During 24-hour shifts, firefighters bond, sharpen culinary skills by cooking together

  • Northampton Fire Department Captain Matthew Lemberg seasons his meatloaf with dried spices and Worcestershire sauce at the Carlon Drive fire station. “You can tell this is a lot of science,” he jokes. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Northampton Firefighter Daniel Martin peels carrots at the Carlon Drive fire station. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • A firefighter’s shift typically lasts 24 hours, and the firefighters are responsible for paying for their own food and feeding themselves. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Eggs from Northampton Firefighter Eric Toia’s home-farm in Sunderland. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Northampton firefighters make dinner at the Carlon Drive firehouse. On the ceiling, a circular red light signals an incoming emergency message about a call. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • In firefighting, “If you don’t know how to cook, you’ll learn really quickly,” said Northampton Firefighter Eric Toia. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

Staff Writer
Published: 3/26/2019 3:10:02 PM

Cooking isn’t a skill that’s taught in the fire academy, but maybe it should be.

In this job, “if you don’t know how to cook, you’ll learn really quickly,” said Northampton Firefighter Eric Toia as he peeled potatoes in the kitchen of the city’s Carlon Drive fire station. “At least in this department, a lot of time is spent in the kitchen.”

A firefighter’s shift typically lasts 24 hours, and the firefighters are responsible for paying for and preparing their own food. But they’ve found it’s healthier and more cost effective to pool their money together, buy ingredients in bulk and cook at scale.

On an average 24-hour shift, Toia said Northampton firefighters cook and eat three meals together. Typically, breakfast consists of eggs, pancakes and sausage; lunch is often some sort of sandwich wrap; dinners are hearty sit-down meals. Not only is in-house cooking cost-effective, Toia said — they try to limit ingredient costs to $10 per person per day — but the meals also offer a chance for the firefighters to bond in a low-stress environment.

Plus, the firefighter chefs simply enjoy cooking.

“The station is definitely an area of experimentation,” Toia said, remembering one time when the crew tried making fast-food inspired lasagna that featured cheeseburgers and onion rings mixed together. It wasn’t as good as they thought it would be.

Each shift has one or two firefighters who are known for their creative flair and who seek out new recipes on Pinterest.

On his shift, Toia highlighted Firefighter Candace Bogalhas, who is “famous for her enchiladas.” On other shifts, Firefighter Jim Mulkrin is known for buttermilk fried chicken served with mashed potatoes. Firefighter Kara Ledoux makes a celebrated glazed pork. Other firefighters who are known for their culinary skills include Jeff Jasinski, who makes a mean garlic rosemary roast and Tim Putnam, who prepares a noted shrimp scampi.

Personally, Toia, who has been in the department for five years, said, “I like to think my chicken Parmesan is pretty good.” Occasionally, he also brings in fresh eggs from his home in Sunderland.

The fire department is equipped with a full commercial kitchen. One cabinet is devoted to shift-specific ingredients. In another, community condiments are stored.

“We have everything from an air fryer to rice cookers,” Toia said, pointing out a George Foreman grill, an electric knife and a rotisserie roaster.

Before he was called out of the station on an emergency call, Captain Matthew Lemberg was planning to make 5½ pounds of meatloaf — a fire department staple because it’s easily made and is packed with protein — served alongside 10 pounds of garlic mashed potatoes and 4 pounds of honey-glazed carrots.

In some ways, cooking for a group is easier than cooking for one or two people, Toia said, noting they rarely have leftovers.

“We all want to eat. Food keeps morale up. No one likes a hungry firefighter,” he said.

Minutes before, the other half-dozen members of Toia’s B-shift squad, including Lemberg, had left to investigate a call from the Walter Salvo House on Conz Street. Toia began prepping the potatoes so they’d be ready for boiling when the engine returned.

On a whiteboard on the wall above Toia is a chart listing the names of each shift member and whether or not they’ve paid for meals yet. Cooking for a firehouse requires effort from everyone, he said. Money is collected beforehand, meals are planned in advance and ingredients are usually picked up before the shift by the junior firefighter on the squad. Those who don’t cook help with cleanup.

Just then, Firefighter Josh Coates entered the kitchen and joined Toia at the counter, helping him cube the potatoes. While he doesn’t often cook by himself, Coates said he often helps out under another firefighter’s direction.

“I like to think of it as being the sous-chef,” he said.

Because Northampton Fire Department is busy — averaging about 30 calls each day last year — one firefighter might start prepping ingredients and others might finish the meal. Sometimes, they don’t get a chance to cook or eat at all. If a call comes in the middle of cooking, Toia said they turn off the stove and leave everything where it is.

Crock-Pot meals are especially handy because they can be started in the morning, slow-cooked in the afternoon and remain hot at night. Firefighters can grab a bowl whenever they have time, Toia said.

Lemberg and his engine crew soon returned from the Salvo House and he took over from Toia. The call was a false alarm. Lemberg tossed the beef with diced onions and peppers, working quickly to make sure the meal got into the oven before another call came in.

He poured in ketchup and then added loosely measured amounts of barbecue sauce, mayonnaise and salt.

“You can tell this is a lot of science,” he joked.

Lemberg’s Firefighter Meatloaf

Lemberg said his meatloaf “feeds eight hungry firefighters, or 10 to 12 normal people.”

Ingredients:

4 to 5 lbs. ground beef

1 lb. ground sausage (The firefighters prefer chorizo or hot sausage, but you can use sweet)

1 to 1½ cups Italian bread crumbs

1 large Vidalia onion

1 large red pepper

3 eggs

1 lb. bacon

½ cup milk or half-and-half

¼ cup ketchup

¼ cup Worcestershire sauce

¼ cup A1 sauce

1 to 2 T Adobo seasoning

1 to 2 T black pepper

1 to 2 T salt

2 T Italian seasoning

2 T granulated garlic

Preheat the oven to 375 to 400 degrees.

Chop the onion and red pepper. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and mix them together until they’re well incorporated.

Place the mixture on a baking sheet and shape into a loaf (or loaf pan if using smaller amounts of beef).

Cover the uncooked loaf with bacon strips and cook for about one hour. Serve with brown gravy and mashed potatoes.


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