By A.J. Fusco
Many of the world’s problems can be solved at the firehouse kitchen table but, unfortunately, it’s also a place where we create many of our own. While a lot is asked of firefighters and we are good at taking care of others, we often struggle when it comes to taking care of ourselves. Improvement starts in the kitchen!
Every day, in firehouses all over the world, firefighters sit down and eat together. There they pass around traditional dishes like meatloaf, mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, and steaks that have long been the bedrock of firehouse cooking. I often get asked why these types of foods are so popular among firefighters and, to be honest, I don’t have a good answer. Maybe these are comforting and help with the fact that we are not home with our families? Perhaps it’s that many of the dishes are quick and easy? Or they just taste too good? Well, instead of hypothesizing why we eat this way, we must shift focus onto how we can improve it. The task of altering the way fire service eats will not be an easy fight. It will require hard work and dedication from a few to benefit the whole. For those willing to take on this task, we must start with small steps to create a sustainable change.
One of the best ways to start is by adjusting the way we shop. Next time your crew heads to the store, try doing all your shopping on the perimeter. This is where most supermarkets set up their fresh produce and fresh meat and, lucky for us, the variety available most places these days is nearly endless. Stock the cart with healthy, fresh foods first before cruising through the middle of the store where the sugary, processed foods are. If you’ve done it right, there won’t be any room left for junk, and you’ll get back to the firehouse with the right ingredients for a healthy meal.
Fruits and vegetables provide vitamins, minerals, and fiber, all of which are extremely important to our health and performance. Let’s focus on getting more vegetables on our plates. Yes, I know this may seem easier said than done, but it is not impossible. One way to accomplish this is by hiding them in a dish. Last week at the station, I substituted mashed cauliflower for half of the potatoes in Shepherd’s Pie. My crew loved it! They also had no idea! Members who typically would turn their backs to a vegetable were asking for seconds. Sautéing, roasting, steaming, pureeing, and yes even frying are all ways to prepare most vegetables, producing different results in flavor and texture that may appeal to even the most critical palate. The more they like it, the more they’ll eat it!
Every firehouse meal also must contain a protein in some shape or form; in my opinion, this is where we go wrong most often. Instead of fruits and vegetables taking up most of the real estate on our plates, it is often the protein that does. We have all had the steak that hangs off the edge of the plate or the rack of ribs that need their own seat at the table. Ideally that protein, especially if not lean, should only take up about a quarter of the plate, with vegetables and carbohydrates making up the rest. We as firefighters tend to worry about protein first and then vegetables after (if at all). Instead, we should be hitting the produce aisle followed by the butcher counter. And, if it’s your night to cook: Just make more vegetables! That way, when they want seconds or even thirds, your crew is forced to eat healthy choices.
Listen, healthy eating is not all salads, kale, and fresh pressed juices. It’s using fresh produce and whole ingredients and paying attention to what we are putting in our shopping carts and onto our plates. The keys to success here are adding variety and volume–more healthy options means more healthy choices!
A.J. Fusco started Fork and Hose Company in 2011 by as a way to share his passion for cooking with other firefighters. Over time, it grew to a community of firehouse chefs sharing meals and recipes from all over the world, with a focus on healthier cooking. In 2017, A.J.’s dedication to firehouse cooking landed him on Food Network’s “Guy’s Grocery Games” twice, and on his first show he won the Salute to Firefighters episode! A.J.’s passion for cooking didn’t stop in the firehouse! He enrolled at the International Culinary Center in Manhattan in 2016 and graduated Top of the Class in the Professional Culinary Arts program. A.J. has worked in professional kitchens in Manhattan and Westchester since graduating and continues to do so on his days off from the firehouse.