"No, not at all," he said. "We eat ribs, burgers. Stuff that tastes good."
Not that 92 doesn't loosen its belt now and then. While Bowers was making his chicken, Nielsen was working on a cherry-berry crisp with plenty of brown sugar, and with fresh cherries he pitted himself and simmered in almond syrup. (He followed a recipe he had downloaded to a digital reader that also had a timer function.)
Cooper, meanwhile, was talking up the benefits of homemade hummus, butternut squash, avocados, ground turkey and so on.
"I make a healthy cashew chicken chipotle deal," he said. "With brown rice. These are not things I just made up. We use the Food Network website, we use Epicurious or we watch a cooking show." The cashew chicken, he said, "is a Rachael Ray recipe."
And I thought these guys watched rugby.
Firefighter Yvonne Gutierrez said her culinary skills were limited to grilled cheese and canned soup "until Capt. Nielsen took me under his wing." Now she helps less-experienced firefighters when it's their turn to cook. With eight people on a shift, each contributes about $11 a day to cover the cost of the day's meals, and everyone has to take a turn cooking. The assigned chef does the shopping.
"Whatever's on sale," said Gutierrez, "that's what I'll cook."
Nielsen insists that he's not the best cook in the department. In his view, that title may belong to Capt. Mark Curry at Station 29 in Mid-Wilshire. When I called Curry, he downplayed his talents, but he did say that he had once studied at the Westlake Culinary Institute. His secret in the kitchen, he said, is to keep things simple, but his idea of simple and mine may not be the same. When pressed, he described a surf and turf he once prepared that included short ribs and Chilean sea bass with wasabi mashed potatoes.
"Firefighters don't do a lot of dining out," Curry said, "so if you throw a little béarnaise or hollandaise sauce in there, it blows them away."
Given the food budget, Curry enjoys the challenge of taking cheaper cuts of meat, like a seven-bone roast, and "cooking it all day in the right ingredients.
"It's the only way I have of thanking my crew," Curry said. "I can't give them raises, so all I can say is 'thank you.' And my way to do that is in the kitchen."
Talking to the likes of Nielsen and Curry made me hungry, and I got to thinking it might be fun to bring the best firehouse chefs in Southern California together for a cook-off. Nielsen and Curry said they're in, and although details are still in the works, L.A. Times Food Editor Russ Parsons has agreed to be a judge.
Any of you firefighters out there think you can out cook Nielsen and Curry? Or is that more heat in the kitchen than you can handle?
If you want in, shoot me an email at email@example.com