By Tom Holmes
Forest Park firefighter Andrew Weber was pounding pork chops from Ed's Way on April 14 when he heard a call. Weber and his six crew members knew what to do. The group answered the request—figuring out who was calling, the location and situation—and then returned to the kitchen, chopping vegetables, stirring mashed potatoes, setting the kitchen table and, in Weber's case, finally cooking the pork chops. The recipe for this evening? Weber added banana peppers to the meat, and closed the meal with a homemade dessert of layered ice cream sandwiches, peanut butter, Cool Whip and crushed Oreo cookies.
His meal got rave reviews.
Cooking and eating comprise a big part of firefighters work lives. Lt. Tim Conrad said firefighters spend one-third of their lives with their shift mates. Shifts stretch 24-hours and then they're off 48-hours. When firefighters are not out on a call, refining their professional skills or working out in the small weight room at the station, they make the second floor of the station their home. And that includes the kitchen.
At one point Weber even recalls setting off the station's smoke alarm with his pork chops.
"A pan got away from me and the whole place was filled with smoke," he said, laughing at the odds.
Conrad said that when he starts his shift, one of the first things the group does is sit around the dining room table and decide what they will make for dinner and who will be the lead chef. There are three shifts at the firehouse, and each shift has its own refrigerator and floor to ceiling shelving for dry goods.
When asked who was the best cook, the seven shift members said that each person has their signature dish, and the memories that accompany it.
Yvan Woitecki, 32, a paramedic who has been with the Forest Park Fire Department for a little over a year, said he is most proud of his chicken salad—made with honey, mustard, lots of mayo, white chicken meat and whatever vegetables are available—and is always tinkering with the recipe. The firehouse meal he'll really remember, though, was on December 25th last year, Christmas Day, when firefighters decided to add a little extra to the grocery budget. Weber used the extra funds to buy a prime rib roast.
"I'd never done prime rib before," he said. "But it was excellent."
Travis Myers, 39, who has been with the fire department for nine years, said his signature dish is Philly-style cheese steaks.
"I'm very specific, I have to have ribeye steaks," Myers said, adding that the sub rolls can't be too hard, French bread won't do, and that he prefers to mix Cheez Whiz and onions into the steak, although in a pinch, white American cheese will do.
"I would eat cheese steak everyday if I could," he said.
Mark Maylath, 42, who has been with the Fire Department for more than 15 years, sometimes complicates dinner plans. "My name is Mark Maylath and I'm a picky eater," he said by way of introduction, a statement followed by an eruption of laughter by his shift mates. On the rare occasion the group can't decide what to have for dinner, Maylath volunteers to cook. That way, he said no one can sneak onions in the food.
But not all the firefighters like to cook.
"I do like to order pizza," said Kenneth Hriensaitong, 44, adding that he's rarely cooked in the 12 years he's been in the department. Hriensaitong started a debate about which restaurant makes the best pie in Forest Park. After a few minutes of sparring, the group finally agreed that McGaffer's Saloon makes excellent thin crust.
The big dining room table where the meal was served is not only in the center of firefighters' living quarters, but also serves as the center of their community. During the meal, attendees rarely completed a sentence without a shift member interrupting. At times, shift leader Conrad was referred to as "Pooh Bear." Conrad said it's often around that table where firefighters remember who they are and why they do such a dangerous job. The group talks about charity projects, family members and stories are told about the old-timers—remembering the heroic things they did, funny things they said and, of course, their favorite meals.