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Chefs in Strange Places: Cooking in Unique Situations

Kitchens come in all shapes and sizes — from ones with the latest and most technologically advanced gadgets to ones designed for maximum efficiency and for churning out massive amounts of food on any given day.                                                 

But most kitchens, no matter what type of setting they’re in, are the heart and soul of a place. It’s where everyone congregates to catch up on their day and where one might go to get comfort.

Learn about other chefs in strange places on "Meals Ready to Eat" S1 E5: Coast Guard and Philly.

Deborah Luman is the cafeteria supervisor of Encina High School in the suburbs of Sacramento. Luman’s kitchen serves about 400 middle and high school children during breakfast and 700 during lunch. Beyond serving up food, Luman says she’s also there to give words of wisdom to student workers, keep misbehaving kids in line and to lend an ear to those who might be going through a tough time at home.

It's a safe place, I'm not the teacher, I'm not the principal, I'm the kitchen,” says Luman. “When there's a party at your house where does everybody end up? The kitchen.”

Meals at fire stations also take on a bigger meaning and helps build the team. 

“Because we do things at medical calls, at fires, as a team, I think when you bring everybody in the kitchen to prep and cook, you hear the laughter, the teasing and you hear all the war stories,” says Mark Ramirez, a firefighter paramedic with the San Jose Fire Department.

In the Coast Guard, the kitchen or galley represents the morale of a whole unit. And being a culinary specialist means an opportunity to help bring people together, says Master Chief Kipp Rice.

“Especially our units that take people away from home during the holidays,” he says. “It really provides a lot of comfort to the folks and the crew and they become your family out there. So it's like you're cooking for a big family.”

SJFD Firefighter Mark Ramirez

Ramirez, who has been with SJFD for ten years, says he learned how to cook in the firehouse. Most new firefighters are encouraged to learn at least five dishes that they can cook easily. Depending on the fire stations they’re assigned to, firefighters rotate cooking shifts. At some firehouses, there is one person permanently assigned to cooking.

Ramirez is usually stationed at Firehouse 26 close to Southern San Jose, but he is also a fill-in, so he’ll end up cooking at various firehouses throughout the department.

Mark Ramirez Fire truck
Marnette Federis

I enjoy cooking, I enjoy bringing family together,” says Ramirez. “I enjoy seeing people's faces once they eat it.”

At a busy firehouse, the more food there is, the better.

“As the years went by, I would try to pick recipes that were fast, preparation was easy, it was good for your body, fresh, as well as ... plentiful because we would eat dinner and then the next day, we’d have leftovers,” says Ramirez.

On a recent night, Ramirez crafts a two-entree meal that includes Peruvian dishes such as tallarin saltado, short ribs marinated in soy sauce, olive oil and vinegar and sauteed with tomatoes, red onions, shallots, garlic and egg noodles. The other dish is Pollo la Brasa, a roasted chicken with olive oil, oregano paprika, salt pepper and topped with a hot sauce mix.

Mark Ramirez Lining up to get food
Marnette Federis

Ramirez chooses these particular dishes because it’s something that he learned from his wife’s family members who are Peruvian Chinese.

“It’s something different, rather than just your normal meat and potatoes or pasta,” he says. “[It’s] something that has a little bit more flavor, in Peru, there’s a lot of starches that they use and I think it’s great especially when you’re at a firehouse that’s busy and you need that carb intake.

For Ramirez, it’s key to make meals that are not too complex, and also provide firefighters with enough energy to last them through the day.

“I normally keep in mind the salt content, how much caloric intake it has, the fat that it has, I try to stay away from a lot of red meats. I usually cook chicken, fish,” he says.

Mark Ramirez SJFD
Tap or hover over image to hear Mark Ramirez talk about his experience as a firefighter and chef. | Marnette Federis

Firefighters can get called to a scene at any time and Ramirez says the job’s unpredictability should be top of mind when planning a menu.

“When the alarm goes off, the stove turns off automatically,” he says. “That's the reason why I try to make meals that are not as complex. So that once I come back, I can just hit the heat and then saute it and then just continue from there.”

When it comes to mealtimes, Ramirez says there’s always teasing and laughter especially for the person cooking the meal. But ultimately, it’s a time to come together.

I think it just brings a lot of different cultures and a lot of different people around,” says Ramirez “And when you're at the dinner table, you don't judge.”

It’s also a time when newer and veteran firefighters can bond.

“It creates a better way of understanding each other,” says Ramirez.

Mark Ramirez Food at Fire House
Marnette Federis

Cafeteria Supervisor Deborah Luman

Luman’s day starts at 5:30  a.m., when she and other staffers start prepping breakfast and cooking eggs. Kids start lining just after 7 a.m. And by 9 a.m., kitchen staffers are turning their attention to lunch.

“We have lots of rules and regulations that we have to go by and we have to explain that every day to so many kids, that, you know, this is not just a buffet,” she says. “You can’t just come in and grab what you want and come back and grab what you want.”

With every meal, kids must take at least a fruit or a vegetable. Luman says she tries to make sure there are options especially for the diverse population in Encina.

Deborah Luman serving salad
Tap or hover over image to hear Deborah Luman talk about life as a cafeteria chef | Marnette Federis

Kids at the school hail from all over the world including Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Many are vegetarian or have some sort of dietary restrictions based on religion.

“They're going to take an apple, an orange, a pear, a persimmon, a salad, and that’s OK,” Luman says. “A lot of kids don’t know that you can take more than one.”

Encina’s cafeteria also boasts a salad bar, the “Border Cafe” serving tacos, tostada and burritos. Recently, the cafeteria has also added an “Asian Express” line that will sometimes serve chicken tandoori, sweet and sour chicken or broccoli beef.

Deborah Luman Salad Beans
Marnette Federis

Luman says the key to running a cafeteria smoothly is to always look ahead to make sure there’s enough food to feed hundreds of children on any given day.

“You're constantly looking at your product, seeing what you have on hand how much you're going through and how much you might need,” she says. “If you get too far behind on you're ordering, you've got to think, I'm not going to have that for another five days. How can I supplement?”

But for Luman, what’s most important about her job is being there for the kids.

“You see some of the kids and they’re sad, and you see that day after day and finally you [talk] to them and you’ll be surprised by some of the answers you get, what might be going on at home,” says Luman. “I tell them, ‘Do you need a hug?’ You’d be surprised at how many just want a hug.”

Deborah Luman and Students
Deborah Luman with students | Marnette Federis

Story continues below

Seaman Apprentice Emily Dolloff

Emily Dolloff, 18, says being a culinary specialist in the Coast Guard is her calling. She’s halfway through a 12-week culinary training program at the Coast Guard Training Center in Petaluma, California.

“It gave me everything I wanted to and so I'm super happy that I joined,” says Dolloff.

At the training center, students learn what they would in any other culinary school. The first half of the program is all about the basics such as cutting, meat fabrication, pasta, sauces and how to cook different proteins. The second half of the program involves being part of the team that cooks breakfast, lunch and dinner at the main dining hall. On any given week, that team cooks food for hundreds of people.

Emily Dolloff
Tap or hover over image to hear Emily Dolloff talk about her experience cooking on a moving ship | Marnette Federis

What makes the culinary training at the Coast Guard different is how the specialists are also trained in other duties.

“You have to be trained for search and rescue, basic first aid, we're trained with firearms and self-defense,” says Dolloff. “And so it takes being a cook to a whole new level and I'm not just the cook.”

Aside from the additional training, culinary specialists are taught how to cook in a variety of situations. Many aspects of cooking are standardized in the Coast Guard, especially when it comes to sanitation, safety and organization. But depending on field assignments, culinary specialists must adapt to different types of equipment — an air station will have kitchens equipped similar to any restaurant, but on a ship, equipment might be limited to a flat top griddle and a couple of convection ovens.

Emily Dolloff and Oysters Demo
Marnette Federis

And cooking at sea entails a whole host of challenges.

“Not many people end up cooking on a platform that rocks all the time,” says Dolloff.

The food cooked up by the students at the training center isn’t what some people would imagine as typical chow food.  On a recent lunch, culinary specialists offered veil Osso Bucco, herb chicken and seared tuna with Thai curry and noodle.

Dolloff says culinary specialists play a critical role in Coast Guard units.

“People associate food with good feelings, if it's good food,” she says. “And so my goal has always been to keep the morale of the crew up by making that macaroni and cheese that everyone's been looking forward to or seafood Friday where everyone's like, ‘Oh, I'm so excited for this lobster.’ It's a job that people overlook. And yet it's so important.”

Emily Dolloff plating the seared tuna
Plating the seared tuna | Marnette Federis

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