fact, firefighters are some of the most devoted foodies and cooks around, although kitchen skill sets vary from shift to shift and town to town.
Anselmo, for instance, was a restaurant cook before he became a firefighter. He worked at the original Cliff House in Folsom and Mace’s in Sacramento and was a corporate kitchen manager at the Chili’s chain. His friend and fellow captain, Hank Ferlini, is widely considered to cook at a professional level and is known to pull off gourmet-caliber feasts without following a recipe.
The focus on cooking good food at firehouses comes from spending so much time together and working in a job that means regularly confronting situations – good, bad and heartbreaking – that most people will rarely encounter.
“It’s going to sound a little sappy,” said Capt. Richard Hathaway, a highly regarded firehouse cook in Sacramento, “but I spend almost half of my life in a firehouse. The people I work with are as much my family as my family. I see them just as much as I see my wife and kids. You gotta show a little love. One of the ways I do that is with food. If you serve a no-love meal at a firehouse, you’re going to hear about it.”
Yes, good cooking earns raves and respect, but if a rookie flubs a meal, it will inspire all kinds of razzing. New firefighters with poor cooking skills quickly learn they have to come strong when it’s their turn to cook because many of their veteran co-workers have little patience for a poorly executed meal.
“We are all a bunch of A-type personalities, and as such the firehouse banter can be tough. If you show an ounce of weakness, everybody is going to jump on you,” Hathaway said. “It’s not cruel, but it can get a little rough. So we have to find A-type ways of showing love, and food is a prime example.”
If you’ve ever spotted firefighters shopping at a grocery store and wondered what they’re up to, here’s how it works. First, you may be surprised to learn that the city doesn’t pay for meals when the firefighters are on duty. Each firefighter contributes to a “chow fund” and meals are generally set at about $10 per person. Firefighters working overtime shifts tend to chip in more money. It’s one of many unwritten rules.
They shop as a crew and bring their fire truck or engine to the store because they may have to rush off to an emergency with no time to spare. At the firehouse, firefighters responding to an alarm in the middle of the night are expected to wake, rise, get dressed and get to the rig within 90 seconds. Time is crucial to saving lives, so being ready matters while shopping, too. Many fire stations sort out who does the dishes with a lively dice game at the dinner table. And if you want an insider tidbit, here’s one: Any firefighter who gets his or her name in the newspaper has to buy ice cream for the rest of the crew.
Most firefighters work a 48/96 – two full days on, and four days off. The cooking rotates from firefighter to firefighter, though sometimes someone’s cooking will be so good that he or she might cook more often. That was the case for years with Hathaway, who moved to Station 7 about six months ago.
He is the reigning champion, along with Sandy Hetzer, of the 911 Cooking Challenge at the California State Fair. It was not lost on his co-workers that he bested Battalion Chief Jonathan Burgess, who co-owns, with twin brother Matthew, Burgess Brothers BBQ & Burgers on Sutterville Road.
The chief is still irked that he lost to meatloaf – meatloaf – though he concedes Hathaway is a worthy adversary.
Like Hathaway, who decides what he’ll cook as he roams through the grocery store, Burgess said he doesn’t go by recipes.
“Look, texture and taste – L.T.T. It would almost be an insult to follow a recipe,” he said.
It is not uncommon for a meal to be interrupted by an emergency, sometimes in the middle of cooking. Firefighters promptly turn off the stove or oven and take off, hoping for the best when they get back. On a recent night in El Dorado Hills, a call came in just as the crew was about to cook the stuffed burgers and roasted vegetables. It turned out to be a simple assignment – a five-minute drive to an office/warehouse due to an overheated industrial battery. The crew checked it out and declared the building safe. They returned to the station house and picked up where they left off. The meal went smoothly from there.
Firefighters may leave their work at the station, but they bring their cooking skills home with them, often to the delight of family members. Linsey Steiger, a hairstylist in East Sacramento, said her dad, a retired firefighter, passed on his love for cooking to her older brother, Brian, who’s a firefighter in Southern California.
“My dad’s food was probably a lot more simple. That might have something to do with the era. He grew up in the ’50s and ’60s. His food was really good, but he’d make spaghetti, a casserole or pork chops,” she said. “My brother is really into gourmet flavors and interesting combinations, the kind of things that are in vogue now.”
Indeed, gourmet touches abound at today’s firehouses. During one visit to Sacramento’s Station 7, Hathaway made a braciola – an Italian marinated rolled steak with cheese, prosciutto, spinach and seasonings inside – cooked over hot coals on the grill outside. He made the Caesar salad dressing from scratch, tasting and adjusting as he went. And the roast potatoes were finished with garlic and butter to impart a creamy softness to crisp edges. During another visit, Hathaway cooked stuffed pork chops.
At a firehouse, winning accolades in the kitchen is an important part of a job well done, and Hathaway’s skills inspire others.
“I can tell you I’ve elevated my game since he came here,” said firefighter Monica Wilouza. “I used to do a tri-tip with salt and pepper and put it on the grill. Now I’m looking at how to marinade that specific cut of meat. And the salad that goes with it isn’t just romaine, tomatoes and cucumbers. Now I look up what I can add to make it better. The biggest compliment for me when I cook is when it’s quiet at the table because everybody’s eating.”
There’s a good chance Wilouza and Hathaway will be collaborating on a dish in the near future. With their names right here in black and white, it’ll probably be something involving ice cream.