It's not often one of New York's Bravest admits to being a little lady like, but when it comes to winning the first round of the Daily News' FDNY Five Alarm Cookoff Competition, they'll make an exception.
Take firefighter Jimmy Lowe from Rescue 3 in the Bronx, who plated his winning flank-steak pinwheels at Saturday's Bronx borough semifinals with an artful squeeze-bottle drizzle of homemade teriyaki ginger sauce and hand-carved florettes made of tomato and cucumber.
"That's my feminine side," said Lowe, who admitted that "my TV is always set to the cooking shows."
Lowe, who also scored a 52-inch flat-screen TV for his E. 176th St. firehouse, must now compete against four other skilled foodie firefighters - one from each of the other boroughs - during the celeb-studded citywide finale. Sponsored in part by the Municipal Credit Union and Best Buy, it will air on the Rachael Ray show next month.
Ray's crew was on hand to catch every nervous shake of salt by firefighting semi-finalists last weekend, shooting the Bronx battle at the dietetics training kitchens of Lehman College Saturday and the Queens smackdown Sunday in the spiffy culinary training center of Long Island City High School. (The final single-borough battle, Manhattan's, takes place this coming Sunday.)
Last weekend's borough showdowns - the recipes were picked from a pack of submissions - were emceed by Amanda Freitag, the chef at the Harrison in Tribeca and the host of "America's Next Iron Chef" on the Food Network. Her dad was a volunteer firefighter in Brooklyn when she was a kid.
As the cameras bobbed and weaved around every stir and sauté, the firefighters had to answer her questions - "Ever made fresh pasta?" - while cooking and presenting their recipes in just one hour to the panel of three judges, who were secretly watching the stovetop action from another room.
While these guys are certainly used to pressure in firehouse kitchens as well as on the trucks - most say a call to duty comes in, like clockwork, just as the food is nearly done - they were no slouches on fancy techniques. In fact, Lowe, who has already competed in several firefighter cookoffs, likes to follow the advice he gives at the firehouse: "You got to step up," he says, "to mess up."
On Saturday he had to literally step up to his competition, who was cooking directly across the stoves from him at Lehman College's training kitchen.
While Lowe worked on his winning flank steak - he pounded it thin, stuffed it with parmesan, mushrooms, chard and bacon and topped it with a beer-and-buttermilk-battered Vidalia onion ring - Stephen Bowles from Ladder 17 made his "What's for Chicken."
For that dish - named after his E. 143rd St. firehouse slang for "Do we have to have chicken for dinner again?" - Bowles sauteed baby spinach in garlic, topped it with thin chicken cutlets, and blanketed them both in a white-wine, shallot and mushroom sauce.
The pair bantered as if they'd been cooking against each other for years. "What's this?" joked Bowles as Lowe turned his tiny tomatoes into rosettes with a paring knife. "He's got fancy fruit. I tell you, if you put those flowers on the table in the firehouse, they'd throw them in the garbage."
Yet that plating probably helped Lowe win. "I was looking for an identity," said judge Giuseppe Paciullo, from Roberta's near Arthur Ave. "Lowe's dish was more like what a chef would have you taste."
Sunday's Queens battle boasted real chefs: Two of the three firefighters graduated from culinary school and cooked professionally before turning their careers to a different kind of flame.
Winner Keith Young, of Ladder 158 in Brookville, went to Johnson & Wales University's culinary arts program, cooked in Long Island and Lake Tahoe kitchens and has even manned the stoves on TV multiple times - once making chicken cacciatore against superstar chef Bobby Flay on Flay's Food Network show "Throwdown."
"I won," said Young.
Despite his experience, however, he finished his dish on Sunday mere minutes before his hour deadline was up. It's called jumbo shrimp "a la Terry diablo" - named after firefighter Terry Farrell, who died on 9/11 - and it's not surprising that it won over his firehouse the first time he made it: Think expertly fried crustaceans stuffed with Canadian bacon and gooey Asiago cheese, topped with a creamy, spicy shrimp and roasted red pepper sauce spiked with Young's "special ingredient," a splash of Jim Beam's Terry Farrell Firefighters Fund Bourbon.
"You got a little heat, a little smoke and a lot of flavor," said Young, who grew the bay leaf for the sauce in his garden.
According to the picky panel of judges, which included chef Ardian Skenderi of Taverna Kyclades in Astoria, it was that sauce that clinched the victory. "Absolutely delicious," said Laura Molite, who heads the Long Island City High School culinary training program.
Yet Young's competition was just as refined: Donald Barbour from Engine 325 made a silky "risotto-style" pasta dish with neon-yellow Greenmarket cauliflower, purple baby mustard greens, capers, slab bacon and lemon zest, based on a recipe by French chef Joel Robuchon.
"I was reading through one of his cookbooks," said Barbour, who graduated from the New England Culinary Institute, "and instead of cooking your pasta in water you cook it all in one pot, so the pasta is absorbing the flavors of your chicken stock."
How do his colleagues react to dishes like these? "The guys at the firehouse are like meat-and-potatoes guys," said Barbour, who has cooked at restaurants in the Hamptons, "but I try to mix it up every once in a while, and they appreciate it."
Matt Susco of Engine 329 digs the clams for his tomatoey, seafood-studded Linguine Marechiara Marinara himself. "I think of it as digging for gold," said Susco as he stirred his simmering homemade tomato and sweet-pepper sauce, noting that "firemen can be kind of frugal."
They're supportive, too, added Susco, referring to the camaraderie of his three cookoff challengers. "We're all team players," he said, sprinkling chopped chives. "No one's out for themselves in the Fire Department." Still, the first-time competitor does admit he doesn't mind the perks that come with a camera crew and a win: "I secretly like the attention, I guess."
Young has bigger plans for stardom, starting with winning over Rachael Ray during the Five Alarm Cookoff finals next month. "I have a cutting-board invention," says Young, "that's going to revolutionize the way we do everything in the kitchen."