Learning to cook can take you far in the firehouse
In most social settings, it is food that brings people together — the firehouse is certainly no exception
By Tony Vitalie
As you know, cooking and other domestic duties are a part of the job, but not a part that you will be trained in during your academy or probation.
Cooking is considered a basic life skill that you will be expected to know prior to getting hired. Do not underestimate the power and importance of a good firehouse meal.
A well fed crew is a happy and healthy one. In most social settings, it is food that brings people together. The firehouse is certainly no exception.
Keep in mind that all departments, shifts and stations are different and will have their own way of doing things.
You may have a shift that does not do group meals at all. If this is the case, offer to do shift dinners and take the lead in the kitchen.
You may be working with only one other person and only have to cook for two, or you may get assigned to a large house where preparing big group dinners is a part of the daily routine.
No matter where you get assigned, taking a proactive role in the kitchen is of utmost importance and a great way to quickly score high marks with your co-workers and officers. Learn to cook now, and learn to cook well.
On your first shift, you should be able to cook for your entire crew, and throughout your career, you need at least a handful of "go to" meals and side dishes that you are very comfortable preparing.
Don't make the mistake of trying to learn this skill after you get hired. This will add stress to your probation and not go over very well with your fellow firefighters.
On probation, you are under the microscope. Confidence in the kitchen will go a long way to make your life and career easier, and help you fit in no matter where you work and no matter who you work with.
I can assure you that all firefighters like to eat and appreciate a good meal.
The standards are often very high, and you'll be up against some tough culinary competition, so start learning to cook now, or work to improve and expand the cooking skills that you do have before you get the job.
When it comes to firehouse cooking, remember this: it takes 100 good meals to make up for one really bad one. And if the meal is bad enough, it can haunt you your entire career.
My crew still talks about a terrible meal that I prepared more than 10 years ago.
Here are some basic cooking tips for the probationary firefighter:
- Never experiment at the firehouse: Prepare any meal at home first, before you try it at the firehouse. Gain your confidence at home and fine tune the meal and portions. Some of the worst meals are those you're trying for the very first time.
- Stay within your scope and comfort zone: There are many great meals that are easy to prepare, so don't try to get too fancy. If you're new in the kitchen, stick to meals that do not require too much time and prep work. Meals that are difficult to prepare or can be easily botched if not done just right are risky. Start with easy and forgiving meals and build up your confidence and skills.
- Always ask about food allergies, dietary needs and preferences: The last thing you want to do is send someone into anaphylactic shock by adding an ingredient that someone on your crew may be allergic to, or having someone refuse to eat your meal, because it is too spicy, unhealthy, etc.
- Learn from others: Even if you are not the one cooking, you should be in the kitchen helping prepare and learning from others. You will most likely find that most firefighters have a few signature meals. There is nothing wrong with borrowing from someone else's repertoire to expand your menu.
- Add variety: As you increase the number of dishes you can prepare, you should also add variety to the dishes you can cook. Don't be the guy that can only barbeque or only cook pasta five slightly different ways. There's nothing wrong with having a specialty, but branch out and try different meals.
- Have some recipe resources: I have found that the internet is a great resource for recipes, but it can often be overwhelming and redundant. I recommend buying a few good firehouse cookbooks. There are many great ones available. This will simplify your search for good recipes, eliminate redundancy and give you a good variety of dishes. The other nice thing about firehouse cookbooks is they are usually portioned for firefighters, not average eaters. There is a difference. Tap into family recipes, too. You most likely have some people in your life that can offer you some of their favorite dishes, or old family recipes. FireRecruit.com also has a handful of recipes which can be found on our "Firehouse Kitchen" page. Check it out!
- Keep it within budget: You should have an idea of how much the crew typically likes to spend on a meal and do your best not to go over that. Certain meals can end up being very expensive, so be aware of this before you head out to the store, or be willing to absorb the extra expense. There are many meals that I do, that I will only prepare if the items are on sale, otherwise it ends up going way over budget.
- When in doubt, buy more: Nothing can ruin a great meal more than having to ration it out, because it came up a little short. A good meal not only tastes great, it also fills everyone up.
- Learn to use a slow cooker: Using a slow cooker is a great way to prepare a good meal on a flexible schedule. Calls, training and other details often make timing a meal difficult. With a slow cooker, you can throw a meal together in the morning, or during lunch and let it cook all day. Dinner will be ready whenever you and your crew are. I am a big fan of the slow cooker.
- Shop and do prep work off duty: Another great way to assure a timely and successful dinner is to shop the night before or the morning of your shift. Your crew will appreciate not having to shop and by doing any prep work in advance, you can really save yourself time and energy on your duty day.
- If you hunt or fish, bringing in your catch or kill can be great, but it can also backfire. Some of the most memorable bad meals I can recall have been from hunters. Pheasant pot pies and duck full of buckshot and feathers are at the top of the list.
Following these simple rules while dedicating time and energy to your cooking will pay off. Learn to cook as if your career depends on it.