As the alarms blare, Anna Fiorenza shouts to her fellow firefighters to flip the chicken on the grill and check the bacon in the oven as she hustles out of the kitchen and into a fire truck.
Lucky for her, it’s a false alarm and she is back in time to finish her “fancy” chicken sandwiches — grilled chicken breasts, bacon, fresh avocado slices, Colby Jack cheese, red onion, tomatoes, romaine lettuce, mustard, mayo, hot sauce and four-inch baguettes — served buffet style, for her crew at Miami Fire Station 6.
For dinner, she wasn’t so lucky. A tray of raw churrasco steaks sits on a counter for more than an hour as Fiorenza and her crew fight an apartment fire. When the flames are out, Fiorenza — a white, powdery substance smudged on her navy shirt from hacking down a wall — goes straight back to the kitchen, washes her hands and turns on the heat.
“You do what you have to do,” she says. “We have to eat.”
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This is life in the firehouse, where people who risk their lives to save others are as serious about their food as they are their jobs. With the communal setting and 24-hour shifts, food is baked into the firefighting culture. It feeds the soul and the mind as much as the belly.
And as their equipment gets more sophisticated, so does their food. The days of four-alarm chili, BLTs and shepherd’s pie are giving way to vaca frita, fish tacos, vegan pita pizzas, baby back ribs grilled out back, brined chicken and always big pots of rice and beans. Salads — spring mix with strawberries and feta, dressed with a berry vinaigrette — and fresh fruit are de rigueur.
Firehouse chefs hone their skills by watching the Food Network — Chopped and Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives are among the favorites — cooking meals and sharing recipes through Pinterest. Some have written cookbooks, faced off in cooking competitions and opened cafes or restaurants, including the growing Firehouse Subs chain. And in Miami Beach, firefighters star in their own cable TV show, Cooking with Fire.
“We came a long way from where it all started,” said Miami Battalion Chief Joe Cabrera, who’s been on the job for 30 years. “Things we ate back then you would never find in a firehouse these days.”
In the firehouse, the day begins early. Shifts normally start around 7:30 in the morning. Most firefighters work a 24-hour shift, then get 48 hours off. They work in regular crews, anywhere from a half dozen to two dozen, depending on the firehouse.
Each firehouse usually has its own chef — the naming of such person based on their culinary skills. If you can’t cook — or cook up to the standards of the firefighters — you’ll quickly be replaced.
“If you are not a good cook, it’s not going to be a good day for you,” Fort Lauderdale Deputy Fire Chief Timothy Heiser said. “The guys are ruthless.”
Meals are when the entire crew sits together, laughs, jokes and talks about the day — just as a typical family would. Firefighters try to eat together for all three meals. Gathering over the dinner table is as much about feeding the body as sustaining the soul. Firefighters can deal with some difficult situations —horrible car crashes, burning buildings and perhaps most difficult, rescuing children who’ve been scarred by flames and more.
“For me, cooking is very therapeutic,’’ said Derek Kaplan, a Miami firefighter and owner of Fireman Derek’s Bakeshop and Cafe in Wynwood.
“Food and beverage has always brought people together,” said Chris Wagner, director of operations for Johnson & Wales University, a culinary school with a campus in North Miami. “It doesn’t matter what the situation is."
A firehouse cook is the celebrity chef. They’re lauded when the food they whip up is spot on, but get ribbed when the grub is not up to sophisticated standards. In Miami, banging your fork on a plate in unison is a way a fire crew shows the cook the meal was good.
“When people get hungry, they get cranky,” Cabrera says. “You come to realize that firehouses that eat together are more functional.”
Fire chefs often aren’t trained in the culinary arts. Rather, they learn on the job.
“They do it more out of passion,” said Michael Cheng, the director of Florida International University’s food and beverage program. “I would bet a lot of the chefs watch the Food Network to get ideas.”
For Kaplan, food and the firehouse go together. Kaplan, 31, started baking when he was 15. He joined the Miami Fire Department to combine his love of food with helping others.
At the firehouse, he is the chef, cooking up ribs, churrasco and baking his scrumptious desserts. Eight months ago, he opened Derek’s Bakeshop and Cafe in Wynwood, where he now sells his apple pies, cherry pies, chocolate-dipped flan, chocolate peanut butter cheesecake and krack pie, his riff on a pie at New York’s Momofuku Milk Bar, with an oatmeal cookie crust, salted caramel filling and a top crust sprinkled with powdered sugar.
Today, he works full time at Miami Fire Station 1, 144 NE Fifth St., while overseeing the bake shop, which also serves up chicken pot pies, quiches and personal pizzas.
Kaplan often tests new recipes on his more than eager audience at the firehouse. Recently he brought over from the bake shop a New York-style cheesecake with cherry filling and an almond biscotti crust. They approved.
“They are my roughest critics,” he said.
Breakfast is served
At Miami Station 6 on Northwest 36th Street and Seventh Avenue — which houses two ambulances, a fire truck, a fire chief vehicle and a technical rescue truck — Anna Fiorenza stepped up as the cook for shift C after the shift’s permanent cook was promoted.
She knows the drill. She starts her day at about 7:30 a.m. making a hearty breakfast: Eggs, bacon, sausage and pancakes.
Making breakfast in bulk, while the specter of a call looms, can be challenging. She buys ingredients ahead of time, so all she has to do is unlock the refrigerator — firehouses usually have refrigerators for each shift that are kept locked — and get cooking.
She quickly dices the sausage links (two packages), lays thick-cut bacon (two packages) on a oversized sheet pan, and cracks 36 eggs into a big pot. Having a diner-type griddle is a big help in cooking the scrambled eggs, but she has learned it takes patience to avoid an egg disaster.
“I am cooking for a lot of people and they eat a lot,” she said.
Comes with a price
After breakfast is done, Fiorenza puts on her accounting hat and collects $20 per crew member for their meals for the day. In most firehouses, firefighters pay for their own meals.
“People seem to think that taxpayer dollars cover meals,” Fiorenza said. “That’s not the case.”
In Fort Lauderdale, the price tag is also $20 per firefighter per shift. At Fire Station 49 on Fort Lauderdale beach, the firefighters know that they’ll eat well for the price.
On a recent Tuesday, the B shift’s chef, Todd Doerfler, made his take on pizza at the request of his crew. He took whole-wheat pita breads, spread hummus over them and then topped half with bruschetta and half with steamed cauliflower in olive oil on others. He then sprinkled them with vegan cheese before sliding them into the oven.
For about a year the entire crew decided to go vegan. Doerfler, who has been a firehouse chef for 19 years, went from cooking ribs and chicken to cooking tofu and veggies. While he still tries to cook healthful meals, he now uses some dairy, fish and poultry.
“It was really hard to be strictly vegan,” he said. “We still try to be healthy, but we are just less strict.”
Chefs get a few perks. They’re usually assigned to the bigger trucks that make fewer rescue runs. They also get out of some daily chores, including cleaning. And they can order some of their co-workers around when they need food chopped or the table set. No one complains.
Time to shop
Fiorenza’s next task is to write her shopping list. She goes through the ingredients in the refrigerator and pantry and crosses items off her list. She grabs the rest of the crew on the firetruck and heads to Ricky’s Meats & Deli to get chicken breasts and churrasco steaks. She said the smaller market is cheaper for meat.
“We have to do this on a budget,” she said, saying she has about $200 to spend.
Then it’s off to Publix for the rest. She started with French bread for sandwiches and made her way to the produce department where fellow firefighter Andre Maddox helped pick out strawberries, watermelon, pineapple and blueberries for a fruit salad.
Shopping is usually left up to the chef of the shift. Duty calls, even in a store. If a call crackles on their radios, they take off running and abandon their cart.
When Doerfler went shopping at a Fort Lauderdale Publix, he ran into a fellow firefighter who was shopping to cook for her crew. She was cooking for about 20 and loaded her cart with fresh veggies for her lunchtime salad and fish for taco night.
“That’s sounds really good,” Doerfler said of her meal, before finishing his shopping. “You get ideas from each other and sometimes do your own variation. A lot of people also draw from their background.”
In Miami Beach, firefighters star in their own show to spotlight the balance between cooking and helping people. In the first episode, Miguel Hernandez, the chef for Station 1, Shift A, cooks up vaca frita, shredded beef. He sautes fresh peppers and onions and cooks up some rice to go along with the dish.
“I’m going to make a lot so the guys are healthy, they eat a lot and are ready for the next fire call,” he said.
The show, aptly called Cooking with Fire, chronicles a day in the life of a firehouse, from breakfast to dinner. Between runs to the beach for someone who is dehydrated and then back to the kitchen, Hernandez stays busy.
By dinner, his Cuban fare is lapped up.
“They just keep asking for it,” he said.
Dinner is on
Back at Station 6 in Miami, dinner is supposed to be at 6 p.m. but sometimes calls get in the way.
For Fiorenza, prepping early helps.
On this day, she had her chimichurri sauce done, the steaks laid out and the strawberry salad ready when the call for a fire came in. The alarms in the station screech, the lights flash and a dispatcher’s voice blares from a speaker.
The food has to wait.
Fiorenza said she’d rather be fighting a fire than cooking anyway.
When the fire was out, the crew returned to the firehouse and waited patiently for the food call.
“You can’t function with a hungry belly,” said firefighter Nick Armas.
But food wasn’t far off. A few minutes later, a different kind of alarm sounded.
“Chow, chow, chow,” Fiorenza’s fellow firefighter called.
They all rushed to the scene.
Cauliflower Pita Pizzas
Todd Doerfler whipped up these popular pizzas when his crew at Fire Station 49 in Fort Lauderdale decided to go vegan. Serves six, two pizzas each. Says Doerfler: “This is my most requested pizza, but don’t be afraid to experiment with some of your favorite toppings and flavored hummus.”
12 whole wheat pitas
2 10-ounce containers roasted garlic hummus
3 cups cauliflower, chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 teaspoon garlic salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh black pepper
1 red onion, diced
1 8-ounce bag vegan cheese, shredded
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the pitas on a sheet pan in the oven. Remove when slightly toasted, about 5 minutes. Spread hummus over pitas (one container of hummus for 6 pizzas). Steam the cauliflower. (He uses two 12- ounce bags of Eat Smart, steam-in-bag cauliflower.)
Empty cauliflower into a mixing bowl. Stir in one tablespoon olive oil, garlic salt and pepper (the cauliflower will break up some). Transfer cauliflower to a sheet pan and place under a broiler, removing after lightly browned (approximately 5 minutes). Spread over the pitas.
Heat sauté pan over medium high heat, add remaining tablespoon olive oil and sauté red onion. Caramelize the onion, cooking approximately 7 to 10 minutes. Divide the onion and mozzarella shreds evenly over the pizzas. Put back in the broiler for about a minute, until cheese melts. (Keep a close watch.)
Per serving: 508 calories, 83g carbohydrates, 15g fat, 15g protein, 1125 mg sodium, 2g sugar
Fireman Derek’s lemon and herb chicken
From Miami firefighter Derek Kaplan. Kaplan generally makes 8 chickens to serve about 20 firefighters.
1 whole chicken quartered (about 6 lbs)
1/2 cup Kosher salt, plus half teaspoon salt, divided
1 lemon, halved
3-4 rosemary sprigs, divided
Canola oil to coat the chicken
2 tablespoons lemon pepper seasoning
1 teaspoon sage
2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon parsley
Brine chicken in pot with enough water to cover the chicken and 1/2 cup Kosher salt. Add lemon and 1 rosemary sprig. Let sit for at least 4-6 hours.
Place chicken on sheet pans and pat dry. Drizzle chicken with canola oil, so skin is coated. Season with lemon pepper seasoning, half teaspoon Kosher salt, sage, garlic powder, remaining rosemary sprigs and parsley. Allow chicken to marinate for about an hour. Place in oven at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes. Then turn the oven up to 425 degrees and bake for an additional 10-15 minutes so that the skin crisps.
Per Serving: 955 calories (64 percent from fat), 68g fat (17.5 g saturated, 33 g monounsaturated), 449 mg cholesterol, 84 g protein, 1.0 g carbohydrate, 0 g fiber, 2182 mg sodium
Chimichurri on fire
This is a specialty of Anna Fiorenza of Miami Fire Station 6.
2 cups Italian parsley
1/4 cup thyme
1/4 cup oregano
small red onion, chopped
5 garlic cloves, minced
jalapeño pepper, seeded and chopped
juice from 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
In a food processor combine parsley, thyme and oregano. Place chopped herbs into mixing bowl, adding remaining ingredients. Mix together and transfer to airtight jar. Refrigerate for a few hours before serving.
Per tablespoon: 65 calories (92 percent from fat), 6.8 g fat (0.9 g saturated, 4.9 g monounsaturated), 0 mg cholesterol, 0.2 g protein, 1.1 g carbohydrate, 0,2 g fiber, 40 mg sodium.