Of the five firefighters who've made it to the final round of the Daily News' first FDNY 5 Alarm Cookoff, Sal DePaola of Engine 160 in Staten Island is definitely the underdog.
He's the youngest by far, turning 32 just last month, and unlike his four competitors - three of whom went to cooking school, and one of whom has already written a cookbook - DePaola has only a few cooking competitions under his belt.
Plus, he forgot to submit the recipe for his jalapeno cornbread topper, meaning his super-spicy chipotle jambalaya will have to go adorned during the final matchup, sponsored by the Municipal Credit Union and hosted by Rachael Ray on her morning show tomorrow.
Yet despite his tough competition, DePaola's biggest worry during the show - where he stands to win his firehouse a new kitchen appliance package courtesy of Best Buy and plenty of hugs from Rach - will probably be his appearance. Knocked in the head with a plastic ax at a Halloween party, this TV-bound firefighter ended up with a split eyebrow and plenty of stitches.
"As soon as it hit me," says DePaola, "I said, "Oh no! Rachael!'"
Now the guys at his firehouse - it's just off the Verrazano Bridge - are rubbing it in: They've decorated his photo in the Daily News article about his Staten Island semifinals win (it's pinned to the kitchen wall, natch) with stitches and a busted nose.
Not that they're not supportive. They've also crossed out his four competitors and drawn a big heart around their man, hoisting a banner celebrating DePaola's dish over the door to the dining room.
"You don't understand," laughs DePaola, "everything's a joke here. According to everybody here, I can't cook at all."
"Oh, you're not on duty tonight," says firefighter Kurt Wehner as if on cue. "I can finally get a good meal then, huh?"
Yet like most firehouses, Engine 160 (known as the Hillbillies, they share their space with Rescue 5, aka the Fighting Blue) takes eating seriously: The kitchen at the Concord, Staten Island, house boasts 24 chef's knives, a sweet extra-wide gas grill and potted herbs and tomatoes on the patio, plus two fridges stocked on one weeknight with giant bowls of mashed sweet potatoes and Caesar salad, two tubs of hard-boiled eggs, a pan of rice, a huge pot of chili, two pizzas, two trays of baked ziti, French fries, Cherry Coke and ice cream.
Each man puts in a $120 "house tax" every two weeks that mainly goes to food, says DePaola, and despite their jokes, they appreciate those who can use that money to good use.
"Some guys are good at cooking," says Arsen Kasparian, one of DePaola's fellow firefighters, who also praises the cook's balsamic chicken. "Sal's apparently really good at it. ... I'm good at eating."
Like many of the members of his firehouse, DePaola is a Staten Island native, born and raised in Springville, the neighborhood where he and his parents still live. He learned to cook as a kid watching his mother, he says, and also while working at an Italian deli his father, Sal Sr., ran for two years. He began experimenting on his own as he grew older.
"I would watch her," says DePaola, and "I would go and try things on my own."
It was "just messing around," says DePaola, that lead to his winning recipe, a globetrotting jambalaya made with chorizo, Serrano ham, chicken, Manila clams, shrimp, long grain white rice and a whole can of chipotle chilies that he makes for the house about three times a month.
"The chipotles are my special ingredient," says DePaola.
(Believe it or not, the dish started as his attempt at a healthy dinner - a mix of brown rice, chicken and peppers. That changed fast, says DePaola: "It's hard to get firefighters to eat brown rice.")