Hard work goes hand in hand with hearty eating. And who knows more about physical labor and food than a station full of hungry firemen? Most firehouses have that one guy who loves to cook and makes the majority of the meals for his crew. At Station 5 in Moss Bluff, Jonathon Stelly is that man. “The guys here know how to eat!” he says. Stelly claims he can cook just about anything. “Everybody loves my cooking.” Gumbo, chili, and rice and gravy are a few of his favorites. “I love cookin’ and love eatin’ it,” he adds.
When the squads aren’t out on calls or dealing with emergencies, they have chores around the station to keep them busy; they check hydrants, test hoses, wash the trucks, maintain equipment, and clean the station, but they also find time to cook. Firemen work odd schedules requiring them to be at the firehouse for twenty-four hour stretches several days a week. Brown-bagging a lunch won’t cut it. And fast food gets old quickly. They need home-cooked meals.
When firemen turn up the heat in the kitchen, they cook quality food in large quantities. Whether cooking for three to four guys, or eight to nine, they usually make enough food to last several meals. “Cook once, eat twice,” says Clint Ward at Station 10 on Gulf Highway. At each firehouse, the designated cook has his specialties — those go-to meals that the men ask for over and over. For Ward, it’s fried fish or fried chicken. Many of the men he works with are fishermen and hunters, and they often eat what they catch, shoot or trap. Ward makes his own coleslaw and tartar sauce to go with the fried fish. His station is small — only two firemen work there at a time. But he still cooks big. They invite men from nearby stations to join them for dinner.
What’s On The Menu
Danny Rose cooks for the guys and gals at the Moss Bluff Central Station. He makes gumbo, sausage and red gravy, and crawfish etouffée, but his specialty is steak. “I love to grill steaks. I use Allegro brand marinade. They make it in hot and spicy, chipotle, teriyaki, and hickory smoke. I usually use the hickory or hot and spicy. Everybody loves them. Steak and gumbo are the crew’s favorites,” says Rose.
Over in Westlake, twenty-year veteran Ryan Qualls makes burritos and other Mexican fare. “That’s what the guys seem to like,” says Qualls. He also makes gumbo, ribs, and beef tips.
Jarred “Snap Bean” Miller has fought fires with the Sulphur Fire Department for ten years. Not long after starting work at their East Side Station 3, someone nicknamed him Snap Bean and the name stuck. “That’s how people know me in Sulphur,” says Miller. “I have a garden and grow vegetables and cook them. And I only weigh 140 pounds.” Miller says he does all the cooking at the station, at least for supper. “We all eat well every night. I cook pretty much anything, but mainly rice and gravy. Pork roast, beef roast, game, deer, pig, liver, barbecue; we cook anything under the sun. Give me a piece of carpet, I’ll make you a rice and gravy out of it.” Miller prepares meals for eight or nine men, but on holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, they invite the crews from all three Sulphur stations for a meal and serve around sixty people.
At Lake Charles’ Fire Station 4 on Creole Street, Mark Ware says several men there enjoy cooking and share the responsibility. While not necessarily a competition, Ware says they do vie for bragging rights on who’s the best cook. “You always want to perfect your meal,” he says. On a recent cold winter day, he made a pork stew, but he’s best known for his baked stuffed chicken with garlic roasted red potatoes and green beans. He’s been a fireman for eight years, starting after Hurricane Rita to help out with the emergency, and has been in their kitchen since then.
Many of these men have cooked all their lives. Most learned from their parents. Miller learned to cook from his father. “My grandma had a cafe and I watched my dad work at the snack bar.” Once Miller started working at the firehouse, he cooked alongside district chief Matt Frey. “He and I tagged up and he taught me a lot. He has a smokehouse and we smoke chickens, cheese, and sausage.”
Ware grew up in Opelousas and brings an authentic Cajun flair to his cooking. He and the other men who like to cook at Company 2 spend their down time at the station watching cooking shows on the Food Network. Guy Fieri is his favorite. “I learn to cook from watching other people cook. I incorporate other people’s recipes and then make them my own,” says Ware.
Rose, on the other hand, couldn’t fry an egg prior to working at the firehouse. “I didn’t know how to cut an onion or a bell pepper then. I learned from the senior firemen when I first came on the fire line. I stayed in the kitchen when I was a rookie, coming up through the fire service. You can’t help but learn, because that’s your job, especially being young,” said Rose.
Word For Word Or Wing It
Last year, the Lake Charles Firefighters Union put together a cookbook to raise money for the Union. But in truth, most station cooks do not use recipes. “I’ve never used a recipe in my life,” says Miller, citing years of experience. He describes his ability to cook as similar to a musician who can play by ear. “I just go with it.” Since Rose learned how to cook, he knows his recipes by heart, too. “I don’t measure anything. I just throw it all in there,” said Rose.
Sometimes fire crews are so well-known for their cooking, they enter area cook-offs. And win! Company 2 took a break from the competition the past couple years; but for three years straight, 2010-2012, they won first place in the Martin Luther King Festival Gumbo Cook-off. Miller has won several prizes for his jambalaya, including first place in the 2011 Our Lady of Prompt Succor Festival.
The Importance Of Food In The Firehouse
Sure, firemen cook in the firehouse out of necessity. “If we don’t cook, we don’t eat,” says Ward. But it’s more than that. There’s a trust and a camaraderie that come from cooking and sharing meals together, which is vitally important when you put your life on the line and work together to save lives. “Cooking at the firehouse is like cooking for your family,” Ware says. “We’re so close-knit; it feels good when everyone sits down at the table together — one big family.”
Biggware’s Creole Mardi Gras Pasta
This recipe comes from Mark Ware, who was just promoted to a new position at Station 4 on Creole St. in Lake Charles.
3 lbs. of Gulf jumbo shrimp
1 link of Rabideaux sausage
1 lb. box of fettuccine noodles
1 Vidalia onion
1 clove of garlic
1 can of tomato paste
1 tsp. of cayenne pepper
1 large carrot
1/4 cup of parsley
3 tbs. of fresh basil
1.5 cups heavy whipping cream
Start by dicing onions, carrots, celery, garlic and sausage. While dicing vegetables, pre-heat olive oil in skillet or cast iron pot and start boiling water for the noodles. (Add salt and a tbs. of olive oil to the water.) When you’re finished cutting vegetables, add to skillet and start the browning process. Just sweat the onions and carrots until tender.
Put in 2 tbs. of tomato paste and stir the mixture for 1 minute. Add 1 1/2 cup of whipping cream. Add Tony’s seasoning and cayenne. Stir for 5 minutes on a low fire. Add basil, parsley and shrimp. (If mixture is too thick, add a little water.)
Continue cooking for 15 minutes. Prepare noodles. Let dish cool for 10 minutes, then serve.