Cook of the Week: Firehouse cook takes care of crew with home-cooked meals
Firefighter/paramedics work long shifts and eat many meals at the station.
At Buffalo Grove Station 26, those meals are mostly made by John Jason, a 23-year veteran of the department who has assumed the role of firehouse cook, making healthy, satisfying and quick meals that his co-workers can enjoy in between emergency calls.
As John sees it, he's providing a meal to his second family, the firefighters who support him during difficult calls and step in with brawn and manpower when he needs help moving.
"You always know, regardless what happens in your life, you will always have people that will back you up," he said. "These are people who are important in your life. You want to take care of them."
John estimates he cooks for almost four of every five shifts (a shift is a 24-hour stint), planning each day's menu when he reports for duty in the morning. Sometimes guys will make a request or he'll ask for suggestions. John said he can list every firefighter as well as their food preferences and allergies.
"I've cooked for every guy in the department," he said. "Rarely do I miss out on something someone doesn't like. One guy hates cheese. I can never cook cheese when he's around. I always pick on him because I have to change the menu."
With $10 from each crew member, he plans lunch and dinner and sends the fire truck crew out to shop. (He's on the ambulance, which can get tied up at the hospital.) His meals don't require a lot of ingredients, too many steps or long cooking time. If he gets a 911 call, most of the work may already be prepped and he may only need someone at the station to finish up.
"I would never make a beef Wellington where I could never explain something like over the phone to a guy, or country-fried steak and how to season the bread crumbs and fry it in oil. It would really be a difficult meal to make."
While John loves being in the kitchen, he relies on fellow firefighters to lend a hand chopping vegetables or setting the table.
"Almost every day someone will stop by the kitchen, see me starting to cook and ask if I need a hand. It's an unwritten rule. If you're not doing anything and someone is doing something, you should be helping him work," he said. "One day I had someone at the grill, one at the oven, one chopping food and one setting the table so that everybody can eat before we can get another call."
John said he relies on Mexican food such as tacos. In the morning, he makes mango salsa and homemade coleslaw, which taste better after sitting awhile, and if he runs to a call, he can ask someone to brown and season ground turkey or saute shrimp.
Other firehouse staples include chili, soups or his spaghetti sauce. Starting with a store-bought sauce, he adds his own touches (and a little wine, with the chief's OK).
"The crew can come in anytime and eat and they will get a fresh hot meal," he said. "It's a hearty meal that can sit all day and it never goes bad."
On a recent afternoon, John served navy bean soup made with a leftover ham hock as well as some vegetables and parboiled beans. He served it with a sandwich requested by one of the firefighters, a Reuben dog. Cheaper than corned beef, hot dogs are layered in a bun with Thousand Island dressing, sauerkraut mixed with a little sugar, and a slice of Swiss cheese. John said it's cheap and easy, so it's a favorite at the station.
On a self-prescribed health kick, John tries to cook more nutritious meals. He uses pasta that boosts the fiber, prepares spinach salad and uses less red meat and more chicken. Still he knows there are some at the station who will do their own thing like adding ranch dressing to spaghetti sauce or passing on his handiwork for a bowl of cereal. No matter what they eat, John said it's a big deal that they all come to the table to eat.
"At dinner time, we sit down and we talk and we make sure we eat together. Nobody sits by themselves," he said.
While John may be praised at the Buffalo Grove station for his cooking, his co-workers are quick to point out his downfall, he is a messy cook.
"The guys will ask, 'how can you do this to a kitchen in only a half-hour,' " he said.
So when it comes to cooking at home in Kenosha, Wis., John said his wife, Tracey, bans him from the kitchen.
"She won't let me cook," he said. "I get into her kitchen and I will destroy it."