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Southland firehouse chefs invited to cook-off

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Care to test your knowledge of the L.A. food scene?

Check out the following menu offerings and see if you can figure out the dining establishment that offers them.

Carved turkey sandwich with caramelized red onion, arugula and blue cheese crumble dressed in a red wine vinaigrette.

Cilantro-marinade grilled chicken with minced garlic and blended jalapeño cream.

Thai chicken whole wheat pasta with fresh local peppers, onions and mushrooms and asparagus and balsamic drizzle.

Spago Beverly Hills

Campanile

Michael's Santa Monica

LAFD Station 92

The surprising answer, gluttons and gourmands, is the fire house on Pico near Overland. No kidding.

I know this because I got invited to a dinner at 92 about a month ago. It was a thank you feast, cooked by firefighters for neighbors whose fundraising has paid for tools, a dishwasher, gym equipment and even a portable Jaws of Life.

That night, Capt. Craig Nielsen made enchiladas Suizas with green chiles, Spanish rice and a Mexican salad with jicama, roasted corn and tortilla strips. For dessert, he whipped up some dreamy home-made strawberry shortcake with fresh cream.

It was restaurant-quality, in my humble opinion.

"He's the best chef here," said Jared Cooper, one of three firefighting brothers who followed their dad into the profession.

I like to tinker in the kitchen, so I offered Cooper a recipe that I thought would be a firehouse crowd pleaser. But when I got to dipping chicken in butter and rolling it in bread crumbs and grated Parmesan, he tuned me out.

"Those days are over," Cooper said, telling me that if they weren't cooking for visitors, they would have used brown rice instead of white.

"Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of firemen, so we don't need to contribute to that by clogging our arteries."

Great, but come on. No spaghetti and meatballs? No four-alarm chili or franks and beans? I like Cal-Med cuisine, too, but these guys have a tradition to uphold.

There are still some old-school firehouses, it turns out, where meat and potatoes are followed by more meat and potatoes. Last week, 92's Jon Bowers was in the middle of preparing his cilantro chicken, with sauteed broccoli and cauliflower and a two-bean salad, when a fire call came in. The 92 crew rolled, and before long, two units from 26 rotated in to cover for them from Western and the Santa Monica Freeway. When I asked how they ate back at 26, firefighter Jeff Lore said they had some pork ribs waiting for them on the grill. But do they ever go healthy, like the 92 crew?

"No, not at all," he said. "We eat ribs, burgers. Stuff that tastes good."

Not that 92 doesn't loosen its belt now and then. While Bowers was making his chicken, Nielsen was working on a cherry-berry crisp with plenty of brown sugar, and with fresh cherries he pitted himself and simmered in almond syrup. (He followed a recipe he had downloaded to a digital reader that also had a timer function.)

"I'm not as health-conscious as Jared," said Nielsen, who years ago cooked briefly at a seafood house in the Valley. "Every once in a while, when he's off, I make fried chicken."

Cooper, meanwhile, was talking up the benefits of homemade hummus, butternut squash, avocados, ground turkey and so on.

"I make a healthy cashew chicken chipotle deal," he said. "With brown rice. These are not things I just made up. We use the Food Network website, we use Epicurious or we watch a cooking show." The cashew chicken, he said, "is a Rachael Ray recipe."

And I thought these guys watched rugby.

Firefighter Yvonne Gutierrez said her culinary skills were limited to grilled cheese and canned soup "until Capt. Nielsen took me under his wing." Now she helps less-experienced firefighters when it's their turn to cook. With eight people on a shift, each contributes about $11 a day to cover the cost of the day's meals, and everyone has to take a turn cooking. The assigned chef does the shopping.

"Whatever's on sale," said Gutierrez, "that's what I'll cook."

Nielsen insists that he's not the best cook in the department. In his view, that title may belong to Capt. Mark Curry at Station 29 in Mid-Wilshire. When I called Curry, he downplayed his talents, but he did say that he had once studied at the Westlake Culinary Institute. His secret in the kitchen, he said, is to keep things simple, but his idea of simple and mine may not be the same. When pressed, he described a surf and turf he once prepared that included short ribs and Chilean sea bass with wasabi mashed potatoes.

"Firefighters don't do a lot of dining out," Curry said, "so if you throw a little béarnaise or hollandaise sauce in there, it blows them away."

Given the food budget, Curry enjoys the challenge of taking cheaper cuts of meat, like a seven-bone roast, and "cooking it all day in the right ingredients.

"It's the only way I have of thanking my crew," Curry said. "I can't give them raises, so all I can say is 'thank you.' And my way to do that is in the kitchen."

Talking to the likes of Nielsen and Curry made me hungry, and I got to thinking it might be fun to bring the best firehouse chefs in Southern California together for a cook-off. Nielsen and Curry said they're in, and although details are still in the works, L.A. Times Food Editor Russ Parsons has agreed to be a judge.

Any of you firefighters out there think you can out cook Nielsen and Curry? Or is that more heat in the kitchen than you can handle?

If you want in, shoot me an email at steve.lopez@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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