By Melinda Lavine for the Duluth News Tribune
They huddled around the kitchen island shredding chicken into a big metal bowl. “It’s always teamwork,” said Dan Smith.
It was almost dinnertime at the Duluth Fire Department, and Smith stirred a simmering red sauce with onions, roasted poblano peppers, cumin, chili powder, garlic, diced tomatoes and spicy hot V8. On the menu was an updated eggplant enchilada recipe he found online.
There’s a chef rotation at the firehouse, but “I typically cook a little more because I have a lot of recipes,” said Curtis Drommerhausen. In his repertoire: tacos, deep-dish pizza, pad thai, a Juicy Lucy with smoked gouda, diced jalapenos and sometimes cream cheese.
The fare isn’t always fancy, Smith assured. Yeah, there are pork chops and a fish boil, but “There are a lot of days when it’s bratwursts and tater tots.”
Crews work in 24-hour shifts. The firehouse is their home away from home, and dinner is their time to eat as a family, Smith said.
Each crew has its own refrigerator, and dinner costs $5, which is pretty reasonable, said assistant fire chief Chris Martinson. In his 28-year tenure, the price has gone up only $3.
The money is used for groceries, and some meals are cheaper than others, Brandon Teets said. When they plan that way, they can save up for nicer dinners.
Along with the cost, the types of meals have changed. Together, Scott Kleive and Carmine Langlois have more than 40 years of firefighting experience. When they started, there were a lot of meat and potatoes.
“If you cooked something like this (enchiladas), you were a bit of an outcast,” Kleive said.
Meals started shifting about 10 years ago, and education about dietary needs also has changed. On the crew are some with a lactose intolerance, others who are gluten-free and one vegetarian, Drommerhausen said. The chefs accommodate them by making separate portions.
Dinner quality can vary depending on who’s cooking, they said.
“Some guys make weenie-water soup, and that’s their specialty, and others make these beyond 5-star meals,” Langlois said. More seasoned chefs always offer guidance.
“We spend a third of our lives with each other,” Smith said. “We’ve become very protective of each other.”
Teets is newer to the station, and you don’t want to disappoint 12 guys when it’s your turn, he said. One tip he picked up: “I spent all day making homemade meatballs, and then I used sauce out of the can, which is a big no-no.”
If there’s ever a kitchen blunder, they turn it into a pizza night, or they improvise. “I tried making my own hot dog buns, and they just didn’t rise, so it ended up being a breadstick,” Drommerhausen said.
One cooking setback happened when seasoned chicken sat on the fire truck bumper, waiting for the grill. A call came in, and the chicken? “It made it to the table after being tenderized on 6th Avenue West,” Smith said. “When the bell rings, everything goes away, and we are there to do a job. … We do what we need to.”
It’s common to get a call when they’re cooking, said Steven Swanson. “Then, it’s shut the oven off, shut the stovetop off, and out the door we go.”
Soon after, as the firefighters rolled enchiladas, one, two, three calls came in, and each truck was deployed. One-by-one, they slid down one of the fire poles in the hallway.
Less than an hour later, one, two trucks returned, and the crew lined up to dish chicken enchiladas with red sauce. The table was set with pitchers of ice water and silverware. They each sat and conversed, the dining room filling with chatter. The enchiladas were zippy and crunchy, thanks to almonds Smith grilled on the stovetop.
“Nice meal, you guys,” said Dan Lattner.
There’s fresh salmon, elk, wild rice, broccoli — and not the frozen kind.
It’s chow time at the Superior Fire Department, and the elk was compliments of Camron Vollbrecht, who’d hunted it himself. On broccoli duty was John Melcher, who did it up in the oven with a little olive oil and garlic.
The crew isn’t keen on store-bought marinades, so for the salmon, battalion chief Scott Gordon made one from butter, soy sauce and a sprinkling of Cajun seasoning. “When you work with quality stuff, you don’t need to jazz it up,” he said.
There is a chef rotation in their firehouse, but it was a team effort during a winter visit. The only cooking rules are don’t run out, and try to make it taste good.
As a crew, they make their own wild rice burgers that they freeze and dip into later for meals. They make fish tacos and jalapeno coleslaw. Gordon specializes in the guacamole and spicy chili. Melcher’s staples are chicken and fish.
“We like antelope,” said Vollbrecht, who’s the resident hunter.
Sometimes, it’s gourmet and other times, it’s cheeseburgers and fries, and while the city provides the stove and the refrigerators, the firefighters buy everything that goes in them, Gordon said.
At their station, there’s a tradition called “McGoofers,” where the newbie cooks for a shift of about 13. It’s a lot of pressure, and it can sometimes define your career, Gordon said.
This can be easier for firefighters who started later in life, like himself, Vollbrecht said. It can feel challenging for new recruits who have never cooked outside of frozen pizza.
“We don’t want anybody to fail, but we also want to learn right away who can and can’t cook,” Gordon said.
For Melcher’s McGoofers, he brought in a kettle grill and cooked ham and homemade coleslaw. “Everybody, their mouths were full,” he said.
Gordon had never cooked when he started working at the firehouse, and it was intimidating. With backup from his family, he made lasagna and an ice cream cake for his McGoofers. “That was a hit,” he said.
In the station, each shift had its own fridge, there are kitchen cabinets with their names on them and a handwritten thank-you note in crayon hanging on the wall.
They’ve got a grill that they purchased themselves in the back. Steam rose when Vollbrecht opened the cover, and the elk and salmon sizzled on the grate.
High heat for a shorter period of time is the trick, he said. Also, cooking meat in larger chunks helps lock in the juices.
Injecting the marinade under the skin keeps the flavor in, Gordon added. And when he eyed the salmon off the grill, “I can already tell, that’s perfect.”
The men circled up at their set table. They offered milk, coffee, water. The salmon fell away in plump, pink flakes. The elk was juicy and melty in the mouth. The wild rice lightly buttery and flavorful, the broccoli just crisp enough.
When it’s Corey Larson’s turn to cook, he specializes in personalized versions of pastrami mami and Rachel sandwiches.
Larson knew he wanted to be a firefighter when he was in high school, and he said the firehouse camaraderie sometimes consists of pulling pranks. “Scaring each other is kind of our go-to.”
But rarely does fear register when they’re on a call.
“Once you’re in the moment … and you know that you’re with a good crew, that fear kind of goes away. … Everybody’s a team,” Larson said.
For as much information that they know about one another, it’s like a second family, in good times and bad times, Vollbrecht added.
And that sentiment extends to the station, Melcher said. “We do our own laundry, we wash our floors, we vacuum.
“It’s our house.”