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Cooking for a crew: Making meals at the firehouse comes with challenges

If you think getting food on the table for a couple of hungry, picky kids on a hectic evening is a hard job, the firefighters of Homewood and Flossmoor can definitely relate to your concerns, and sympathize too. Cooking for a large crew and doing it between emergency calls definitely has its challenges.

  Luke Martino, left, cuts meat for a dinner meal,
  while Billy Galgan, right, chops vegetables at
  the Flossmoor firehouse.
(Photos by Mary 
  Compton/H-F Chronicle)

If you think getting food on the table for a couple of hungry, picky kids on a hectic evening is a hard job, the firefighters of Homewood and Flossmoor can definitely relate to your concerns, and sympathize too. Cooking for a large crew and doing it between emergency calls definitely has its challenges.

  As Homewood firefighter/
  paramedic Edgar Serna,
  left, works on roasted
  vegetables, off duty
  Joe Exline stops by to
  see what is for dinner.


In the fire service, co-workers form an extended family that spends 24-hour shifts — and sometimes longer — together. And in that 24-hour shift you’ve got to eat. In some firehouses, meal prep is strictly by rotation, and everyone takes their turn supplying a meal. Other crews might rely on take-out meals if workers are deemed to be lacking in cooking skills. And in some cases, favored cooks just fall into that default cook role, like it or not.

In Flossmoor, firefighter/paramedic Luke Martino said that, for the most part, cooking duties are rotated.
“We kind of go by whoever has the time or an idea of what to cook,” he said. He admitted that some of the firefighters are better cooks than others and those individuals get pushed to cook a little more often.
  Homewood firefighter
  Kevin Wake helps prepare
  the dinner at the Homewood
  firehouse. “Dinner is where
  you get to know your guys
  in the firehouse,” he said.


Martino said that he’s not the one who likes cooking the most, but he’s relied on a little more because he has three kids at home that he cooks for and because he has a few more recipes up his sleeve. He said his cooking skills “come from working in a firehouse.”

“I’ve been a firefighter for 12 years and at first I could do pasta and that’s about it,” said Martino. “As you cook with others, you learn to cook more unless you want to spend a lot to order out.”
Different types of cooking methods are also employed in the firehouse, and Martino said he and his colleagues use the outdoor grill year-round to make a complete meal – perhaps grilled pork chops with a side of potatoes and asparagus.
Firefighter/paramedic Kevin Wake of the Homewood Fire Department said he prefers to do crock-pot meals.
“It’s the best idea for us because we can get it in early, and if we’re busy runnings calls we don’t risk ruining a meal,” Wake said. “On Thanksgiving it was really busy, and had we had one more call we would have come back to a very dry turkey.”
  Helping to make dinner in
  the Homewood fire house
  are Steve Nolan, Edgar
  Serna and Kyle Paczesny.
  Firefighters say they
  spend about $7 of their
  own money per day
  for groceries. 


In the year that he’s been with the Flossmoor department, Martino has had many interrupted meals but said he has had only one meal that couldn’t be salvaged.

“I can only think of one so far that was completely destroyed because of a call. It had an alfredo sauce, and once it cooled it just got too thick,” he said.
While firefighters can plan out the menu, that’s about all they have control over. They never know if they’ll have time to shop for ingredients or sauté an entree, or if they’ll get paged to a call just as they are about to take the first bite of a meal.
“At least once or twice a month you’re going to sit down to eat and get a call,” said Wake.
To work around the unpredictability, Martino said they try to shop before the shift to ensure that they have the food in advance.
“If the food is here, someone will try to put something together,” Martino said. “If we don’t shop by 10 a.m., it can fall to the wayside because you get busy with firehouse duties, calls and training.”
Wake said that most of the guys on his shift are good cooks, but he’s often the go-to guy for recipes. In an average month, he cooks about three or four meals for his co-workers. He said that they try to plan ahead as much as they can because when they don’t, the pace picks up and they have no choice but to order from a restaurant.
“I’ve been in grocery stores and been in the check-out line with ingredients for a meal, and you get a call and have to ditch your groceries and go,” Wake said. “Sometimes it’s there when we get back and sometimes it’s gone and we have to start all over again.”
On Wake’s list of frequently made dishes are buffalo chicken sandwiches (his most requested recipe), shrimp po’ boys and tacos.
Each cook tends to have one or two meals that they make most often. Sometimes that’s out of habit or convenience. Sometimes it’s because co-workers are requesting it. And sometimes it’s because those ingredients happen to be on sale when the shopping is done.
Wake’s top request for dinner at the firehouse is a shrimp boil that one of his co-workers prepares. “That’s one of my favorite meals that I’ve ever had here,” he said. 
He also said that the firefighters decided to pitch in and buy a smoker, and he really likes the meats that others make with it. “I’m not very experienced with it, but there’s a guy that is really good at doing brisket or pork loin,” said Wake.
For Martino, his favorite dish to make is biscuits and gravy, and his favorite meal made by a co-worker is a Cajun pasta dish.
“He won’t tell us what’s in it, but it’s delicious,” Martino said.
“A common misconception is that we get a stipend for our food, but we cover it out of pocket. We split it up, and everyone pitches in,” said Wake.
“We used to try to do a ten-dollar-a-day buy in, but prices vary from store to store,” Martino explained. “So, we usually shop and come back and just divide up the bill and everyone chips in.”
The cooking plan can also vary depending on how many people are on shift. On average, Martino cooks for five, but he can also end up cooking for a crew of nine. In Flossmoor, the cook for the day usually prepares lunch and dinner. If it’s a Sunday, they may do a big breakfast in lieu of lunch.
In Homewood, firefighters on duty are usually on their own for breakfast and lunch, but someone cooks a big dinner for the shift — unless it’s a weekend, and then breakfast might be included too. Or if someone has leftovers from a family party, they might bring them in for lunch.
Timing and interference from calls can be the biggest barriers in eating together, but they’re not the only challenges. As with any big family, individual tastes and aversions must also be taken into account.
“The biggest struggle is picky eaters and trying to make everyone happy,” said Martino. “We have one guy who doesn’t eat green veggies, and one who doesn’t like any spice at all. You kind of have to work around it. On a recent shift I made chicken cacciatore, but there was one person who doesn’t like red sauce, so in a separate pan I made him some lemon chicken.”
Wake said he doesn’t have a lot of picky eaters on his shift, but each person has something they don’t like. He’s aware of who doesn’t like what, and he said they sometimes work around that by cooking certain meals on certain workers’ days off.
“We’re adults. If someone makes it and you don’t like something, you pick around it. We don’t tolerate people complaining about it. We try to accommodate to a point, but otherwise it makes it too hard to make a meal,” said Wake.
Wake does most of the cooking at home but says trying to accommodate the various palates of his co-workers is more challenging than cooking for his wife and two children. He and his wife both enjoy cooking and like to experiment with cooking at home.
“I’m the one who likes to think outside the box a little more,” Wake said. “In a different life, I may have gone down the road of being a chef.”

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