It wasn't hard to find who I was looking for. I asked the first guy I saw in the station if there was a cook around that I could talk to. "You kiddin' me? We got the best cook in the district right here. He's in the kitchen right now. Orange hat. He's cooking."
I crossed the cavernous garage and went into the kitchen, a hive of activity. The orange-hatted cook was alternately frying ground beef in a giant skillet on the huge stove and chopping a heap of onions and cilantro on the kitchen island. One guy was washing an enormous bowl at the sink, and another was chopping tomatoes, expertly, like a chef, at the immense dining table. The firehouse cook was orchestrating lunch. It was Taco Tuesday.
John Gallardo has been a Chicago firefighter for 11 years, a cook for 9. He's been at the Hyde Park station for 6 years. He cooks at least 2 meals a day for 13--2 rigs each with a crew of 5, 2 paramedics, 1 chief. He does breakfast, too, but that usually involves leftovers so I think he thinks that's not really cooking.
You get to be a cook in a firehouse by trial and error, floating to the top by cooking well, frugally, and cheerfully. It's not a paid position but Gallardo explained to me that the guys are nice enough to let him out of a few chores, certain cleaning jobs like toilets. "There's a little perk here and there." The cook gets--by contract--one hour to shop for the groceries for that day. A firehouse can never spare two people for this. Each fire fighter pays his or her own way, daily, for board. This is known as the food club. On Gallardo's shift $15 a day gets you coffee, snacks, at least two great meals. Gallardo admits he keeps his costs down. Other shifts, the food is more expensive, $20 a day. "It's hard to find the bargains. I've been doing this a long time."
There are three shifts, and each has its own locked cabinet and fridge. As much as I didn't know about firehouse cooking culture, I did know about this lock business. I have to tell a little story here. When my son was turning three we scheduled a tour of this fire station for his birthday. At the appointed hour, all the little friends and parents gathered at the station only to find that the firehouse was completely empty--but for the wandering German shepherd dog, who was a tiny bit alarming. We were standing in that cavernous garage, wondering what we should do, when an engine backed in, lights flashing, siren blaring. We scattered like roaches in all directions. When it was apparent that we could come out of hiding, I told a disembarking fireman about our dilemma. "Oh, no problem!" he boomed. "This isn't our firehouse but it is one of the nicer ones in the city. I'd like to see it too! I'll show you around!" He explained that the whole crew of this station was out at a serious fire and his crew had been stationed here for the time being. He showed us everything on the truck, as firemen will, gave us a tour, and brought us finally into the kitchen. "You know," he began, "firefighters lock their fridges. But this one's open, today's shift no doubt. Let's check in the freezer for some ice cream." We sat around the great table while the visiting fireman doled out illicitly obtained ice cream to all the three year olds. And then there was a call. As quick as a blink (but politely) the crew was hopping onto their rig and roaring out, lights flashing, sirens blaring. And we parents sat there staring at each other, alone with the dog once again in the station but now eating the firemen's ice cream in their kitchen. It seemed time to go. We made a hasty exit from our impromptu birthday tour. I never told the firemen about that ice cream. Thanks, gentlemen.
The kitchen really is well-equipped. It was redone since the birthday party. There are two ovens, a flat grill, a broiler, six massive gas burners on the stove top, and a hooded warmer above. There is a bank of deep industrial sinks, and just outside the door two grills adjacent to the parking lot--a gas grill and a charcoal kettle. Everything seems massive, Paul Bunyan scale skillets hanging from racks, Paul Bunyan roasting pans on shelves below, Paul Bunyan pots for stew.
"We have traditions," he told me. "Tuesday is always tacos. Saturday is always pizza for lunch, corned beef for dinner. For breakfast the next shift I'll make corned beef hash with the leftovers. Friday is fish day."
I start to wonder about vegetarians, food allergies, special dietary needs. In my house alone I have to cook high protein for one; another can eat no dairy, whole grain, soy, red meat, or anything fried; a third is a very picky aspiring vegetarian. How can you possibly accommodate thirteen?
"Oh sure, we have all that. I got guys who can't eat shellfish, won't eat pork. The paramedics are vegetarians." He does his best to accommodate everyone.
He must do it well. Everyone I saw and talked to at the firehouse raved about their cook. "Best cook we've ever had," "best there is"--these kinds of comments were typical.
I get that. I stopped by Thanksgiving morning enticed by the idea of a firefighter-scale Thanksgiving, as Gallardo would prepare that day. He was just finishing breakfast clean-up. "Mexican breakfast today. I used the leftover pot roast," gesturing vaguely toward the fridge. I remembered--his previous shift he had made 6 pot roasts for dinner in a roasting pan the size of a card table. What was left was used for a shredded beef taco filling--along with warm corn tortillas, black beans spiked with chorizo, carne asada, fried potatoes, and scrambled eggs. Alongside were two gorgeous salsas and a guacamole, all homemade. After I oohed and aahed, photographed, and actually asked to sniff the pico de gallo, Gallardo might have wondered if the only way to stop me was to offer me a taco. I happily accepted. The green sauce, pico de gallo, and guacamole were perfect complements to the tender spicy beef and carne asada. It was all delicious.
But what about Thanksgiving? When will you start cooking that? "Oh, noon, one," he said casually. "We'll eat at our usual dinner time, 6:30. You don't want to mess with the schedule. I'll be doing two turkeys and a ham. Using the bag for them all. The bag is very forgiving. If we go out on a call, that turkey's never going to get dried out in the bag." He was nonchalant, totally relaxed. "I'm doing five sides--sweet potatoes, green beans, broccoli cheese casserole, mashed potatoes, stuffing."
All that and you're starting at "noon, one"? "Oh yeah. It's no problem. I'm used to this. As soon as we get going I'll get my cuisinarts started," he smiled, nodding sideways at his fellow firefighters. "It'll come together fast."
I went home then to tend to my own turkey. Nervous, not nonchalant. In between tending the grill and a pie in the oven a few hours later, I dashed back over to the station to check on the progress. "I'm done," Gallardo said smiling. Done?! What? How?! I demanded. "It's nothing really. I'll show you." Sure enough, two turkeys and a ham browned beautifully in the ovens next to one of those big pans of stuffing. On the stove top, a giant skillet of sliced sweet potatoes. Out on the gas grill two casseroles bubbling away--classic green bean with the crunchy onions on top, and the broccoli cheese. "We were lucky today, only had one call this morning."
Was it a Thanksgiving cooking fire? Do you get much of that with turkeys, or is that sort of a myth? "Oh--yes, definitely, a lot of cooking fires on Thanksgiving. Turkeys, yes. But also biscuit fires, cutting boards under the broiler, you name it. Some of these ovens, they don't get used but once a year." I wonder aloud, which is worse for fires--turkeys, or Christmas trees? "No question. Definitely Christmas trees."
He told me that on Thanksgiving, several of the fire fighters bring specialties of their own from home. "The guys, they bring the appetizers. Try this--it's really great," he ushered me over to two molded dips, one crab and one shrimp, and a plate of tortilla roll-ups. The crab dip was really great. "And one guy, he made cranberry sauce from fresh. I guess he didn't think much of my canned cranberry sauce." He lifted the foil veil on the garnet-colored contents of a huge bowl. Fresh cranberry sauce is gorgeous, but by the gallon it's practically luminous.
"The families will come, bring a few more things." Of course I wanted to photograph that, but there are some things better left undisturbed--like families being able to share this feast with dads and moms who put their lives on the line for a living. Anyway I had my own kitchen hysteria to return to.
I put away my camera and buttoned up my coat. "I have the best job in the world," Gallardo said, arms crossed, standing in his kitchen. You mean as a cook in the fire house? "Being a fire fighter. The cooking is just a bonus. But fire fighters--we're one big family. There's no better job anywhere."
I guess living on the razor edge of risk--as your job, as your way of life--makes you keenly grateful. Standing here in this bright large-scale kitchen with Thanksgiving cooking away behind every door and on every surface, it feels miles away from that razor edge. But when I hear the sirens now, as I do every day, over and over, so often I can almost totally ignore them--when I hear them, I will think of 13 people who eat like Paul Bunyan and have families who miss them when they're on shift, and a cook who lends their lives normalcy, routine, and cheerful humility, and feeds them wonderfully well.
Filed under: recipes