While police officers are known as the city’s finest, firefighters are known as the city’s hottest, and not just due to the nature of their profession. On the low, firefighters are known for their cooking skills. There are books, competitions, restaurants and TV shows devoted to “firehouse” cuisine. So, what are the hottest of the Winston-Salem Fire Department cooking and eating?
Doug Simmons, an engineer at Station 2 on Somerset Drive, admits that when he started with WSFD, he didn’t really know how to cook.
“I was a terrible cook, a typical bachelor,” he remembers.
“Mac and cheese and hot dogs,” Simmons says. “All you need to know how to do that is boil water.”
Fortunately, he knew how to grill a steak and that was a start to his passion for cooking.
Today, Simmons is a married man who started at Winston-Salem 18 years ago after a stint as a volunteer with the Clemmons Fire Department.
“When I got hired on in Winston-Salem, I learned that most of the stations have some form of a cooking rotation,” he says.
One person shops, buys groceries and divides the cost amongst those working the shift. There’s a schedule with everyone’s name listed and they’re checked off as they pay. Simplicity and economics win over everything. $2 meals are common. Steak (if it’s on sale), mashed potatoes and green beans are a perennial favorite.
This week, Simmons makes fried chicken, brown-sugar sweet potatoes and apple-cider collard greens. He cuts boneless, skinless chicken breasts into strips and marinates them in Texas Pete hot sauce for four hours, breads them in seasoned flour, an egg wash and dips them in flour a second time for that thick, crisp crunch. Frying them in batches with a deep fryer on the counter, Simmons explains the kitchen rotation at the station.
Four to eight guys take a rotation. The meal is usually a group decision. The less expensive, the better.
“Everybody has a dish that they’re really good at,” he says. “One guy does taco salad every time. Another does spaghetti.”
A lot of Simmons’ inspiration comes from a Facebook group for firefighters.
Once, Simmons grilled whole pineapples and stuffed them with fried rice, chicken, grilled pineapple chunks and garnished it with sesame seeds and a sweet and sour ponzu sauce.
For simpler dishes, Simmons likes cheeseburgers but adds his own flair.
Simmons mixes in Worcestershire sauce, steak sauce, or whatever is on-hand with minced onion, garlic, and steak seasoning.
“I like to knock the ground beef flavor out of it,” he says.
For side dishes, he likes to keep it simple: tater tots, French fries or pasta salad. In the summertime, he adds homemade ice cream to the mix. Vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, pineapple and peach are favorites.
A typical shift week at the firehouse is 24 hours on and 48 hours off. Lots of guys volunteer or work at other fire departments on their days off and quite a few have second jobs. Simmons works construction on his days off, so does Mason Smith.
Smith, an engineer with Rescue 1, which operates out of Station 7 on Arbor Road, actually went to culinary school at Johnson and Wales in Charleston. He matriculated alongside Sammy Gianopoulos, owner of Gianno’s in High Point and Fratelli’s in Winston-Salem, and George Leloudis, owner of Out West Steakhouse in Kernersville.
“The long hours and the schedule just got to me,” Smith says. “I have a passion for the fire department, so I left to pursue that.”
One of Smith’s favorite dishes to make is a Sicilian spaghetti. Charred crushed tomatoes, sugar, red pepper flakes, basil and garlic are cooked together to make a sauce while warmed olive oil infused with garlic, fresh basil leaves is drizzled over the hot pasta once it’s plated and served with either blackened chicken or grilled sausage.
Back at the station, with the cooking done, Simmons is off kitchen duty. Winner, winner chicken dinner at Station 2 is served. The simple meal is well-executed and filling. As the men relax and dig into their food, I ask them what happens after dinner.
Everyone chimes in: “The dishes.”