As everyone who follows my colleague Steve Lopez’s columns surely knows by now, the term “firehouse chef” no longer means what it used to. If you’re thinking industrial-size portions of lasagna or pot roast and mashed potatoes, welcome to the 21st century.
But if you really wanted to know just how far we’ve come, you should have been at The Times on Thursday morning when eight local firehouse chefs visited the building at Lopez’s invitation to vie for a shot at cooking at this year’s Taste festival on Labor Day weekend.
The eight were Craig Nielsen from Fire Station 92 in Rancho Park, Sam Villavicencio from Ventura County Station 55 in Camarillo, Eddie Lee from Station 11 in Altadena, Mark Curry from Station 29 in mid-Wilshire, Scott Kough from Station 8 in Porter Ranch, Kevin Smith from Station 25 in Boyle Heights, Cruz Macias from Station 87 in Granada Hills, and Mauricio Benard from Fire Station 7 in West Hollywood.
There was a bit of everything, a little of what you might expect – chicken enchiladas and stuffed flank steak in mushroom cream sauce – and a lot of surprises, including two different twists on Thai noodles and Asian-braised short ribs with wasabi-parsnip puree.
To paraphrase Andy Griffith, what it was, was good. In fact, it was so good that we made the spontaneous decision to repeat the challenge next year.
Judges were Lopez and his editor Sue Horton, Tribune CEO Eddy Hartenstein, Times President Kathy Thomson (yeah, we pull out the big guns for the firefighters), plus a couple of guys from the Food section – restaurant critic Jonathan Gold and me.
It was a tough decision, but in the end, we went with Curry (he of the Asian-style short ribs), and Macias, who made a kind of chicken torta, which was stuffed with just about every ingredient you can imagine but still somehow managed to keep its focus.
It probably should come as no surprise, but Macias has written a cookbook, “Fireman Favorites,” that is available for $13 on his website www.firemanfavorites.com.
Curry and Macias will go head-to-head at the Taste’s Labor Day Picnic on Monday, Sept. 3.