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Philly firefighters explain why mealtime is ‘secret sauce’ of firehouse

Mealtime is when firefighters and medics sit together as members of the families they become, families with their own rituals, rules and inside jokes

By Allison Stelle

PHILADELPHIA — Firefighter Justin Easley formed the meatballs, rolling them between his palms, then set canned tomatoes on to simmer in a skillet with garlic and onions. That’s when the station bell at Ladder 5 went off and Easley twisted off the burner, sprinted for the door, threw on his gear and jumped on the truck with the rest of his crew.

For firefighters, dinnertime is a race against the clock. The inevitable smoke alarm or carbon monoxide detector goes off a mile or two away, the call comes in for a stuck elevator or smell of smoke, and everything skids to a halt, utensils are dropped — everyone’s out the door.

But in quieter moments, mealtime is when firefighters and medics sit together as members of the weird and specific families they become, families with their own rituals, rules and inside jokes. That’s why Easley makes the tomato sauce from scratch, why he adds healthy touches like a salad on the side. He wouldn’t serve a lousy meal to his family, would he?

“You want to make things that are good, that are nutritious, things everyone will enjoy,” he said. “You hear about the stations where people order takeout a lot, but I don’t think that’s the norm.”

Lt. Bill Joerger III is a regular cook at the South Philly-based Engine 60 whose favorite recipes include crab chowder, chicken and waffles, and gumbo. He said successful mealtimes are the secret sauce that helps firehouses run smoothly. After years of cooking in stations, he thinks he can remember more about what his squad likes and dislikes than he can about his own family.

“You trust these guys with your life, and they feel the same about you,” he said. “We really are spending half of our time with these guys, as much if not more than with our families. So, you want that family fed.”

With shifts scheduled around the clock, a communal-living workplace, and high-stress moments broken up by long periods of waiting around, food has always been at the heart of fire department culture. Some of Philadelphia’s firefighter-chefs said that in addition to the bonds created by sharing meals, the tradition can also help crew members expand their horizons.

Firefighter Richard Rizzi of South Philly’s Engine 24, who has cooked in his firehouse for more than a decade, said he’d seen plenty of rookie moves over the years: a guy who littered raw beef all over kitchen surfaces, guys who eat every meal at Wawa, guys who won’t try new things.

“My guys are so picky, it’s a shame,” he lamented. “I got a guy who won’t eat olives; a guy who won’t eat onions, but he will eat caramelized onions. Got a guy who won’t eat tomatoes, but he will eat tomato sauce. You just do the best you can.”

Some firehouses, which shall go unnamed, are known for having bad cooks and bad food. But a few of the department’s chefs are proficient enough that they’ve drawn national attention.

Firefighter Antonia Donnelly, a 25-year veteran of the department who prides herself on her Italian cooking, appeared on a 2014 firefighter-focused episode of the Food Network’s cooking competition Chopped. Donnelly was cut in the second round for, of all things, overcooking pasta.

“Nobody ever let me forget that. I was getting calls from other firehouses for weeks, guys asking, ‘How long should I cook my pasta?’ ” said Donnelly, who now works in the department’s prevention unit. “They still do it, every time the episode is on.”

Joerger, 37, took his skills to Fox in 2015, competing against 100 firefighters for the show MasterChef. Later he was featured on the Food Network’s All-Star Academy. He also won $3,000 for his former Center City fire station in a Steak-umm contest, for the chili he made with the frozen meat.

Easley, who joined the department three years ago, got stuck with kitchen duty because he’s the new guy in Ladder 5, located on Broad Street near Bainbridge. He’d been used to making meals for his family of four, but quickly had to adjust to preparing three times as much.

“There were times I was a little short on the amount,” he said. “But believe me, you only do that once or twice.”

Early on, he made meatloaf and the crew was called out on a job. By the time the meat was reheated and cooked through, it was tough as shoe leather. Now he’s learned which meals can withstand stop-starts with minimal damage: pastas, sauces, stir-frys. One thing he never cooks is chili, despite its convenience. “It’s heavy,” he said. “I try and keep it light.”

On one recent night in Engine 24’s cramped kitchen, Rizzi had just started mixing cornbread in a bowl, adding canned corn to give it a kick, when the alarm went off. Before running out the door he passed the bowl to paramedic Chris Galasso, who dutifully finished stirring, then laid it out in a pan and popped it in the oven.

“If they gotta run, we ask if there’s anything we can do,” Galasso said. “If we don’t pitch in, it doesn’t get done.”

Most fire crews admit to the occasional mishap. Years from now, the firefighters of Engine 24 might still tell the tale of Firefighter Jamal Walker’s 30-minute eggs, that perfect nightmare that began with two eggs boiling on the stove, and ended with Walker and his team racing back from a fire to respond to a report of smoke coming from their own station’s kitchen.

“We tried to get back first, but we were the last ones on the scene,” Walker said, shaking his head. The moment is memorialized by the burned pot, which is inscribed with the date of the fire and displayed alongside bricks from other memorable blazes fought by the team over the years.

Dinnertime also offers a low-key opportunity for teamwork, firefighters said. Everyone chips in; someone might help chop vegetables, someone sets the table, someone clears, someone washes dishes.

“There’s guys here who have never cooked a meal for anyone,” said John Narkin, battalion chief at Ladder 5. “So we involve them in the process. We encourage them to try it at home. They’ll come in and learn. They may want to cook it for their family.”

Years ago, Narkin was one of those who manned the kitchen on night shifts. He learned to make sausage and gravy with biscuits, as well as chicken pot pie. Later, when Firefighter Joseph Stratton took up the task, Narkin passed on those recipes to get him started.

When the food is done, Easley rings the dinner bell. If the boss is there, he goes to the head of the line, but often, firefighters said, he’ll push the medics to go ahead of him. Medics are so frequently out on calls that they often miss dinner and rely on leftovers.

Back at Engine 24, Rizzi and his crew returned to the station while the cornbread was still baking in the oven. Rizzi went about preparing the rest of the meal: pork tenderloin, seared, then finished in the oven and basted with mustard; broccoli with red onions; and roasted potatoes. He usually cooks for four firefighters and two medics.

The crew’s patience is most tested when the meat comes out of the oven, in that window of time between readiness and not.

“Yes, yes, tell me again about the resting meat,” griped Lt. Henry Brolly. While they waited, the men passed around photos, and talked about an upcoming football game. Finally, it was time to dig in.

“You know when your meal is good, because there will be a good five minutes of silence,” Rizzi said. “You’ll hear forks and knives hitting the plate. It gives you some validation.”

But after a few minutes, the wisecracking resumed.

“Mmmm. This is the best pork loin I’ve ever had,” Brolly said, voice coated in sarcasm. “It’s the best pork loin I’ve had all day, though. That’s true.”

A second later, Brolly added, “Good job, Riz.”