It’s the next-to-last day of Mesa’s 14-week firefighter academy, and a roomful of men in rookie red T-shirts watch instructor Fred King as he explains what, many say, is the most harrowing part of a dangerous job.
“This is a serrated knife,” says King, holding up the item. “It’s really good for slicing tomatoes. It’s really good for slicing bread.”
Besides climbing onto roofs of burning buildings, rescuing motorists in flooded washes and prying crash victims from mangled cars, the job description for firefighting includes the unusual task of cooking for co-workers — as many as 16 people twice a day.
Those meals have to be tasty, prepared properly, within budget (every firefighter chips in $8 per day) and served on time — except, of course, in the instances that calls intervene.
The pressure, especially for anyone who never picked up a spatula before, can be nerve-racking.
“Most rookies fear — not running into a burning building — but their first day at cooking,” says King, an engineer at Station 5 who inherited the class because, in his pre-firefighting days, he was executive chef at several Valley resorts.
“Start now,” he urges the class. “Do the shopping at home, the cooking at home. . . . Get ideas from the Food Network.”
However: “Don’t practice at the fire station. That’s not a good idea. Because your reputation is pretty important to you.”
A bad meal has a tendency to linger, explains department spokesman Mike Dunn. “You cook a bad meal and you never live it down,” he says.
Firefighters are serious about their food, says Rick Shaw, called “Root” by other firefighters at Station 1 for reasons no one can remember. The burly, whitehaired Shaw, a firefighter for 29 years, is known department-wide as the guy you want driving your ladder truck and the guy you want when a really great pie is needed.
His signature Fruits of the Forest Pie, made with apples, strawberries, raspberries and blueberries, has fetched $600 at charity auctions. Even King, whose recipes for Grilled Chicken Alfredo and Green Chile Pork circulate through most Mesa fire stations, bows to Shaw’s pie-making ability.
On a recent Friday, however, it was his almost-as-famous Pineapple Upside Down Cake that Shaw prepared for a dinner of barbecue beef ribs (started in the oven shortly after lunch), corn on the cob, biscuits and cowboy mashed potatoes. True, he uses a boxed mix, but he blends in some of his own secrets.
After a while, firefighters coming back from calls drift in and out of the large kitchen, washing pans, shucking corn — whatever needs doing, and usually before Shaw asks.
“What you want our young guys to do is see something and come in and do it,” says firefighter Ray Alba, adding that the real test of a firefighter isn’t necessarily how he or she responds on calls, but how willing he or she is to help out in the station. “It’s easy to shine around a fire.”
Back in the day, says Shaw, leaning against the sink while younger firefighters ladle cheese and butter into the potatoes, he would have been considered the norm rather than the exception.
“Those guys could bake,” says Shaw. “Pies, cakes, homemade rolls, homemade bread . . . fried okra.
“At Station 5 — old Station 5 — they used to raise their own rabbits, they had their own garden. Seriously, when I was a rookie they told me to go out and get five rabbits and a whole bunch of okra out of the garden,” he says. “And then they fried it all up. They had fried Indian bread, fried okra and fried rabbit. That was dinner. . . . And it was fabulous.
“We would share those pies and breads with the other stations, but back in those days, we only had five or six different stations,” he says. “We’ve kinda lost that because we are getting so big, now.”
Now, most fire station dinners include staples such as mashed potatoes, a recipe for which King hands out to all rookies, and some vegetable. Pies and cakes are unusual. Dessert typically is ice cream. Entrees tend to get repeated a lot, especially by rookies who stick with recipes they feel comfortable with.
Rookie Scott Figgins says he makes “safe” dishes such as barbecue chicken and fajitas, after first testing them on his wife.
“You don’t want to go over budget when you shop. . . . And firefighters have huge appetites,” says Troy Boyer. “You don’t want to be short. . . . Or the cook doesn’t eat.”
Boyer, a day from completing his one-year probationary period, echoes King’s earlier statement: “You know, that’s probably the biggest fear of a rookie — cooking.”
“That’s our biggest fear, too,” says seasoned fire engineer Glenn Watson, who started the job as a novice cook and is now known for station favorites such as Carne Seca.
On top of all those concerns, there are the fire tones, called encoding, that take precedence over everything. When the tones sound, burners and stove are turned off and other foods are quickly refrigerated in the hopes of resurrecting the meal when they return. Sometimes, after a long house fire, a crew will come back to the station to find the next crew eating their meal, says Shaw.
Hungry firefighters listen for a particular code before sitting down to eat. It’s not dinner until a “Code 7” is called.
“What’s bad is when you are done with the shopping and you get a call on the way home,” says King. “You just gotta hope the food doesn’t go bad.”
Back at the fire academy, King looked pained when, during an exercise, a rookie suggests serving a pizza recipe handed down from his grandfather, also known, he says, as the Red Baron. “OK, look,” says King. “Seriously, don’t buy frozen pizza.”