FDNY Cooking Contest Hopefuls Stand Up to Heat of Battle

NY Daily News - October 06, 2009

by Leah Chernikoff AND Nicole Lyn Pesce

There are two things New York City firefighters take seriously: fighting fires and fixing dinner.

Last weekend, NYC's bravest brought the heat to the kitchen in the first round of the Daily News' first FDNY Five Alarm Cookoff competition, sponsored in part by Municipal Credit Union.

Firehouse foodies compete for supremacy in their borough - then the winners from all five come together for the citywide celeb-studded finale.

That final round will air on the Rachael Ray show the first week of November.

Lifestyle and food expert Sissy Biggers, best known as the host of the Food Network's "Ready Set Cook!," emceed the first two borough battles, and nudged the food-show newbies to get their food in the oven within the hour time limit.

Cheftestants from Brooklyn and Staten Island cooked in the first two of the five borough-wide throwdowns - not only for bragging rights, but for a 52-inch flat screen TV from Best Buy.

The firehouse chefs, who submitted recipes, had just one hour to cook, prep and present their dishes before a panel of celebrity judges from their borough, all while Rachael Ray's cameras rolled.

First up: John Sierp from Ladder 169 in Brighton Beach, who has a knack for transforming classic recipes by using unexpected ingredients.

"I'm an untraditional guy," said Sierp, 37, as he tossed freshly grated ginger and Sriracha hot sauce into his pork meatloaf at the New York City College of Technology. His zesty Caribbean-style meatloaf wipes away memories of the stale school cafeteria staple.

"It's very, very different from a regular meatloaf because it's pork meat, so it's not going to get dry," he explained. "It's got a good amount of fat in it to keep it moist, flaky and delicious."

Sierp, who has cooked on TV with Martha Stewart and Bobby Flay before, barely broke a sweat as the crowd, including judges John DeLucie, executive chef and partner of the Waverly Inn; CUNY alum Michael Lomonaco, who is executive chef and managing partner of Porter House New York; Elizabeth Schaible, assistant professor and department chair of CUNY's Hospitality Management Program, and Municipal Credit Union regional manager David Sumner, looked on.

Fellow competitors Carmine Ancona from Engine 247 and Kevin Leonard from Engine 221, Ladder 104 felt the heat.

"Oh, this is worse than putting out a fire," laughed Ancona, 63, from Bensonhurst, as he fixed his spicy shrimp. "Being on camera, I'm very nervous."

But a film crew is nothing compared to the chaos of a real firehouse kitchen.

"As soon as you get the pasta in the boiling water, I swear, there's always an emergency and we have to run out!" Sierp said. And firefighters are harder to please than food critics.

"Oh, yeah," adds Leonard, 33, from Williamsburg, who cooked up his own Hawaiian Wedding Chicken recipe. "I always say, the hungrier the guys are, the better it tastes, so I try to serve the guys at around midnight."

Sierp's meatloaf walked away the winner - and all of the chefs banded together to back Brooklyn to win.

"I was very impressed by their demeanor," said judge Lomonaco. "The three of them were brothers, and they were in this together. They put their heart and soul into it, so the other boroughs have to think about this!"

"My expectations weren't high," said DeLucie. "But there was real thought that went into it, and the colors and textures and flavors were there. I'd hire them."

On Sunday, Staten Island's Port Richmond High School, which boasts a culinary program with over 200 students, offered their kitchens for the cookoff.

Sal DePaola, 31, from Engine 160, took home first prize on S.I. for a dish that brought the heat.

"The chipotles are definitely the key ingredient," DePaola said as he dropped a full can into his simmering skillet of Chipotle Jambalaya. DePaola has been experimenting with recipes since age 15.

"Some guys like it spicy and some guys don't," DePaola said. "But I make it spicy and they eat it anyway."

So much, in fact, that DePaola makes the dish for his brothers around three times a month. "Firefighters always give you a hard time, but this is the one dish they can't complain about - everyone is happy every time I make it."

After winning, his co-workers will ease off on the teasing.

"The firehouse will be proud of me," says DePaola. "Now they can't make fun of me for not having a first-place dish."

Contestant Anthony Truscelli's roast pork recipe included an inventive marshmallow fluff and pancake syrup.

"Most of the guys [at the firehouse] would agree that the dish suits my personality," said Truscelli, 31, from Engine 162, of his savory-sweet concoction. His Little Anthony's Vanilla Pecan and Almond Crusted Pork Roast is glazed in a mixture of pancake syrup, marshmallow dip, honey and vanilla and almond extract.

"If my grandmother saw this recipe, she would roll over in her grave," said Truscelli's dad, Anthony, 60, a general sales manager. "She cooked traditional Italian food - spaghetti and meatballs."

It's a good dish to make in a firehouse, though, where these chefs are often called into action.

"Hopefully, when we're cooking, the bells don't go off," said Truscelli, "but if they do, with this dish, I just crank down the oven."

The threat of the fire bell looms larger for contestant Tom Garitano, 28, from Engine 166/Ladder 86, whose RAF (Richmond Avenue Firehouse) Risotto with broccoli rabe, spicy Italian sausage and sun-dried tomatoes requires a half hour of vigilant stirring and adding broth.

All the labor-intensive dishes impressed the celebrity judging panel, which included chef Stefano Sena of Bocelli Restaurant and Nikki Cascone, chef/owner of 24 Prince.

"Wow, these guys can cook," said Sena. "I wasn't expecting as good a meal as I got."

Former "Top Chef" contestant Cascone knows what it's like to cook under pressure in front of cameras, as well as what it's like to walk the halls at Port Richmond High, her alma mater.

"I got a little choked up when I got out here," said Cascone. "Food, firefighters, my high school - I'm glad this is what brought me back here."

James Ryan, Culinary Arts instructor at Port Richmond High, not only helped judge the cookoff, he and dozens of students gave up a Saturday afternoon to assist the chefs and work kitchen clean-up duty. Cascone graciously posed for photos with the students.

But the competition is fired up. "Brooklyn's comin' for you, baby!" Sierp says. "Good luck."

If you're a firehouse chef from Queens, Manhattan or the Bronx who thinks you've got the chops, the Daily News is still accepting submissions at nydailynews.com/contests from Queens and the Bronx until this Saturday, and in Manhattan until Oct. 17.