Like the other firefighters who've made it to the final round of the Daily News' first FDNY Five Alarm Cook Off, sponsored by the Municipal Credit Union and Best Buy, Jimmy Lowe has been taking a ribbing from his crew, Bronx Rescue 3 in the Tremont neighborhood.
It all stems from Lowe's impressive knife skills: Not only can he deftly butterfly the flank steak for his winning mushroom-and-bacon-stuffed pinwheels in seconds, the 18-year FDNY veteran can carve cucumbers and tomatoes into rosettes to garnish his already exceptional plates. That's a trick that'll surely wow celeb chef Rachael Ray, who will host the finals on her morning show this Friday.
Except that in the Bronx borough semi-finals, Lowe made the mistake of cracking wise about those fragile flowers, saying they hailed from his feminine side. As a result, the brothers of "Big Blue" aren't letting him live it down.
"The whole department was calling up," says company Captain Jim Ellson, "asking, 'is his locker painted pink yet?' "
Asked about Lowe's future role behind the stoves on not-very-masculine morning TV - where he might win their shabby firehouse kitchen a much-needed makeover, courtesy of a new kitchen appliance package from Best Buy - this crew of tough guys all roll their eyes.
"We're not even sending you our best," cracks firefighter Pat Hickey. "We don't even let him cook. He hasn't gotten up to that point yet. He's usually doing the bathrooms."
That's far from the truth at this firehouse, where the kitchen boasts a big gas grill, a meat slicer, a complete set of 1965 World's Fair water glasses and proximity to the sweet Italian food shops of Arthur Ave.
That's where Lowe got the goods for the spread of massive sandwiches he made for the station one recent afternoon in between runs (like clockwork, the alarm rings just as they take the last bite).
As the majority of the men lounge in Rescue 3's matching collection of four hand-me-down La-Z-Boys, Lowe makes lunch: layers of grilled chicken breasts marinated in Italian dressing; thin slices of pan-fried, herb-crusted eggplant; roasted red peppers and slices of fresh mozzarella from the famous Teitel Bros. on a mismatched battery of buns.
Lowe, 42 and a Long Island native, is good at taking guff. His response, when reminded of the professional experience and culinary-school chops of several competitors, is a humble shrug. "Those guys went to cooking school," says Lowe, "I went to the school of hard knocks. You learn from seeing the other men cook as a new fireman. Then you take what you learn from them."
That's exactly what he did for this winning recipe, paper-thin rolls of flank steak stuffed with Parmesan, mushrooms, Swiss chard and bacon and topped with a beer-and-buttermilk-battered Vidalia onion ring and a drizzle of homemade teriyaki ginger sauce.
"This is a meal I originally got from a guy in Brooklyn," says Lowe, who moved from an East New York firehouse to the one on E. 176th St. a few years back, and has been playing with the recipe ever since. "I said, you know what, let me throw that in there and see what happens." He perfected it in another firefighter cookoff last year: "I think I made 300-something onion rings," he says.
Yet it was probably the professional plating technique - the rosettes made from produce - that helped Lowe score the win. "I was looking for an identity," said judge Giuseppe Paciullo, a chef at Roberta's near Arthur Ave. at the Bronx semi-finals last month, "Lowe's dish was more like what a chef would have you taste."
In the Bronx, it easily beat out chicken with Marsala wine and mushrooms, but it'll have four dynamite dishes to defeat on Friday: pineapple-topped Caribbean style pork meatloaf (Brooklyn), shrimp and scallop-stuffed Asian spring rolls (Manhattan), fried shrimp layered with ham and cheese and drenched in a spicy, creamy red pepper sauce (Queens) and a superspicy chorizo sausage and seafood chipotle jambalaya (Staten Island).
Luckily, Lowe also works on his culinary skills at his other house, the one in Orange County he shares with wife Linda, two sons - Ryan, 10, and Kevin, 7 - and 12-year-old daughter Meaghan, who hopes to become a pastry chef.
Lowe himself dreams of opening a place for noshes - what hungry firefighters citywide call their "premeal snacks."
Don't worry about leaving his place hungry. As you might guess, a firefighter nosh is what most of us would call a meal.
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.