When Los Angeles Fire Department Capt. Mark Curry cooks dinner at Station 29 in Koreatown, the last thing anyone wants is a fire call just as their grub is served.
Curry never disappoints in the kitchen.
Sunday night, Curry — defending champion in Steve Lopez's Firehouse Cook-off — threw together an old-school meal of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, biscuits, gravy and apple pie.
The meal and the timing were both exquisite. Just after a dozen firefighters had cleaned their plates, 29 got a call, and well-fed crew members ran for their gear — moving briskly considering what they'd just packed on.
A neighborhood dinner guest, Mark Cohen, glanced around the empty dining room and asked:
"Can I have another piece of chicken?"
Cohen was there with his wife, Lyn, who was being feted for her longtime fundraising on behalf of Station 29, which celebrated its 100th anniversary this year. Lyn Cohen, whose efforts have helped pay for tools and other equipment in this age of budget slicing and dicing, said she is halfway to raising enough money from neighbors and businesses to cover a long-needed landscaping project at the station.
Speaking of tight budgets, Station 29 collects just $9 daily from each firefighter to pay for the day's lunch and dinner.
"I think that's made me a better cook," said Curry, who has to shop smart and find creative ways to make memorable meals. He once attended a culinary school and considers nice dishes — gourmet-quality Asian braised short ribs, for instance, and rosemary infused polenta — a way of saying thank you to his crew.
Get breaking news alerts delivered to your mobile phone. Text BREAKING to 52669. You will receive up to 30 msgs/mo. Msg&data rates may apply. Text HELP for help. Text STOP to cancel.
Last year, Curry and Cruz Macias, a firefighter based at LAFD Station 87 in Granada Hills, won the qualifying cook-off held at the L.A. Times. The two then faced off on stage at the Paramount lot in the L.A. Times' Labor Day weekend food festival, The Taste.
With the clock ticking, and celebrity chef Thomas Keller joining Times foodies Jonathan Gold and Russ Parsons as judges — Curry's veal and shrimp dumplings over pad thai noodles edged out Macias' chicken mole enchiladas, which featured homemade tortillas and refried beans spiced with chorizo.
This year, both Curry and Macias are signed up to go at it again. But will they make it to the finals? If you work at a fire station anywhere in Southern California, and you think you can take these guys, you're invited to the preliminary round at Times headquarters in downtown L.A., where last year, Curry used a blowtorch to caramelize the top of his crème brulee.
Last week, in the interest of investigative journalism, I dined not just with Curry, but also at station 87, to see if Macias still has what it takes. Macias used his own rub and barbecue sauce to grill chicken and pork ribs, with sides of baked, bacon-enhanced mac and cheese and homemade cole slaw.
How good was it? Half an hour later, I was still licking my fingers.
"I never went to culinary school, so I just stick to basics," said Macias, whose favorite recipes are all included in his cookbook "Fireman Favorites," which is available at Amazon.
For dessert, Macias made cherry dumplings topped with cinnamon, sugar and whipped cream.
"I call them rapid-response turnovers," said Macias, who cooked his way into last year's finals with his back-draft chicken sandwiches.
When I asked Macias if his buddies at 87 had a favorite meal, he said:
"Anything anyone else cooks," other than themselves, "is their favorite meal."
Macias said he got a call from the Food Network after last year's competition, asking if he'd be interested in competing if the show "Chopped" stages an L.A. firehouse cook-off. Another highlight, he said, was having Keller — owner of French Laundry in Napa Valley and L.A.'s Bouchon — step in during last year's finals to help him finish off his mole dinner.
"You got Thomas Keller to be your sous chef," a friend exclaimed.
Keller gave both Curry and Macias a copy of one of his books and a set of his signature knives.
"I looked it up, and they retail for $700," said Curry, who doesn't intend to use his. He likes just having them as a trophy.
The idea for the cook-off began when I visited Station 92 last year in West Los Angeles, where Capt. Craig Nielsen cooked a thank-you dinner for neighbors who had bought equipment for the firehouse. They eat mostly healthy at 92, a citywide trend despite the fried chicken (Curry's dish is actually pan-sauteed and finished off in the oven) and barbecued ribs I had last week.
I remember 92 firefighter Jared Cooper lecturing me on the merits of brown rice over white rice. He said he watches cooking shows for ideas and makes a healthy chipotle chicken with asparagus and black beans, swiping the recipe from Rachael Ray.
Nielsen, by the way, whom Curry considers one of the best chefs in the LAFD, is planning to compete again this year. And I've already heard from Sam Villavicencio of the Ventura County Fire Department and Mauricio Benard of the L.A. County Fire Department, both of whom said they'd be back.
And by the way, where are all the women firefighters? Someone has to put the men in their place before they get too cocky.
If you chase fires for a living, shoot me an e-mail for more details, and we'll see if you can handle the heat in the kitchen.