Meet the culinary King of Queens. Ladder 158's Keith Young is defending his borough's honor in the final round of the Daily News' first 5-Alarm Cookoff this Friday. The 45-year-old father of three studied culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, and even threw down - and won - a cookoff "Showdown" against Bobby Flay.
Still, the strapping 6-foot-5 firefighter isn't taking his kitchen contenders lightly. "The competition is pretty stiff," he says.
Young knows the other four FDNY finalists, who each beat out their borough's competition to whip up a winning dish for the final faceoff on "Rachael Ray" this Friday at 10 a.m. on Ch. 7.
"There are no slackers, so I have to give it my all. It's not like I'm going to walk away with it," he adds.
But he's got one thing on his side: Jumbo Shrimp Ã la Terry Diablo. His winning recipe is named for firefighter Terry Farrell, who died on 9/11; Farrell saved countless lives by getting Young's probie class of 300 firefighters to donate blood and bone marrow for leukemia patients.
The jumbo shrimp are stuffed with Canadian bacon and drizzled in a spicy sauce spiked with Jim Beam's Terry Farrell Firefighters Fund Bourbon, which sends financial aid to the sons and daughters of firefighters.
Young is also dedicating this dish to Richie Manetta from Ladder 156, a 9/11 responder who died on Oct. 10 from lung and brain cancer. "He'll be with me [during the contest] looking over my shoulder," Young says.
The 45 members of the Queens double firehouse in Springfield Gardens share an intensely close bond born from putting their lives on the line and looking out for each other on a daily basis.
Rolling up their sleeves each night to make the evening meal together brings them even closer.
"We spend long hours with each other, usually on 24-hour shifts, so we sit down at lunch and dinner and really bond together," explains Brian Borawski.
Although Young only joined their house a year ago, the guys have nothing but rave reviews for his culinary skills.
"He just whips stuff together out of nothing," marvels Tom Stephenson. "And he's always been good about keeping the budget down. He manages business in the right way."
Young leads a tour around the kitchen, showcasing the pair of refrigerators stocked with milk, butter and leftovers, cases of Vitamin Water, and plenty of chicken.
"Firefighters eat a lot of chicken," says Stephenson.
In fact, chicken parmesan is the first dish most of the probies pick up when they join a house.
"Even if you've never cooked before, if you learn how to cook chicken parm, you're fine. Everyone likes that," says Borawski.
That's not to say there's no variety at mealtimes. "Everyone cooks a little differently or specializes in a different dish," says Stephenson. "And with 45 guys in a house, you can get a lot of different dishes."
Still, Young stands head and shoulders above the rest. "He uses a lot of cilantro and lemon juice," confides Borawski.
The cheftestant specializes in using fresh ingredients - like bay leaf grown at home in his Wantagh, L.I., garden - and in clean, straightforward dishes.
"It's very important to keep things simple and to focus on the flavors," he says.
While Young isn't camera-shy, he admits that he's nervous about cooking on TV.
"I've done shows like this before, but the cameras are distracting," he says. "There are lights and cameras in your face, and you're just trying to stir something, or someone is yelling that you've got three minutes left. You've just got to focus."
He'll have 20 members of Ladder 158 along with his family rooting for him on the set.
But apart from the top chef title, he hopes to catch Rachael Ray's ear for a moment to plug a kitchen appliance he's been developing that's patent-pending.
"It's a cutting board that is going to revolutionize the way you do things in the kitchen," he teases. "But I'd like to build a little suspense around it first."
Each day this week, we'll feature a finalist in the Firehouse Cookoff competition. Tune in to the "Rachael Ray" show" this Friday (10 a.m. on ABC) for the ultimate showdown, where the winner will be announced.