The red light is blinking again at Anaheim Fire & Rescue Station 11. Barely a conversation, task or meal is finished all at once in one of the busiest stations in the city. Down time is lived in short, staccato bursts of easily abandoned activity.
Dinner is tricky. Eating it is one thing, but making anything that requires more than two steps is only inviting problems. Occasionally, the firefighters and ambulance crew of Station 11 get a break.
But this will not be one of those dinners. Veteran Firefighter Michel Bowidowicz can’t even complete the sentence, “…this station is generally one of the busiest…” before the red light blinks above him in the kitchen, signaling a call. Somebody needs them.
In seconds, guys are covering giant bowls of chopped carrots, mushrooms and potatoes. An automatic gas shut off also hits as soon as the call comes in, keeping the stove from overcooking anything, or worse. Fortunately, it can’t keep the aroma of garlic and onions from filling the big room.
When the crew returns 30 minutes later, Bowidowicz gets back to cooking up coq au vin, or chicken in wine sauce. The dish brings a sense of a special occasion to the firehouse.
“It’s a pretty simple recipe,” he says unassumingly. “My wife and daughter are vegetarians, so I don’t get to make it at home.”
Bowidowicz grew up an army brat. He quickly learned the value of service to others. Of causes bigger than himself. By the first grade, he was already hooked on the classic 1970s TV show “Emergency!,” which followed a group of Los Angeles fire fighters. Back then, his dad was the cook. And a great one, he says.
“My joy of cooking started when I was a teenager working in an Italian restaurant. While I was in the Navy, I enjoyed cooking for friends when I was in town and my love of cooking just grew from there,” Bowidowicz says. “I have definitely gotten some miles out of being a good cook in the fire station over the years.”
And it’s always better than doing dishes.
“I had a twisty path to getting the job, with my 6 1/2 years in the Navy,” he says. “But the day after I got out, I started my basic fire academy followed by paramedic school.”
Bowidowicz says coq au vin is hard to make at the station, but he’s tried to accommodate for the inevitable.
“The prep is all hands on deck,” he says. “We need a person for mashed potatoes, a person chopping vegetables, a person browning the chicken and then we make the contingency plan if anyone gets a call. Once the chicken is slow cooking, the meal is safe from disaster.”
He’s also made his own changes to the recipe by swapping the wine from red to white and adding more vegetables.
“Cooking at Station 11 can be a challenge due to our run load and the fact that we always have rookies to train,” he says. “Most of the (cooking) hiccups we’ve had were about communicating to the ambulance crew what needs to be done in case we get a call (and they have to take over the prep).”
He jokes, “What seems like a simple task, ‘Please cut the bell peppers and onions for fajitas’ can be understood as, ‘dice up the veggies.’ Or ‘Please buy pre-cooked chicken for six people’ and they return with what appears to be a small Cornish game hen.”
Bowidowicz says, “All in all, we get it done.” And after a day full of calls, being able to cook and eat a home-cooked meal with the firehouse family is truly a special occasion in and of itself.
The recipe (serves 6):
2 bone in chicken thighs per person
5 cloves garlic
1 brown onion
5-6 celery stalks
10 white mushrooms sliced
1 bottle of Sauvignon Blanc
1 stick butter
4 lbs. potatoes
2 tbsp EVOO
1 bunch curly parsley
Prepare mashed potatoes.
Melt half stick of butter with the EVOO and brown chicken on both sides.
Place chicken to side and sauté vegetables.
Once vegetables are browned, place chicken back in the pan and pour in wine and remaining butter.
Heat on low until chicken is easily coming from bone.
Remove chicken and place on top of bed of mashed potatoes and spoon in vegetables and liquid.
Garnish with chopped parsley and serve with bread.