Firefighters turn up heat in the kitchen

By Steve Landwehr

Staff writer

LYNNFIELD - When they're not extinguishing flames, firefighters have a reputation for fanning them - over stoves. The knights of the grille and griddle who traded their turnout gear and axes for chefs hats and spatulas for a fund-raiser at Spinelli's function hall last night did nothing to tarnish that image.

Billed as the Return of the Fire Fighting Chefs, the event pitted cooks from 13 North of Boston fire departments against each other in an epicurean showdown, and it was no hash-slinging affair. From Mexican lasagna to baked, stuffed shells, the firefighters offered up dishes that ran the gamut from comfort food to haute cuisine.

First organized two years ago by Beverly Fire Chief Richard Pierce's wife, Jan, the cook-off was on hiatus last year, but returned with a flair last night, drawing about 400 firefighters, their families and friends.

Jan Pierce is on the board of directors of Habitat Plus, which provides affordable housing for psychologically disabled veterans. State budget cuts were eroding the Habitat Plus budget, and Pierce thought she should try to do something to bolster it.

"I was going out with Rick at the time, and I thought it would be great to have a fund-raiser on the order of a chowder fest," Jan Pierce said, "and firefighters love to cook."

The cook-off was a success, raising about $11,000, split that year between Habitat Plus and the New York Firefighters' Widows and Children's Fund. With further state budget cuts this year, Jan Pierce said all of the money raised this time will go to Habitat Plus.

The chefs were all quick to tout their own recipes, but said the night was mostly a chance for camaraderie.

Revere firefighters Rick Coppola and Kevin Oldoni brought shells stuffed with ricotta cheese, shrimp and crab, lathered with a crab sauce, and chicken tenderloins and peppers in a Marsala wine sauce.

"We weren't here last time," Coppola said, grinning, "that's why they gave us the smallest table, but closest to the bar. I don't know if that's a good or bad thing."

While most of the dishes were prepared at local stations and brought to the table last night, Danvers firefighters took a different approach. Their only offering was baby back ribs, but they made a production out of them.

Firefighter Barry Hobey said he and fellow firefighter Mike Farley prepared 50 racks of ribs Wednesday, then took a road trip yesterday. They hauled a portable, professional smoker to the parking lot at Spinelli's, and began cooking another 75 racks at 10 a.m.

Hobey, who was wearing an apron emblazoned with a "Never trust a skinny chef" logo, noted all the ribs had been donated by Danvers' businesses. Hobey happily smeared extra barbecue sauce (store-bought, but "augmented,' as he put it) for anyone who asked.

The Lynn Fire Department won boasting rights at the last cook-off, and repeated its success last night, possibly because they have a ringer. Firefighter Paul Hanrahan admitted to 15 years' experience as a chef, three of those on the Spirit of Boston, before he joined the department.

This is New England, so there were plenty of seafood dishes, with baked stuffed fish on many of the menus. Marblehead firefighter Tim Doane prepared a memorable one, filled with lots of tiny scallops and sausage and coated with garlic butter.

He said traffic at his table had been good, with people remembering his signature dish from two years ago, although he wasn't sure why.

"I don't think it's that good, myself," Doane said.

Those who tasted it were quick to differ.

With music provided by the Chelsea Fife and Drum Corps, a live rock band, and food for every taste, the evening was deemed a success, and Jan Pierce was quick to give the credit to others.

"It's the kindness of these men's hearts that makes this happen," she said. "They cook, sell the tickets and create enthusiasm."

The firefighters might have done it just for the fun of it. As husband Richard Pierce said, "I don't know a department that doesn't have someone who loves to cook."