Cooking With Fire(fighters)

What does it take to feed 14 hungry firefighters? Seven racks of ribs—and a lot of teamwork.
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firefighters cutting and peeling vegetables

Eric pairs the meat with a tangy slaw that gets a kick from jalapeños, which his fellow firefighter Aaron Clark (on Eric’s left) helps prep.

You think you have trouble getting dinner on the table? Try cooking for 14 hungry guys at one of New York City’s busiest firehouses. That’s the challenge for Eric Howard tonight. 

Eric, a third-generation firefighter and a member of Engine 54 Ladder 4 Battalion 9 in Manhattan, got the cooking bug in high school by watching Food Network, reading tons of cookbooks, and spending time in the kitchen with his mom. He continued to hone his culinary skills when he joined the department, but his big break came in 2016, when he landed a spot on MasterChef. On the show, Eric cooked his way into the top eight and credits his firefighter training for helping him handle the pressure of reality TV. “The firehouse kitchen has some of the toughest critics,” Eric says. 

Though he may be the only reality show contestant in the house, as a cook, Eric is in good company. Since firefighters live on-site during their 24-hour shifts and have to stay close in case of a call, there’s a rich firehouse cooking tradition and plenty of enthusiastic firefighters to do it. 

At E54 L4 B9, kitchen duty is a group effort. Before he headed in for today’s shift, Eric let the group know that he’d be grilling ribs for dinner. He bought groceries en route, a cost that’s split among the crew. (Yep, firefighters pay for their own food.) When he reported in, Eric put the rub on the ribs and stashed them in the fridge. While the meat was marinating, he got some of the guys to help him shred cabbage, cook potatoes, and slice scallions for the side dishes. “We’re a team,” says Eric. “When we’re on a call and when we’re in the kitchen.” 

firefighter dumping baby potatoes onto tray

Randy Meredith dumps the baby potatoes onto a sheet pan to help them cool faster.

When you walk into their kitchen, you’ll see a large fridge and stove, tons of well-used pots and pans, and a massive table decorated with the house’s logo and motto: The Pride of Midtown, Never Missed a Performance (a nod to their location just off Broadway).

The table is the main prep space, and then it gets cleared when it’s time to sit down together to eat. And together is the key word: Tonight, just as the food is plated, the chief has to head out on a call. Everyone stands and waits to eat—for two reasons: One, firehouse rules say no one eats without the boss. And, two, these guys are a family. 

When the chief gets back, it’s time to dig in. But it’s clear there’s much more than eating going on here. “The kitchen is one of the most important places in the firehouse,” says Eric. “There’s a lot of laughter around the table. It’s a place of comfort in times of sadness—and it’s also a good place to get your chops busted.”

firefighters sitting around a table eating dinner

(You also need a really big table.)

Recipes: Try Eric's Five-Spice Spare RibsParsley & Scallion Potato Salad, and Mayoless Slaw