NEW YORK CITY — Starting to broil a nice steak or boil a pot of pasta is always a gamble while on shift at a firehouse, with the omnipresent threat of a rescue call hanging over every half-cooked meal.
"We all try to eat together at a communal meal at the [fire]house," said Keith Young, 49, a firefighter at Ladder 20 in SoHo who spent two years in culinary school before he joined the FDNY in 1998. "It's like breaking up a family if you are not sitting down to eat a meal at least a few times a week. That's important."
In addition to building camaraderie, the tradition has the added benefit of training legions of serious foodies across the five boroughs. Young, the author of the cookbook "Cooking With the Firehouse Chef," won the annual cooking competition held by the New York City Firehouse Museum, while his colleague Tony Catapano, a retired firefighter, co-authored a cookbook of classic firehouse recipes.
At Catapano's former firehouse, Engine 202 in Red Hook, meal preparation works on an apprentice system — with rookies starting out washing dishes before moving on to making salads and sides, and then eventually being allowed to cook the main dish.
"You graduate to different stages," said Catapano, who said he first learned to cook from his mother — but went on to hone his cooking skills at the firehouse.
Firefighter and self-taught cook Paul Rut, who's assigned to SoHo's Ladder 20, said he learned to cook during his shifts because "I wanted to have something that tasted good, not slop."
In addition to cooking and eating together, firefighters also go on shopping runs between fire calls. They split the cost of ingredients between those assigned to the shift, firefighters said.
For many, the sight of a crew of uniformed firefighters filing into their grocery store can spark panic — until they realize the only thing they have to fear is that the ripe produce may be picked over and the best meat gone by the time the FDNY members hit the checkout lanes.
At Engine 202, meals are always cooked from scratch and firefighters often use their own recipes, according to retired Firefighter Peter Calascione, 71. His creations included a twice-cooked chicken cutlet with eggplant, mozzarella and prosciutto with a mushroom sauce.
Calascione and Catapano are now cooks for a monthly breakfast held by Friends of Firefighters, a nonprofit that supports the firefighting community.
Trying to cook meals each night while on duty definitely comes with challenges, they said.
When the inevitable call for a fire comes in the middle of cooking a meal, "whatever you are doing, you literally just drop everything," Young said.
Cooking a steak poses a particular challenge, added Catapano, who said his past attempts to resuscitate the cold meat never worked as planned.
"The steak is not the same," he said.
Pasta boiling in a pot is often another lost cause when a company gets called out.
"If pasta is in the water, then it's too bad. It's going to be mush by the time you get back," said Rut.
But like the rest of their on-duty assignments, firefighters are strict about the division of duties when it comes to cooking.
Those who oversee the firehouse meal aren't allowed to participate in the cleanup.
After whipping up a meal for a dozen people, "I would literally try to clean up and they would force me to sit down," Young said.
Firefighters said the act of eating together is more than just team-building — it's the glue that keeps them whole as they risk their lives on the job.
"We never know if that might be our last [meal]," Catapano said. "Sometimes you go out the door with five men and you come back with four."
He shared this recipe for a flank steak, sausage and vegetable dish.
Pot-Pourri Richard by Tony Catapano
2 lbs. Italian sausage cut into bite-size pieces
1 lb. boneless chicken breast, cut into bite-size pieces
1 head of broccoli, cut
1 head cauliflower, cut
2 lbs. potatoes, cut into bite-size pieces
1 package instant onion soup mix
1 lb. London broil (flank steak)
1 small onion, chopped
1/2 lb. mushrooms, cut in half
1 tbsp. chopped parsley
2 garlic cloves, chopped
3 shakes Worcestershire sauce
Coat heated frying pan with oil. In this order, add sausages, chicken, broccoli, cauliflower and then potatoes.
When items are cooked, place them in a baking pan and add onion soup mix and hot water. Put pan on low heat.
At the same time, broil or barbecue beef. Once cooked, cut steak into strips and place in baking pan along with any juice from the meat.
Saute onion, mushrooms, parsley and garlic in frying pan until soft. Add Worcestershire sauce and pour into baking pan. Add some hot water if more juice is needed.
For Pot-Pourri Richard Supreme, add shrimp.