Firefighter Paul Butler of Toledo fire department Station 4A listens to jazz as he expertly cooks in the classic style. He can rattle off the “mother sauces:” espagnole (brown-stock based); hollandaise (yellow sauce); bechamel (white sauce), and veloute (stock-based, including fish stock and chicken stock).
Eleven years ago he was a sous chef, but the graduate of Owens Community College's culinary program decided to turn away from the long night hours and weekend shifts that restaurant work dictates and launched a new career as a firefighter.
“I looked at the benefits of firefighting and saving lives. I found it challenging,” said Mr. Butler, who didn't entirely leave behind his culinary skills. Now his colleagues reap the benefit of his training.
Mr. Butler is among a talented cadre of firehouse cooks. They cook within a budget - firefighters pay about $7 per day for two meals. They cook in quantity - probably no recipe serves less than 12 big portions. They keep track of co-workers' likes and dislikes, and any allergies they may have. Best of all, their meals are delicious, creative, and filling. All of this despite the multiple interruptions that come in a 24-hour shift. Firefighters work a 24-hour shift every third day.
“I was going to cook shrimp creole, except one of the guys is allergic to seafood,” said Lt. Dan Whitacre on the day I visited Station 23. Despite the extreme cold and snow, he managed to grill a
four-pound boneless pork loin - bought on sale - in a Weber rotisserie in an hour and 15 minutes. The result was perfect.
The meat was marinated in Audrey's Marinating and Basting Sauce and stuffed with portobello and button mushrooms, pesto sauce, and chopped sun-dried tomatoes. Then it was sewn shut and grilled. To serve this original recipe, he simply cut it in hefty slices. It was delicious.
“To do a meal is tough at this engine house,” said Lieutenant Whitacre. “I've been in and out all day. During rush hour we always have accidents on Laskey Road.”
“The first time I made the roast, we were within 15 minutes of eating,” said the firefighter. “We were gone [to a fire] for two and a half hours. It was dry, but still edible.”
Lieutenant Whitacre got his culinary training through a Betty Crocker cookbook, beginning with a very good veal Cordon Bleu. “I started experimenting,” said the Toledo native, who also can make a good paprikash.
Over at Station 9, firefighter Les Gant was out on a run when I arrived. When the call came in, he had turned everything off and locked up the fire station, and the crew was gone.
When they returned, he pulled out the start of a beautiful pineapple upside down cake. Pineapple slices nestled side–by-side in a sweet puddle of brown sugar dissolved in melted butter on the bottom of a very large baking pan lined with parchment paper.
Whipping up two boxes of yellow cake mix with his personal mixer, which he stores in his locker, the firefighter poured the batter on top of the fruit and popped the cake in the oven.
Next came the Swiss steak made from cubed steak that he found on sale. It had been seasoned with salt, pepper, paprika, and garlic, then browned. He placed the Swiss steak in the bottom of a baking pan and topped it with four cups of carrot chunks, celery, and green pepper. (Onion can be added if desired.) Meanwhile, two large cans of tomato soup and one can of water were mixed in a saucepan and heated. The mixture was poured over the vegetables, then the dish was baked at 350 degrees for one and one-half to two hours.
With a budget of $3 per day per person for the evening meal, “we don't have a lot of steak,” said Mr. Gant, who is the first driver on the engine. “We work with cheaper cuts of meat. If you cook it right, it turns out well.”
“We eat simple here. We stay away from fried foods. But the worst thing we can do is run out or not have enough food.”
In fact, Dan Whitacre says, “I cannot make a small batch.”
Mr. Gant has been cooking since he was a sophomore in high school at Whitney Vocational School. That was followed by four years in the U.S. Navy, where he cooked in large quantities. “I had to learn to cut back from cooking to serve 100 to cooking for seven,” he said.
If Mr. Butler's specialty is classical cooking, then Mr. Gant's is baking. He makes dinner rolls, cinnamon rolls, 7-Up cake, and cream pies in the summer. “The weather dictates what you make,” he said.
On the day I visited Mr. Butler at Station 4A, he had a peach cobbler with a graham cracker topping in the oven, a plate of nut muffins on the counter, and a large baking dish with chicken breasts sauteed with honey mustard sauce ready to finish in the oven. The entree was served with rice garnished with broccoli, red onion, and mushrooms, and a vegetable medley of broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, and zucchini. “It's all fresh,” said the former sous chef at the Radisson Hotel. “We try to eat wholesome.”
“You want something to stick to you, but not make you too full,” said Mr. Gant.
Lieutenant Whitacre is equally concerned about healthy cooking. With the pork loin, he served roasted sweet potatoes, fresh green beans laced with almonds, and a mandarin orange salad. “I would have grilled asparagus, but the asparagus I found wasn't in very good shape,” he said.
“Cooking is easy for me,” he said. “How to figure out how to get it all on the table when it's done is the challenge.” Most meals are served buffet-style, or firefighters help themselves.
These kitchens are no-frills. If the firefighters are fortunate, there is a commercial oven and some counter space.
When Mr. Gant has a time-consuming recipe, he starts preparations early in the day. “There's no guarantee when we'll leave, and we might get back two or three hours later,” he said. “Cooking breaks the day up. They tell me every day they appreciate it,” he says of his colleagues.
Still, he takes one month off from cooking each year. “Somebody will step up and cook or they go for fast food,” he said.
“Sometimes you don't have the time to get into extensive recipes,” said Mr. Butler. “You don't want to be in the kitchen all day. The appetite these guys have, they'll eat it all. When duty calls, duty calls. That's our primary function - it is to protect property and save lives.”
Surveying the night's dinner prepared by Lieutenant Whitacre, firefighter Al Mattox said, “It's going to be gone soon. Danny is slaving over the stove, and it will be gone in 20 minutes.”