Cooking with Fire

February 2021 View more

Story By Peter Gianopulos
Photography by Karla Bellandi
Illustrations by Kevin Sterjo

Over the last 27 years, Dave Walters, the barn boss at Fire Station No. 10—near Route 59 and 95th Street in Naperville—has witnessed more kitchen nightmares than a season full of Gordon Ramsay reruns. He’s pretty much seen it all. Beautiful slabs of well-marbled beef—skillfully seasoned and perfectly prepped—that were yanked off the stove in midsear. Seafood so undercooked it belonged on a sushi buffet. And whole chickens—oh, those lost birds—burnt to such a degree that he could’ve launched an arson investigation.

Matt Iverson, Mike Jost, and David Walters

Artfully planned but hastily abandoned meals are one of the unavoidable casualties of a firefighter’s job. Sudden conflagrations and emergency 911 calls wait for no one, especially firefighters in the throes of prepping meals. Which might be why Walters has adopted something of an inviolable food oath. “I try to never turn down meals that are prepared by other firefighters,” he says.

Too spicy. Too bland.

Too fancy. Too boring.

Too fatty. Too healthy.

Doesn’t matter, he says, because the act of preparing and sharing meals within the walls of a firehouse—one of the more unique aspects of the job—provides more than mere sustenance. It doesn’t just fuel up and carb out the troops for their next skirmish with smoke and fire. It’s an accelerant for some serious bonding. Firehouse cooking anchors everyone together at Fire Station No. 10—one room, one table—and encourages everyone to share whatever might be on their mind.

Worries. Triumphs. Health scares. New side gigs. Kids’ report cards. Last-minute anniversary gift advice. The stresses of COVID life.

Everything feels like it’s fair game when you sit down to share a meal that’s been planned, purchased, and prepped by your brothers or
sisters in arms.

“You have to understand,” says third-generation firefighter Art Rauch, who’s known at Station 10 for his Sriracha-honey salmon (see recipe below), “that we spend a third of our lives together.” Two days at home, then 24 straight hours together. Week after week. Year after year.

“We’ve gotten into some scary situations together,” he says. “Our lives depend on each other. Sitting around a table, sharing food, gets us talking. It doesn’t take much. Sometimes all we need are some leftovers to get things going and we can start ironing-out the world’s problems.”

A firehouse full of four-star chefs? No. No. No. Firefighters, as a general rule, aren’t chefs. The term “cook” has a more appropriate ring to it.

“I’m not a cookbook cook, but some guys are,” says Lieutenant Mike Jost, whose crunchy tostada recipe has proven so popular it’s earned the nickname the Jostada (see recipe below). “It’s pretty cool, actually. I get to taste stuff—vegan food and chili made with sweet potato and quinoa—I’d never, ever try at home.”

But it comes with a price. There’s an unwritten rule at Station 10 that says every ounce of culinary praise must be preceded by an equal or oversize dose of good-natured razzing. “Volunteering to cook and then getting ribbed for your meal selection is one of the ways we bring people into the family,” says Jost.

Most of the time, the seven members of Station No. 10’s gold crew (Naperville firehouses are divided into three shifts labeled gold, red, and black) start each day pretty much the same way. Everyone kicks in 15 bucks of their own money into a communal cooking kitty. Since shifts begin before 7 a.m., breakfast isn’t much of an event. Two pots of coffee usually suffice—although a scandal once broke out when the house’s trusted Folgers-esque brew was replaced by a fancy Ethiopian-sourced blend brimming with notes of blueberry and earthy spices.

Everyone is free to raid the fridge for leftovers if they desire, but it’s the handing out of daily assignments that most directly affects the day’s culinary offerings. The three firefighters assigned to the fire truck are usually responsible for planning, shopping, and preparing both lunch (between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.) and dinner (roughly 5:30 p.m. or later), as opposed to the two who get ambulance duty.

From there, the firehouse adopts a schedule not unlike any budget-conscious, family-run restaurant. Initial meal plans are devised—Pinterest recipe searches are big at Station 10—and then the crew pays a quick visit to a local grocery store to scour for sales.

David Walters puts his spin on Saturday pizza nights.

In years past, says Rauch, these grocery runs often began in the ice cream aisle, before snaking their way to the snack aisle and meat section before finishing up—rather briefly and perfunctorily—in produce. These days, however, shopping habits, not to mention the diets and food allergies, of firefighters, are evolving. Plenty of self-described “meat-and-potato” people remain. Brats and fries for lunch? Perfect, just perfect.

But some young bloods—like Danny Puknaitis, son of chief Mark Puknaitis, who joined the gold team two years ago—have brought an added layer of experimentation to the kitchen.

It was Puknaitis, who moonlights as a bartender at Common Good Cocktail House in Glen Ellyn, who was responsible for introducing the aforementioned blueberry-scented coffee and is known for hooking some of the house—emphasis on some—on smoothies and the occasional inflammation-fighting beet-lemon-turmeric cold-pressed juice tippler.

“You have to play to the crowd, but sometimes there’s an opening to try something new,” says Puknaitis, who’s been known to make his own scratch mayo and pasta sauces. “Everything is changing within the fire department. Training. Equipment. Technology. And for some of us, that includes food as well.”

Nevertheless, menus deemed too “experimental” or “froufrou” are still met with suspicious glares and probing questions. Take, for example, Puknaitis’s attempt to replace the firehouse’s beloved twist-and-turn Pillsbury Doughboy weekend biscuits with a scratch take on authentic Southern-style biscuits and gravy (see recipe below).

Poor Puknaitis. The guy got the third degree from the Station No. 10 peanut gallery: Have you done this before? How many times, specifically, have you made this? Where did you get the recipe? You’re not testing this out on us are you?

This is de rigeur behavior for any new dish. The more the crowd can channel the placid, wax-like look of poker player Amarillo Slim trying to draw an inside straight, the better. No tells allowed. No lagging tongues. No arched eyebrows. No perceptible hums of appreciation. If you’re not making the chef du jour sweat a little, you’re not doing your job.

Unfazed, Puknaitis aproned up and baked on, leaning on a biscuit recipe he had borrowed from a friend’s wife. He served and they ate in a monk-like silence.

“That’s the game they play,” says Puknaitis. “You just watch them. If they go back for seconds, you know you nailed it.”

Over time, some recipes have taken on near-mythical status, handed down to chosen recipients like precious heirlooms. There’s a sandwich, for instance, called the Bo’wich (see recipe below), named in honor of a beloved local firefighter named Mike Bollweg. Ham and salami is fried in a pan, topped with pepper Jack cheese, grilled peppers and onions, and then slid onto homemade garlic bread. “Whenever I say I’m going to make it,” says Walters, the keeper of the recipe, “everyone’s eyes light up.”

Yes, but how does he know they like it? Answer: There’s total silence. When a bunch of firefighters are gathered around the table and no one’s talking, says Walters, you know you’ve cooked up something good.

Communal Slices

If it’s a Saturday night in Naperville, every firefighter in the city knows what’s on the menu: pizza. Mike Jost estimates that Saturday Night Pizza Nights have been a local tradition for more than three decades, likely ushered into existence back in the early 1990s. Although it’s not unusual for cities to adopt a signature dish, there’s quite a bit of hidden significance behind this particular selection.

No. 1 Given the endless variation of pizza styles and possible ingredients, these weekend events have stoked a healthy bit of competition among local firehouses.

No. 2 Pizzas can be easily produced in bulk, which allows extended members of firefighters’ families to join the crew—with an RSVP of course—on select weekends. But perhaps most interesting of all is the symbolism embedded in the pizza-making process itself.

“When you make a pizza,” says Jost, “it’s a communal meal. With most dishes, one person takes the lead, but with pizza, everyone can play a role. Somebody rolls the dough. Somebody cuts the vegetables. Somebody makes the sauce. Everybody works together, with their own style and own way, toward one common end.”

Biscuits and Gravy

By Daniel Puknaitis
Yield: 6 biscuits

To make biscuits
2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons butter, room temperature
1 cup buttermilk

  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
  2. In a mixing bowl, add first five ingredients and mix well.
  3. While stirring, slowly add buttermilk, starting with 1 cup, until you get a paste-like consistency.
  4. Using a spoon, portion the dough and drop onto a baking sheet, lightly greased with cooking spray, spacing about 1½ inches apart.
  5. Bake at 450 degrees and flip after 10 minutes. Bake for an additional 3 to 5 minutes until tops are golden brown.

To make gravy
2 pounds bulk breakfast sausage
1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
½ teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic salt
2 cloves garlic, crushed
¼ cup flour
2½ cups whole milk
Salt and pepper, to taste

  1. Cook sausage over medium heat until thoroughly cooked, stirring frequently.
  2. While cooking, add Italian seasoning, red pepper flakes, onion powder, garlic salt, and crushed garlic to the mix.
  3. Once cooked, layer on small amounts of flour until the meat is covered.
  4. Pour in whole milk slowly; cook until mixture comes to a boil and thickens to the desired consistency. Season to taste.

Sriracha-Honey Salmon

By Art Rauch
Yield: 4 servings

1 large salmon, or 4 to 6
(4-to-6-ounce) fillets
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 limes
2 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup honey
1/3 cup Sriracha chili sauce
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon garlic, minced
1 tablespoon freshly cilantro, chopped

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Line a baking sheet with foil, grease lightly, and lay salmon on top. Season salmon with salt and pepper to taste (for me, about 1 teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon pepper). Slice one lime thinly, and lay the slices under the edges of the salmon.
  3. In a medium sauce pan over medium-high heat, melt butter. Stir in honey, Sriracha sauce, juice of the other lime (about 1 tablespoon), soy sauce, and garlic. Bring to a boil, then reduce to medium heat and cook for 3 to 4 minutes longer.
  4. Pour ⅔ of the sauce over the salmon (reserve remaining sauce for later) and use a spoon or spatula to make sure the sauce covers all of the salmon to avoid having dry spots.
  5. Fold the edges of the foil up around the salmon so the sauce doesn’t spill out everywhere (the foil doesn’t need to completely cover the salmon).
  6. Bake for 15 minutes, then switch to broil and cook another 4 to 5 minutes until the very edges of the salmon begin to char slightly (watch carefully so the whole salmon doesn’t burn).
  7. Top salmon with reserved sauce and chopped cilantro and serve.

The Jostada

By Mike Jost
Yield: 6 tostadas

6 corn tortillas
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 pound ground beef
1/2 cup chopped sweet onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon garlic salt
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 cups refried beans
2 cups shredded lettuce
2 tomatoes, diced
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Brush oil on both sides of tortillas and arrange on baking sheet. Bake for 5 minutes, then flip. Bake for an additional 5 to 10 minutes until the tortillas are crispy; set aside.
  3. Add ground beef, onion, and garlic to a skillet over medium heat. Cook, breaking into small pieces with a wooden spoon, until meat is browned. Drain fat, then mix in spices and stir until combined.
  4. Spread refried beans over each tortilla, then top with beef mixture, lettuce, tomato, and cheese. Return to oven to melt cheese, then serve.


By Mike Bollweg, shared by David Walters
Yield: 1 large sandwich

1/2 pound deli salami, thinly sliced
1/2 pound deli ham, thinly sliced
1 stick butter
1 loaf of French bread
1 green pepper, julienned
1 yellow onion, julienned
4 slices pepper Jack cheese

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Put a large skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add the salami slices and cook until crisp, about 1 minute per side. As the slices are done, remove them to a plate. Repeat with ham slices.
  3. When the deli meat is fried, melt 1 tablespoon of butter in the same skillet. Add green pepper and onion and sauté about 5 minutes.
  4. While vegetables are cooking, cut bread in half length-wise, then spread each cut side with butter and sprinkle with garlic powder. Place on cookie sheet.
  5. Layer fried meat on one half of bread,
    and vegetables on the other. Cover both sides with pepper Jack cheese and bake until cheese has melted, 10 to 12 minutes. When ready, stack sandwich halves to slice and serve.