Lunch Interrupted at Akron Fire Station 5
Fighting fires takes a lot of energy, so the men and women who keep us safe make sure to eat well. Firefighters in Akron also take pride in cooking well.
But as WKSU’s Vivian Goodman reports in today’s Quick Bite, they can’t completely relax when its mealtime at the firehouse.
They’re setting the table for lunch at the firehouse on E. Market Street.
“OK,” says chief cook Ray Martin, "there’ll be six of us today.” They’ve invited their union president: “We’re trying to be nice to him. He takes care of us.”
Lt. Russ Brode is a familiar face here. He’s the president of Local 330 of the International Association of Firefighters. Brode always comes hungry to Fire Station 5 because he knows how well they cook.
“Fire departments historically around the country are known for their firehouse chefs,” says Brode, “so we just try and keep that tradition going.”
Not so hot at the Chili Challenge
At the annual Chili Challenge fundraiser for the Akron Children’s Hospital Burn Unit, Akron firefighters usually claim top honors.
Lt. Brode was crestfallen this year when they flamed out.
“Akron General took both the judge’s award and the people’s choice award this year. And it’s the first time in about four years that Akron Fire 330 did not win. So congratulations to Akron General.”
One reason firehouse cooks excel in the kitchen is they get plenty of practice. Martin, a 25-year veteran of the force, mans the stove today.
He says lunch won’t be anything fancy. “We’re having taco salad. I’m just stirring the meat and onions, black beans and salsa and all that together.”
He’s not skimping on the cheese. “Chipotle cheddar, habanero jack and Mexican cheese.”
The cook eats first
There’s a rule in the firehouse kitchen: Whoever cooks gets to eat first. Ray Martin also gets to relax while others clean up.
“He’s out of the dishes," says Lt. Brode. “So, we have some cooks in the Fire Department who will use every single pot and pan available to them. Even making a simple meal, it’ll take forever to clean up. But it looks like Ray didn’t do that today.
“Not today, no,” Martin assures him.
There’s a minor accident as they get ready to lay out plates.
“Whoops! Making a mess.”
These emergency responders have seen bigger explosions than a bottle of Coke fizzing over, but it’s a concern.
“I didn’t shake it up. I was just getting the ice out of it,” firefighter Dave Andrews apologizes.
“Now, that doesn’t surprise me,” says his colleague Ray Martin. “Dave would do that to me.”
Razzing and ribbing is one way the firefighters relax. But they say they’re serious when they praise Ray Martin’s cooking.
“Yeah, these guys will eat anything,” says the modest chef, “so the key is feed ‘em late and feed ‘em a lot.”
One might assume brawny firefighters hanker for steaks and burgers. But Chef Martin’s big on veggies.
“We have iceberg lettuce with spring mix, orange, yellow and green peppers, sliced black olives, tomato and I like radishes in my taco salad.”
Lt. Brode says firehouse menus have changed. Heart disease is the leading cause of duty-related fatalities.
“Firefighters have adjusted, and now we’re well aware that we need to be eating healthier, working out more, and we try to incorporate that into the firehouse cooking.”
Orange High School grad Rip Esselstyn’s great-grandfather founded the Cleveland Clinic. He’s now an Austin, Texas, firefighter with a best-selling book about his plant-based diet.
“I took an incredible amount of ribbing since I started eating this way, but I can tell you this,” says Esselstyn. “Real men eat plants, and boys eat meat.”
Recipes not required
There are more vegetables than meat today at lunch, but Ray Martin’s not the only chef at Fire Station 5.
“We take turns usually. Tonight Dave Andrews is going to cook dinner for us.”
“Chicken, vegetables, homemade stir-fry sauce, rice,” says Andrews. As for the recipe, “I think he’s winging it,” Ray Martin joshes. “You can tell.”
Public Information Officer Lt. Sierjie Lash says the firehouse kitchen requires three refrigerators, one for each shift.
“They have their own refrigerators and their own food pantries. And they lock them when they leave every morning. Otherwise your food is fair game for the other two shifts.”
Shopping by firetruck
There’s usually a head cook, but the firefighters plan meals as a team.
“Each of our fire stations, they have to sit down each morning, “ says Lt. Lash. “First off, they figure out who is cooking. Second, they figure out what they’re eating, usually depending on what the season it is or what’s going on at the grocery stores in the area.”
Shopping trips are done via hook and ladder.
“Whatever fire truck they’re on, they go to the store,” says Lt. Lash, “because they have to stay in their vehicles and be ready. Even when they’re at the store they have to be prepared and ready for an emergency.”
“Never fails,” says Ray Martin. “We’re in the middle of the store and we get a run. So that happens quite often.”
We wondered how often alarms go off while they’re eating.
“Here it seems like every lunch we get interrupted,” says Martin. “So, hopefully not today.”
Lt. Lash says most Akron fire companies get more than 10 runs in a 24-hour period.
“This fire company in specific all this morning, they’ve had a few runs this morning. They’re fortunate right now, but there are days when they may have to reheat their meal a couple of times.”
“Lot of times you eat less," says Martin. “You eat half your meal and when you come back, you’re not hungry.”
In a quarter century on the force, Ray Martin’s seen many disasters, including a few in the kitchen.
“Clam linguine with white sauce. We caught a run and it ended up being as thick as wallpaper paste. The good thing is these guys aren’t very picky. They just love to eat.”
The taco salad is almost ready. Chef Martin’s doing finishing touches.
“Putting the nachos out, putting a little cheese on it, and then adding the meat and then the toppings.”
They like it hot
And a final key ingredient. "Frank’s Red Hot;" it’s a supersized bottle. Firefighters apparently like it hot. They pull up chairs, grab napkins, lift their forks -- and the alarm sounds.
“Getting a run right now. We got to go.”
The firefighters abandon lunch and bolt from their seats, but they’re leaving the chef behind. “You can stay. We’ll take care of it,” Dave Andrews tells him.
“You got it? OK,” says Ray Martin. “So they left me back. Sometimes it’s nice to be the old guy cook.”
He’ll warm it up when they return. He says even a re-heated meal together is a good thing.
“It’s very important. It’s good for people to sit down with each other. It makes you tighter, a closer-knit group.”