Food News

A Close Look at How Dallas Firefighters Break Bread at Fire Station 50

Each week I'm tasked with finding someone willing to allow me to interview them for a culinary-oriented profile on this here fine blog. The premise calls for someone who has anything to do with food in Dallas, and even that last part can be negotiable on occasion. Chefs, bar tenders, growers, purveyors, brewers, restaurateurs are all options. Well, I've heard that fire stations often have one firefighter who doubles as a cook, either by design or necessity.

When I called Jason Evans, public information officer for Dallas Fire and Rescue, he was happy to help with my request. Soon I was on the phone with Firefighter Lance Roberts, who not only explained what it's like to be a cook at a fire station, but even invited me to the station for dinner.

This February will mark 30 years of service for Roberts. His dad was also fireman and served 32 years. Roberts is the driver and cook at Station 50 in west Dallas. Here's our chat:

How are the cooking duties organized at a fire station? A lot of stations rotate cooks and each person takes a turn. Normally the cooks don't do any KP (kitchen police) or clean up, so it's a way to get out of cleaning. But, then some guys just like to cook.

How did you get roped into cooking? I used to work down at Station 18 and when I showed up the first day they told me it was my day to cook. Then, when I showed up for my next shift they told me it's my turn to cook again and I said, "Well, how can that be?" They said we have a list and it was just back to me. I said, "Sounds like you just want me to cook all the time." So, I just started cooking for those guys. That was about 10 or 12 years ago.

Did you cook much prior? A little bit. The next day, after I realized I'd be cooking, I went home and started looking for recipes. Really you only need 10 good recipes since we work 24 (hours) on and 48 off. That's 10 days a month. So, if you have 10 good recipes you can use each once a month, and then just start over the next month.

What's in the regular rotation? Chicken-fried steak, fried chicken, anything on the grill. We have a gas grill we use quite a bit. Hamburgers, enchiladas, spaghetti, pork chops and fried catfish. Basic comfort food.

How many guys are you usually cooking for? At our station there's six. At other stations there are eight or 10. Some stations have as many as 12.

When do you shop for groceries? First thing we do when we get to the station for a shift is fix breakfast, which we bought the shift before. Then we collect 12 dollars from everyone and go to the store to buy lunch, supper and breakfast for the next shift.

What do you do when a shopping trip gets interrupted with a call? A lot of times when we're at the store we'll have to take the basket and push it back into the milk cooler since we have frozen stuff and perishables. Really, at all the stores we can just tell anyone that works there that we have to run and they'll put it back there for us. Then we'll go back there and get it when we're able to return.

I imagine you've lost a few frying pans of half done chicken because of calls... Yep, we just have to leave it.

I guess it would be silly to ask if firefighters ever set off their own smoke alarms. It's happened. Guys have forgotten to turn off the stove when they leave for calls.

Oh. That's embarrassing having to open all the doors to let the smoke out. No, they keep the doors shut and don't tell anyone. Usually stuff like that is kept secret.

Do you all go hungry often? Well, not normally.

What's the back-up plan? We've got peanut butter and all kinds of stuff. Just like anyone has at their house. If we get tied up with calls, sometimes we'll just save stuff for the next shift and go get a couple of pizzas, or whatever. We just have to figure it out as we go. Calls are the priority.

Are firefighters a picky bunch? They're really pretty easy. Most of them don't complain because they don't want to cook. If you're a halfway decent cook, they want you to keep cooking, so no one ever complains. If they don't like it, they just don't eat, but they wouldn't ever say anything.

Has anyone ever gotten kicked out of the kitchen? Yeah, it's happened, but I can't remember anything right off hand. Mostly it's only a problem if they just keep cooking the same thing.

Have firefighters tastes and preferences changed over the past 30 years? Yeah, we're trying to eat healthier now. It used to be that almost everything was fried and we had gravy with almost every meal. And homemade biscuits. All the stuff that isn't very good for you. But, a lot of the younger guys now want to eat more vegetables and less fried stuff.

Any major cooking disasters? I had an old lieutenant at Station 30 who wanted to bake a ham for us one day. He basted this ham and fussed with it all day. Everyone was really looking forward to this ham. He takes it out of the oven and gets ready to cut it and realizes he hadn't taken the plastic off. It was double sealed in plastic and he only got one bag off. He cooked it in plastic all day. We called it "Plastic Ham."

If you really want to see what it's like you should just come eat dinner with us one day.

What day and time? Sunday about 6.

I'll bring dessert.

Dinner at fire Station 50 is what I dream my own family meals will be like when we all grow up. Shift A has six firefighters, all who were born and raised in Dallas. Roberts gets everything ready for dinner, but the others will pitch in to help bring it all together at the end. They all seem to slightly resemble a family that has fallen into different roles. Captain Jim Aulbaugh sort of reminds me of the dad, which is appropriate for the senior member of the crew. I wouldn't say he interrogates everyone, but I sense he keeps up with things; even going as far asking one reporter what her goals are in writing (I hadn't thought about it in so long, it was good to be re-centered). He also teases with everyone, particularly Blake Busby, who sits big eyed, smiling and attentive in a center seat at the long communal table.

Antron Jones has been with the department since 1998 and holds court at the head of the table. He quickly and quietly says grace to himself before breaking bread and offers many an encouraging "uh-huh" to the conversation. With nine years of service, Steve Rubealcaba became a firefighter later in life and has a family at home. Here at this table, he's very relaxed. Jose Cruz is not a former baseball player, but the rookie on the staff and is so quiet you might forget he's there. He's also the first one up to start cleaning.

The menu was chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes (with two sticks of butter), a pot of from-scratch beans, from-scratch gravy (without a single lump), biscuits and salad. Everything was great. It put my dinners at my house to shame. I worried they'd get a call. Luckily, they didn't. I wondered if they did, would it have been inappropriate to stay and finish my plate, or if I would to leave too?

Captain joked being the cook is the most revered job in the department and that this is a kid's dream to get all this great food; breakfast, lunch and dinner all made from scratch. Like the food alone makes it all worthwhile. I'm not sure if he meant it as a recruitment technique, but it certainly could be.

I'm sure more follow-up work will need to be done on this. Maybe a new series: "Chef Roberts 10 Tried and True Fire Station Recipes." I have nine more dinners coming in that case.

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Lauren Drewes Daniels is the Dallas Observer's food editor. She started writing about local restaurants, chefs, beer and kouign-amanns in 2011. She's driven through two dirt devils and is certain they were both some type of cosmic force.