Capt. Dave Baker is a commanding presence. Tall and built like an NFL player, he leans in over the island in the kitchen of Anaheim Fire Station 2, watching six other firefighters feverishly chopping vegetables.
“It’s chop-chop, not mince-mince,” he says in his deep voice, coaxing a bit of restraint from the others. As they chop the lettuce, bell peppers, tomatoes, onions and cilantro, Baker slides a cookie sheet of almond slivers into the oven.
“It has to be kind of a team effort, because we never know when we’re going to get a call,” he says.
All this teamwork for a salad is a sign of the times.
“When I started, it used to be, ‘Hey kid, go get us a pie.’ We ate well, but we ate comfort food. Now, that’s for special occasions,” Baker says.
Tonight, dinner is a salad. Some Hawaiian bread is as close as they’ll get to pie.
Baker, despite looking like he was born to be a firefighter, was the first in his family to be one. After years of people suggesting it to him, it was only when some of the guys he worked with at a restaurant signed up for the fire academy program at Santa Ana College that he finally committed to the idea.
The home he grew up in was of modest means, and his mom cooked virtually every night.
“We didn’t have much money so we didn’t get to go out to a lot of restaurants,” Baker says. But he didn’t learn how to cook until his waitering job — at the upscale Parker’s Lighthouse in Long Beach. It was the restaurant’s citrus cilantro marinated thresher shark that he used to ingratiate himself when he got hired.
“Guys wanted to hammer the rookie for a horrible meal but it turned out so good that no one said a single word all dinner. They just asked for more….and also the recipe,” he says. “One thing they told me when I got hired was they would never fire a good cook.”
Now, chow time at the station is something he treasures.
“Any time we can all sit down together as a family and break bread, I love it,” he says. “I remember as a rookie firefighter, we were the last to get our food and we had to be the first one to finish so we could get into doing the dishes. If someone beat us, we would have to wrestle them out of the dishes.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone beating Baker in a wrestling match for dishes or, pretty much anything else.
Chop Chop Salad (serves 6-8)
1 – Cup of olive oil
1 – juice from a plastic lime
1 – bushel of cilantro
5 – cloves of garlic
3 – bell peppers (orange, yellow, red)
1 – red onion
Mix ingredients in a large pitcher for dressing. Stir occasionally while other ingredients are being chopped.
In a large bowl, chop and add:
1 – head red leaf lettuce
1 – large head of Napa cabbage
4 – roma tomatoes
1 – traditional feta cheese
1 – bag of frozen corn
1 – large bag of slivered almonds (toasted in the oven)
Grill minimum 4 oz. of chicken breast. Season with Lawry’s granulated garlic and pepper. Chop and let cool.
Crunch up a bag of corn tortilla chips.
“Mix with everything else if you feel you won’t have leftovers,” Baker says. “If you are going to have some to eat for the next day, don’t mix in the corn chips, they get soggy.”
Mix all ingredients in the large bowl. Add a little balsamic vinegar on top, for extra flavoring, if desired.