Cleveland Firehouse Supper Clubs

Ed Nar has a degree in hospitality and food service from Kent State University. He is perhaps one of the few people who became a firefighter because it was less stressful than his previous work. He was a chef.

Now, he presides over the kitchen at Fire Station 39 on Lorain Road in Cleveland’s West Park neighborhood. The firehouse is, among other things, a house, a place where shifts of firefighters spend an entire day every three days. It contains bedrooms (or a single large barracks-style dormitory in the case of Station 39), living rooms with comfortable chairs and televisions, workout rooms, large garages, and, of course, kitchens. During their 24- hour shifts, firefighters usually eat lunch and dinner, and someone has to make it. At many firehouses, a natural cook will emerge in any given shift, and Nar, comfortable as he is in the environs of a commercial kitchen with its six-burner stove and shiny stainless-steel cabinets, became the de facto chef at Station 39.

Read the rest of this story...

On this particular Sunday evening, Nar is cooking pork tenderloins, oven-roasted red potatoes, and by special request, cream corn. He places the redskins in a bowl, and douses them with olive oil. From a two-row rack holding more than two-dozen spices, he grabs the container Sharpie-marked “Ed’s” and generously sprinkles its contents onto the spuds. Nar’s specialty spice mix is a combination of Lawry’s Seasoned Salt, black pepper, paprika, and granulated garlic—his go-to blend for a variety of dishes.

Firefighters Sean Andrews—who says his job is to place the salt and pepper shakers on the table—and Mike “Lefty” Flynn come and go during food prep. They trade gentle barbs and news of retirements and marquee birthdays—events that are often marked with special meals. The atmosphere at the firehouse is easygoing and casual and very male—there are currently only three female firefighters in Cleveland, and only one in the academy—but they are also caring and not particularly macho. “At the end of the day you’ve got to look out for each other,” says Mike Norman, a department lieutenant and public information officer.

Firefighters eating meals together is a significant enough phenomenon that “firehouse cooking” has its own entry in the The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink. It’s even the topic of academic study. A 2015 study in the journal Human Performance looked at “How Workplace Commensality [eating and drinking at the same table] Relates to the Performance of Firefighters.” That study acknowledged that saving money and time are factors in why sharing meals began and spread. But it noted that “firefighters are clear to import significantly more meaning into the commensal process and no one during our site visits explicitly volunteered cost savings or time savings as the reason they cook and eat together. Instead, the most common explanation centered on variants of the phrase ‘we’re like a family’ or, in one firefighter’s words, ‘this is like a holiday meal every day’ with the implication that coworkers are akin to extended family members.”

Firehouse meals at Station 39 are pretty meaty and not necessarily healthy—the famous The Engine 2 Diet book would not be used here, except possibly as kindling to fire up the grill or smoker outside the firehouse’s back door. Nor do they follow the guidelines for firehouse food prep outlined in a Harvard study, “Feeding America’s Bravest,” despite the flattering title. Nar is known as the “stick a man” cook. He pretty much uses a stick of butter per person in his meals, which lean heavily toward Frenchstyle cuisine, with lots of sauces and creams. One of his popular dishes is spaghetti chicken carbonara served with a Caesar salad topped with his own dressing and homemade croutons (if you count anchovies, that’s three meats in one meal). Still, there is always salad and some kind of vegetable with every meal Nar prepares.

Nar lights up when he talks about an upcoming Sunday brunch. He has Browns tickets, so on the Sundays that the Browns are off or away, he signs up to work. On those days, he’s in charge of brunch, which includes eggs Benedict. “I’ll be making my hollandaise,” he says with a mixture of pride and excitement. Other firefighters have looked over his shoulder when he’s made the delicate concoction in the past to learn how to do it right, “because it’s easy to break it,” Nar says.

While precision and managing equipment and maintenance can be the difference between life and death for a firefighter, in the kitchen, the stakes are lower. It is clear that Nar would prefer a certain kind of order, but he knows there will be two shifts of 24 hours in between this shift and his next. Sixteen more guys who will decide where the bowls, the sharp knives, and the cutting boards should go.

There’s a misconception that the fire department pays for the meals the firefighters eat at work. Not so. Firefighters contribute $15 a shift for their meals. (The collection is called the Supper Club, but it actually gets them lunch and dinner). Leftover funds are socked away for a special occasion, such as dinner at a restaurant with spouses. Etiquette dictates that each shift leaves sufficient bread, butter, and milk for the following shift. Thus, every shopping list contains those items, along with one more necessity: dessert. The crew at Station 39 shops at Giant Eagle, and sometimes the West Side Market and the nearby K & K Portage Market. The crews also pitch in $30 a month to a house fund for spices, oils, coffee and tea, condiments, peanut butter and jelly, as well as equipment like a food processor (plus cable TV, newspaper delivery, and dishwasher detergent).

Tending the Fire

Kevin Terry stands behind a wide grill at the edge of the packed Lot A in the Cleveland Muni Lot. The grill abuts a pickup truck’s open tailgate, the bed of which contains the heavy coat and unmistakable hat of a firefighter. It’s 9am on a Sunday game day, and the Browns are playing the Chargers. (Spoiler alert: the Browns lost). It’s chilly, but Terry is in shorts, spatula in hand. He has a dozen or so burgers on the grill, dried onion pieces poking out of the thick patties that are starting to puff up.

A steady stream of friends and family—and for Terry, even firefighters he doesn’t really know who he considers friends and family—come by with special requests. He greets each with a hug and a smile. A man dressed in red-and-white striped short shorts, donning a wig of thick curly hair and a sweatband ringing a bald spot—the unmistakable getup of Richard Simmons—approaches Terry, who hugs him and introduces him as another firefighter named Anthony. Two young friends of Anthony’s materialize, and they sheepishly bum a burger off Terry. From a nearby stereo, LL Cool J observes approvingly that “Tina got a big ole butt.”

Terry was supposed to be competing in a rib cookoff (Kansas City rules) with rival firefighter cooks, but it was cancelled at the last minute due to the unpredictability of the lives of firefighters. Schedules change. Like, for instance, Terry was recently promoted and is no longer assigned to a specific firehouse. He’s now a B-6 rover junior lieutenant, which means he no longer has a home kitchen.

Before his promotion, he was the principal cook at his station house (Terry does the cooking at his actual home, too, saying his wife’s cooking is the source of running jokes. “She takes an hour to cook minute rice,” is one of them.) He wasn’t the only cook at the station, but his reputation and stature carry some authority in the kitchen.

“I had a young guy who was going to do something stupid,” he remembers. “I had to pull rank.” The stupid thing? He was going to make Korean beef. Instead, Terry made lemon and rosemary beer-can chicken, with baked broccoli and garlic. Another save for Lt. Terry. While firefighters eagerly run toward what everyone else desperately runs from, they tend to be risk-averse when it comes to cuisine.

For his feasts, Terry shops smart, buying cheap onion soup mix at Aldi’s and meat at GFS to get the most out of the 15 bucks he and his colleagues chip in each day for their meals. Learning to pick up the groceries is one of the things taught in fire training academy, Norman says. The cadets are told, “You are a buyer, not a shopper.” Don’t get clever, don’t get creative, buy it as it is written. Woe to the rookie buyer who deviates from the list, particularly if he brings back anything labeled “light,” “diet,” or “sugar-free.” A container of low-fat sour cream was flung across the kitchen of a Cleveland firehouse, and the buyer sent back to the store for full strength. One fire station keeps a wall of shame—a door, actually—festooned with offending packages and the name of the offender scrawled on them (“Slender” ice cream, “Texas Toast” garlic bread bought for grilled cheese sandwiches, no-salt-added potato chips, and so on).

The other sin for the firehouse cook is to “lay out short.” Usually the term means to not set out a sufficient length of hose to combat a fire, but in the kitchen, it means not making enough food to satisfy the crew.

There are those who—for health or religious reasons—have food prohibitions, particularly against pork. There have even been vegetarians and those with allergies. “The guys will respect your wishes,” says Terry, “but they’ll harass you.”

For good cooks, the men will defer to what the cook wants to do. “For a bad cook, everyone will kick in,” says Norman. They will add salt or other spices to shore up the cook’s shortcomings.

But sometimes a meal prep will get out of whack due to the nature of firefighting, where firefighters will have to scram like, well, like a house on fire. That means sometimes multiple cooks are tending to a dish. One Cleveland firefighter recalled a recipe that called for one very spicy ghost pepper. The head cook added it to the dish before leaving, but two subsequent cooks working on the meal didn’t realize it and added another one each.

That dish was almost too hot, even for firefighters.