Updated: October 16, 2013 7:49AM
Most every workday for Jose Rodriguez starts with numbers: 22 firefighters, $15 from each of them, and a variable list of meal ingredients. He’s out the door by 8:30 or 9 a.m. to shop the markets on Lake and Randolph for meat, fresh fruit and vegetables, or fill a cart at Aldi or Costco.
On a recent Friday, Rodriguez cut five chickens in half, seasoned them with Kick’n Chicken spice blend and arranged them across the grates of the gas grill behind the station at 55 W. Illinois, home of Chicago Fire Department’s Engine Co. 42.
While the chickens sizzled outside, Rodriguez seasoned three large salmon fillets on foil-lined pans in the stainless steel kitchen, while fellow firefighter Jason Durbin chopped lettuce and other vegetables on a nearby counter.
Rodriguez slid the salmon into the oven, which needs to be calibrated, and moved on to slicing his own set of vegetables for some stir-fry and simmering rice on the stovetop. “I set the oven at 425 [degrees], but I’m guessing it’s really at 375,” he said, glancing at the industrial-size appliance.
Durbin acts as backup cook when Rodriguez is off or just needs a break from generating menu ideas.
“I enjoy cooking; I took some classes in high school and college,” said Durbin, who has been with the department a total of 13 years in several roles. “I like the challenge of cooking for 22 guys.”
Allrecipes.com is a trusty partner when he’s headed for kitchen duty, he said. “It’s awesome. I go to the recipes with the most popular ratings because if it sucks, then what?”
Routines formed long ago drive much of the menu. Often it’s roast beef for dinner on Sundays, meatloaf on Mondays, pasta on Wednesdays, usually fish on Fridays. Corned beef on Saturdays is a house favorite because it translates into corned beef hash the following week. Tuesdays are a little more variable, Rodriguez said, noting a recent chicken marsala dish that was well-received.
“I try to keep tradition. Meatloaf is meatloaf, though I put cinnamon in it and don’t tell them,” he said. “I know they like the food when it’s quiet in here.”
As the weather gets colder, Rodriguez will add more soups and stews to his rotation; occasionally he’ll borrow a recipe from his wife. “The guys like it when I make tacos for lunch, and green enchiladas in the oven — they like that one too.”
Sundays also are the only day the crew eats breakfast together. “I try to keep it simple — eggs, bacon, sausage, toast, maybe hash browns. Sometimes I’ll make pancakes and french toast a different week,” Rodriguez said.
Firefighter Billy Miller, who has worked seven years with Rodriguez, is appreciative of his colleague’s work. “It’s hard to cook for all these guys. He puts up with a lot of stuff,” Miller said.
But Rodriguez said it’s not stressful. “Cooking passes the time. I listen to the music and chill. I’ll ask around sometimes, ‘What do you have a taste for?’ And there are days when I don’t even know what to make.”
How did he get the job? “Nobody else wanted to do it,” he said with a laugh.
Food is served family-style after firefighter Will “the Reverend” Jackson says “come and get it” over the public address system. Bowls of salad and fruit sit in the dining hall, hot items in the kitchen, and the men carry full plates to the long tables and benches. There are no points for presentation; “they just want it ready by 6,” Rodriguez said.
Everybody helps clean up, scraping their plates and putting them in the dishwasher, with designated helpers spraying down the stainless steel counters, and then sweeping and mopping floors.
“Thursday night is stove night. We pull them out from the wall, the fridges, too, and sweep behind them and scrub them down,” Rodriguez said.
Sometimes calls interrupt meals, but dinner was over when the intercom crackled with a “Level 1 hazmat” call to 100 N. Riverside Plaza.
After the dining room clears, Rodriguez heads back to the kitchen to make brownies. A few helpers finish cleaning, with firefighter Kenny Trost quick to grab the chocolatey mixing bowl to wash it — after he licks it clean.