By FRANK SABATINI JR. | Uptown News
The clock inside the spacious kitchen of Fire Station No. 5 in Hillcrest was approaching noon. A couple of crew members were chopping vegetables and sautéing ground beef for a taco salad they soon planned on eating.
Out on the patio, a fellow firefighter loaded the meat smoker with two racks of pork ribs sporting a vivid chili-lime rub plucked from a well-stocked condiment cabinet. Those would be for dinner later.
Then just as the team of four prepared to fill their lunch plates from a lineup of colorful salad fixings set atop the kitchen island, an electronic tone permeated the room.
It was a medical emergency. Someone in Balboa Park had fainted.
Within seconds, the quartet vanished from the room, leaving behind their esteemed battalion chief, Mike McBride, who ate solo at the station’s large, communal dining table in the company of public information officer Monica Munoz. The coconut-chocolate cookie bars Munoz brought on her visit sat waiting along with the rest of the food for the crew’s eventual return.
The interrupted meal is a common occurrence at the year-old Fire Station No. 5, which includes updated cooking equipment from the station’s aged predecessor.
“It happens almost daily,” said engineer-paramedic Stacey Nichols, referring to instances in which fire and rescue calls suddenly disrupt recipes in the making or meals in progress.
The rebuilt fire station at University and Ninth avenues stands in place of a much smaller facility that was razed a few years ago. Its graceful, modern design houses a kitchen that is almost eight times larger than the old one. The firefighters are afforded amenities such as a six-burner gas stove, a griddle, four jumbo stainless steel refrigerators, ample counter space, and an outdoor grill and smoker.
Crews of five, including the assigned chief, rotate through the station in 24-hour cycles. They collectively shop and cook for their lunches and dinners. For breakfast, they fend for themselves.
What is largely unknown to the public is that the crews pay for meals out of their own pockets. A daily $10 contribution is standard, in addition to a $4 fee for condiments and basic staples.
“We shop every day with the fire engine while all staying together in case of emergency calls,” said Nichols, adding that frugality is key when combing the aisles for sales at Trader Joe’s, Ralph’s and Sprouts.
The notion of a perpetual pot of chili simmering on the stove, however, is a myth among today’s generation of firefighters, according to McBride.
“We have a much healthier program. As a whole department, we’ve been trendsetters for wellness,” he added. “Sometimes that includes dietitians coming to the stations to discuss nutrition and give cooking demos to steer us away from quick, easy meals that are bad for us.”
Although there are exceptions.
Firefighter-paramedic Jose Arciniega points out: “We make chili when it rains—or grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup.”
A team’s culinary abilities can range from amateur to experienced.
McBride, for example, says his strength is in the “shopping and the chopping,” noting with a chuckle that “some chiefs cook, but my crew won’t let me.”
Arciniega once tried making his mother’s pozole soup.
“It came out good, but it wasn’t what I was shooting for because I was in the middle of running emergency calls when making it,” he said.
Firefighter Robert Chacon counts himself as the taco-salad specialist in the group, something he picked up while working at a different station. “I’ve helped make some good carnitas too,” he noted.
Of the more ambitious dishes, Nichols recalls making sushi. “It was challenging, but there were no complaints,” she said.
Conversely, McBride cited one of the most disastrous dishes he encountered in the 22 years he’s been with the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department.
“It was chicken sashimi, made by someone from another station. It went right into the can.”
Things like grilled salmon, steaks, and crab boils are special treats because of cost. Yet the crew eagerly kicks in extra cash for such meals, which are held when fellow firefighters get promoted or move off their initial probationary periods.
The same applies to holidays, when turkeys, prime ribs and hams roll out of the ovens for lively dinners that make room for family and friends of crew members.
When asked what some of the most common cooking mishaps are, the crew’s response was ironic. They almost unanimously answered, “burning the food.”
Yet through all of their culinary adventures, the firefighters emphasize they didn’t sign up for the job to learn about sautéing, roasting and grilling. All of that takes a back seat on the engine when it comes to honorably protecting the public.
Fire Station No. 5 is located at 3902 Ninth Ave. Tours for groups and individuals are available throughout the year. They be arranged through the web site, sandiego.gov/fire.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.