The kitchen at Edina’s Fire Station 1 is designed for utility: ample pale-wood cupboards, extensive white countertops, gas stovetop with a sizable range hood overhead, stainless steel mixer and toaster, and a heavy-duty, easy-to-clean concrete floor. Adjacent to the equally utilitarian tables and chairs is a set of recliners, looking for all the world like a La-Z-Boy showroom. There are no dogs present, save for the collection of stuffed Dalmatians perched in the second-floor windows. With no alarms going off at the moment, it’s a serenely quiet—and spotlessly clean—place for Station 1’s firefighters to hang out and wait to be needed.
When the alarm does go off, signaling the end of the firefighters’ downtime, everything changes—fast. To be a firefighter is to teeter between stints of immense stress and pressure and periods of routine chores and boredom. Considering those extremes, how can they maintain their equilibrium and reinforce the close bonds that are so necessary to make a firehouse team successful?
For many, the answer is: Cook a good meal. Not nuking a batch of frozen dinners and popping open a bag of chips. We’re talking about firefighters pulling out all the stops and making the best meals they can for their emergency responder colleagues.
Edina’s Scott Vadnais has been a full-time firefighter for 22 years. “I don’t think people understand the camaraderie at the firehouse,” he says. “People say, ‘It’s not your family.’ But it is a kind of family. I spend a third of my life with these guys in 24-hour blocks. Dinner—cooking these meals—it’s what holds our shift together. We eat more cold meals than hot, so the hot meals are special. If we’re setting out the hot meal and the paramedics get a call, we all wait until they’re back before eating. It’s that important.”
St. Paul’s Jason Yamamoto, one of three firefighting brothers, echoes this sentiment. “There are two particularly important times in a firehouse,” he explains. “One is shift change, where everyone discusses what happened on the previous shift and what’s known about the shift that’s just starting, going over things like the house chores, going through the rigs. The second time is dinner time.”
It’s not just large, full-time stations that see the value in the communal, home-cooked meal. “I teach a lot around the state and have visited many volunteer stations that have monthly meetings where someone cooks, and that can be harder, because it can be for 40 people,” says Mdewakanton Public Safety’s Greg Hayes. “Whatever interpersonal dynamics are happening, dinner solves a lot of issues. We have healthy discussions about what’s going on, or sometimes we just talk about things like sports. The important thing is just to get everyone together. Maybe someone’s quiet, they had a hard call. We can sort it out over dinner.”
Each firehouse handles meals somewhat differently. Some set cooking schedules, others rely on volunteers. Who pays for what varies station by station, as does the process involved in providing a meal for everyone. “Usually people plan a day ahead and bring ingredients in, others head to the store when they’re here,” says Hayes about the Mdewakanton Public Safety approach. “No one ponies up cash. We understand that someone might make steak one night, and the next night someone will make pasta, which is maybe half the price of the steak. But that doesn’t matter. It’s about the food and the effort to put out a good meal.”
Several firefighters opt to prep at home the day before if they’re planning to make something that will take hours to come together, to avoid the cooking process being interrupted at the station.
As for what the firefighters cook, their specialties are wide-ranging. The stereotype is that they all make three-alarm chili. Some of them do—some, like St. Paul’s Yamamoto, have even won awards for it: he was the 2003 winner of the Hormel America’s Firehouse Best Chili Recipe contest. Upsala, Minnesota, firefighter Garrett Doucette was a finalist in the same contest in 2018—a big honor for a small station. “There were five regions across the country, and one entry from each region was a finalist,” he said. “Here in Upsala, we’re all volunteers and there are 20 of us total. I mean, some of these firehouses are huge. Like Miami—they’ve got hundreds of guys, career paid guys. So it was an amazing experience.”
Beyond chili, Hayes likes to make jambalaya (“not a traditional New Orleans red jambalaya, I do a dry jambalaya with Cajun seasoning and let it sit for a long time”) and chicken corn chowder. Yamamoto enjoys crafting Asian stir-fries, Japanese entrees, and Alfredo. Vadnais is a self-proclaimed unapologetic fan of red meat and a bit of a steak snob—so much so that he brought a smoker to the station. Once he’d smoked some beef brisket and pork belly, his colleagues were more than happy to pull out their wallets and pay for the smoker. “I think my most popular dish is the smoked brisket,” Vadnais says. “I use a pit-barrel smoker [which is stored on the station’s patio, next to a gas grill]. The guys love it.”
His smoked meats are so popular, in fact, that word has gotten out and other city employees have come to dine at the firehouse.
Not everyone wants to be the chief cook, though. “Being at the station is like being at home with a bunch of kids, with sibling rivalry, giving each other grief,” explains Yamamoto. “One time we had a guy who really didn’t want to cook, and everyone gave him a hard time. Finally he said, ‘Fine. You get wiener water soup.’ And he cooked a bunch of wieners in a pot of water and gave us the water. So we’ve learned that if someone doesn’t really want to cook, they should be willing to help. They can prep, they can clean up—just stay busy and be a part of it. I always tell rookies to be a part, be present, in whatever way they can.”
That teamwork works well—unless the chef is like Vadnais and prefers to work solo. “The guys will sometimes offer to help, but I like to do it my own way,” he says. “Maybe I’ll ask someone to chop a salad, but I’ve got a certain way I like to make Brussels sprouts. I do a reverse sear on my steaks, and if anyone opens that oven, it’s the biggest mistake of their life.”
In houses where firefighters share space with paramedics, cooking duties often fall to the firefighters. “In my station, it’s primarily me or the captain,” Vadnais says. “Part of that’s because I do the least amount of runs. The paramedics are always out running. It’d be hard for them to try and shop and cook.”
At stations where everyone is expected to take turns, it can be an unexpectedly important part of the job, something newcomers might not realize. “Some of our firefighters can cook the daylights out of anything,” Hayes says of the Mdewakanton Public Safety team. “Others are lucky they’re good at being firefighters or paramedics. Everyone we hire, during the on-boarding process, when I talk to them one-on-one, I always ask, ‘Do you know how to cook?’ It’s one of my first questions. I have to tell them: your mom or your significant other can’t come in and do it for you. They can learn here. The better cooks will help them learn. It’s one of the biggest life skills; it’s good for them to learn.”
The interest in food doesn’t stop at the firehouse door, either. Hayes points to a Mdewakanton community initiative of being good stewards of the land. “We had this big grassy area behind the station. We asked a gardener if we could garden back there and the answer was yes,” he explains. “The Mdewakanton have an organics recycling facility nearby, so we got good soil from there and started growing our own veggies. We’re a bit farm-to-table during the summer.”
It’s a sideline that has proven so popular that several of the firefighters now have home gardens as well. As Hayes puts it: “We joke that most firefighters should carry signs that say, ‘I will work for food.’”