Honolulu Firefighters Cook Up a Mean Spread

Fire up the Grill: When they’re not extinguishing fires and saving lives, the Honolulu Fire Department is cooking up a mean spread.

Firefighters enjoy camaraderie over a meal at the Hawaii Kai station.

Photo: Mark Arbeit

Absolutely, positively you will not get away with cooking bad food at the fire station, says David Jenkins of the Honolulu Fire Department. “If you’re not a good cook, you will be by the time you’re done being a fireman.”

Welcome to the firehouse, where firefighters live and work for 24 hours at a time. They sleep here, they shower here and they eat here. At most firehouses, cooking responsibilities rotate among the firefighters, and it’s a duty taken so seriously it’s part of firefighter training. Recruits learn recipes such as beef stew, shoyu chicken, roast pork and pork chops—deep fried, covered with cream of mushroom soup and baked. And then there are hot dogs with tuna fish sandwiches: “It’s economical—surf and turf,” Jenkins says.

Hardly sounds gourmet, but after starting with the basics, firefighters learn more elaborate fare on the job. “With such a wide variety of people in the fire department, you learn so much from other people,” says Joe Welch, a fireman at the Hawaii Kai fire station. His repertoire, influenced as much by his mother as his colleagues, spans Mexican food to donburi.

Today, he’s prepared curried chicken salad sandwiches for lunch, shredding Costco roast chicken and folding in grapes, carrots, curry powder and a generous helping of mayo; it’s a recipe inspired by a sandwich at The Contemporary Museum. Dinner is heartier: meatloaf and mashed potatoes.

Jenkins says he tends to do more straight-up firehouse cooking—beef stew, pork butt, chili casserole—but sets himself apart with his cornbread. “When I came into the department, I started learning all kinds of scratch stuff. So I baked cornbread from scratch just for bragging rights. It ends up stretching the dollar, too.”

Frugality is a driving factor for these firehouse chefs. With a daily budget of $8.50 per person, which has to feed some very physically active guys the equivalent of four meals, you need to get creative. “I make manapua out of leftovers,” Jenkins says. “Put shoyu chicken or whatever leftovers in bread [using a regular bread recipe] and steam it: maunapua.”

Dessert is a luxury, but when they’re feeling indulgent, Welch says, “fried ice cream is popular: ice cream balls, smashed in sweet bread, then dipped in pancake batter, then fried.”

Photo: iStock

Firehouse Shopping Tips

The crew pitches in for staples like flour, oil and spices, but for the rest, they rely on weekly ads and specials to stretch a dollar. Grocery shopping is done daily (sometimes with fire truck in tow) and what’s on sale usually dictates the menu.

“The best people to know [in the grocery store] are the meat and fish guys,” says firefighter Joe Welch. “Sometimes they’ll put aside something special for you.”

In the back of the Hawaii Kai firehouse, Welch has started a small garden with herbs, eggplant and tomatoes. He gardens for the pleasure, but it also helps save a bit of money.

Though money is tight, Welch still spends money buying local, choosing Island-grown tomatoes instead of Mainland, even though they’re almost double the price.