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Firehouse cuisine: Station cooks dish it out

Rob Bhatt

Between putting out fires, helping clean up hazardous material spills and rescuing people from water and mountainsides, Lake Tahoe’s firefighters do many things.

For the most part, however, most do not eat tofu.

Which is why Rick Myers lives in infamy among his colleagues.

It was some 14 years ago that Myers – then a volunteer for the Lake Valley Fire Protection District – prepared tofu casseroles for the department’s monthly association dinners.

The meal may have received the least favored response in the history of Tahoe Basin firehouse cuisine. Many Lake Valley firefighters still remember the incident, and, with a chuckle, cite it as an example of what not to make for co-workers.

“New volunteers at Lake Valley tell me they are directed not to make tofu,” says Myers, a firefighter for the South Lake Tahoe Fire Department for the past 11 years. “That’s how they know of me.”

Despite being asked to not participate in the preparation of any more association dinners following the “tofu incident,” Myers still loves to cook, albeit at home with his wife. And he still prepares and eats the coagulated soybean extract – just not at the station.

Many big city fire departments have a crew member of two assigned to prepare meals.

For the Tahoe Basin’s smaller departments, eating on the job often comes down to the luck of the draw.

Each fire station has a fully furnished kitchen, and crews on each 24-hour shift make their own arrangements for food. Some prepare group meals, others consume individually – sometimes feasting on leftovers.

“It depends on who’s on your shift on who your cook is,” says Bruce VanCleemput, assistant chief for the Tahoe-Douglas Fire Protection District. “If you’re lucky, you’ll get a guy who really has a flair for food.”

Among the more renowned firehouse cooks is Rick Strickley, a 9-year veteran of the Tahoe-Douglas staff who was a Lake Valley volunteer before that. His experience with both departments has established his culinary reputation on both sides of the state line.

“If you’re a captain, you try to make sure you have Rick on your shift,” said Strickley’s supervisor, Capt. Terry Hughes.

Strickley grills, sautes and bakes. A dish that has earned him favorable reviews from co-workers is abalone served with grilled tri-tip steak.

The culinarily gifted firefighter downplays the praise heaped upon him by his peers.

“Really, the only secret to decent cooking is having it come out on time and not overcooked,” he said. “(Other firefighters) eat anything. That’s the nice thing about this place.”

Most firefighters admit they are not fussy eaters – the aversion to tofu notwithstanding.

Those who hunt or fish sometimes treat their co-workers to halibut, elk, pheasant or other gamy entrees.

Many cook for their significant others and families when they are not on duty.

For the most part, they say the main difference between cooking at home and cooking at work comes down to quantity.

“You go to any firehouse, probably in California, and you’re going to be eating good,” says Todd Moss, a recently hired Lake Valley firefighter. “Just cook in massive quantities, because everyone usually has a good appetite.”

Lake Valley firefighters are on their own when it comes to eating on day-to-day shifts. But once a month, the department’s roughly 45 paid and volunteer firefighters dine together at the association dinners, with different crew members in charge of each meal.

Similarly, South Lake Tahoe Fire Department crews also decide among themselves whether to dine together or individually for most shifts. However, a popular tradition dating back to the department’s formation some 30 years ago is the group breakfast on weekends and holidays.

When a former chief proposed eliminating the practice, firefighters practically revolted. The issue was turned over to labor representatives, who preserved the tradition, said current Chief Jim Plake, a 29-year veteran of the department. Ultimately, strict time limits were placed on the meals, which occur on days reserved primarily for equipment inspection and in-house projects.

Some say younger firefighters appear more health conscious than their predecessors, and new lifestyle trends have apparently made their way into the kitchen.

“We use less fat and butter and grease than we used to,” says Strickley. “And some of the guys have slimmed down.”

In this sense, Myers was a pioneer of sorts – introducing his co-workers to the high protein, low-fat food product that has gained significant acceptance by the rest of society during the past decade.

“I tried to show them the benefits and great experiences you can have with tofu,” said Myers. “And it didn’t go over well with them.”


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