We Ate Lunch at a Firehouse & Here’s What We Learned

Ever wonder what real firehouse cooking is like? Well, it's not just five-alarm chili. We shadowed two Milwaukee firefighters and got the scoop on what's going on in their kitchen.

Near the Taste of Home offices, you’ll often see firefighters climbing out of their truck and into the grocery store. After seeing these guys shop week after week, I knew I had to catch up with them, find out what they were buying and what they were whipping up in the firehouse because I had a hunch five-alarm chili isn’t on the menu every day.

Lucky for me, these firefighters were happy to show me exactly what was going on in their kitchen. So I headed to Milwaukee’s Engine 27 and Ladder 5 under the direction of experienced firehouse chefs Mike McGill and Todd Peck. Mike has 25 years of experience at the fire department—15 of which as a chef—and Todd is a 20-year veteran who has cooked for 12. I knew with pedigrees like that, I’d be in good hands.

Reporting for Duty

Taste of Home Brianna Griepentrog

Stepping into the historic firehouse on Milwaukee’s East Side, I wasn’t too sure what to expect. What I found, however, was not unlike stepping into a busy home. Classic rock was playing on the radio, newspapers were spread across the kitchen table and men were tidying up here and there. Amid the hustle and bustle, I found Mike and Todd scouring the ads for deals at the local grocery store (Grandma’s not the only one spotting these deals!).

This, according to both Mike and Todd, is standard procedure. Each morning they work, they sit down and plan out the day’s meals—a lunch and dinner—to serve the eight firefighters on staff.

The meals vary depending on two things, according to Mike: “what’s on sale and who’s cooking.” On his days cooking, Mike says he likes to plan ahead and make hearty one-pot meals and slow cooker recipes. Todd admitted to having a different approach. “I wing it,” he laughed, though he admitted to preferring smaller entrees with lots of sides.

Regardless of their styles, both Todd and Mike prefer making their meals from scratch; you won’t find frozen pizzas and cold cuts in their firehouse. Their lunches and dinners are real stick-to-your-ribs sort of meals that take a bit of extra time.

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The Biggest Challenge

Prepping these meals—no matter who’s manning the kitchen for the day—doesn’t come without its challenges. Anyone with a large family knows that cooking meals for a crowd is a lot to handle, especially if you’re stirring up everything from scratch.

However, the biggest challenge is that cooking, grocery shopping or eating can be interrupted at any moment by the alarm. In that case, the stove is switched off, napkins are down and everyone’s out the door. No sooner had Todd explained this than he and his crew were suiting up and off on a call.

Shopping with Firehouse Chefs

Taste of Home Brianna Griepentrog

After the call, the crew finalized their meals for the day. Todd would take care of lunch. After seeing a great deal on shrimp, he decided on shrimp po’ boys and clam chowder. Mike would be cooking dinner: a pork-Guinness stew with homemade Irish soda bread (you can find our five-star soda bread recipe here). Considering that these guys cook with a fixed budget—their coworkers contribute a fixed amount daily—I was pretty impressed with how far they could stretch those funds.

Inside the grocery store, I felt like I was shopping with the pros. Mike found an impressive nine-pound pork butt for his stew (this cut is just right for low-and-slow cooks like stews and pulled pork) on sale while Todd loaded up on fresh veggies and—on the spur of the moment—some fresh berries for a salad. We didn’t take long inside. These guys want to be back at the firehouse not only to cook but to be at the ready for any emergencies.

All Hands on Deck

Returning from the store, Todd and Mike got right down to business. Mike began prepping that slow-cooked stew (smelled amazing!) while Todd got going on the chowder.

While these guys call the shots when it comes to the food and do the majority of the work, they aren’t beyond recruiting their colleagues to help with some of the prep. Before I knew it, I was dicing an onion for the soup, someone else was setting the table and another fireman was prepping the shrimp. It definitely felt a lot like a family kitchen to me with everyone helping out.

After an hour or so of hard work, lunch was served. And this was no basic po’ boy or chowder. The chowder was topped with crispy bacon crumbles and the po’ boy was finished with a homemade remoulade made of mayonnaise, relish, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce and Cajun seasonings. These finishing touches really take these dishes from good home cooking to top-notch meals.

Todd’s Shrimp Po’ Boy Recipe

Taste of Home Brianna Griepentrog

Ingredients

  • 24-32 ounces of shrimp
  • 2 loaves of French bread
  • Sliced tomato
  • Shredded lettuce

Coating

  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • 2 tablespoons paprika
  • 2 tablespoons pepper
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon seasoned salt
  • 4 eggs + milk for the egg wash

Remoulade

  • 1 cup mayo
  • ¼ cup relish
  • 3 tablespoons ketchup
  • 1 tablespoon Worstechire sauce
  • A few shakes of hot sauce—here’s our favorite brand
  • Cajun seasoning to taste
  • Juice of one lemon

To make this recipe, start with cleaned and peeled shrimp—frozen works just fine here. Then put together a simple egg wash: a few eggs and milk whisked together with some salt and pepper. In another dish, mix together all the coating ingredients. You’ll do a basic breading technique here dipping the shrimp into the egg and then into the dry coating. Fry these shrimp in vegetable oil for just a few minutes. The firefighters rely on a giant cast iron pan for this! Once, fried let them drain on a wire rack or toss them on a plate with some paper towel.

While one firefighter fried, another mixed up the remoulade. Just whisk together all the ingredients above and season to taste.

Once you’re prepped, stuff your loaf of bread with a generous helping of shrimp, and top with the tomatoes, lettuce and remoulade.

The Big Bite

Coming from a large family, big portions aren’t unusual to me, but lunch at the firehouse was something else entirely. These po’ boys were incredible: two loaves of French bread piled high with shrimp, lettuce and tomato. Not to mention a big pot of clam chowder and a generous salad plus fruit.

Mike explained to me that, yes, these portions were large enough for them all to stay energized for their work, but also “everyone wants leftovers when you come in at 1:00 am and you’re cold and tired.” A cup of clam chowder looked like it would hit the spot to me.

But I had to taste it, of course! So I joined Mike, Todd and six other Milwaukee firefighters for an oversized lunch. Let me tell you, this soup and sandwich combo did not disappoint. The crispy cornmeal-breaded shrimp was fried to perfection. Paired with that homemade remoulade and the fresh French bread, I was in heaven.

And diving into that chowder, I knew that it was what I’d be craving at 1:00 am and beyond. Onions, creamy potato, briny clams and bacon—it doesn’t get too much better than that.

The best part, though, had to be sitting down with the firemen and getting to know them around a good meal. It felt like visiting family or friends.

Taste of Home Brianna Griepentrog

“This kitchen table is just like any other kitchen table,” Todd said. “We’re like a family here.”

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Lisa Kaminski
Lisa is an associate editor at Taste of Home where she gets to embrace her passion for baking. She pours this love of all things sweet (and sometimes savory) into Bakeable, Taste of Home's baking club. At home, you'll find her working on embroidery and other crafts.