Cooking is often the last thing a firefighter wants to do with a fire.
“ ‘I don’t want to cook,’ ” said Spokane Fire Lt. John Griffith, imitating the whine of the noncook. “ ‘If I have to cook, here’s what you get.’ ‘I burn water.’ ”
So, sometimes, it doesn’t take much beyond willingness to become the firehouse cook. But Tony Yuen, a 20-year veteran of the Spokane Fire Department, has earned a departmentwide reputation as the “gold standard of firehouse cooks,” Griffith said – and not just by default.
Yuen recently won a national contest and $10,000 for charity for his barbecue sauce. The sauce, a tangy, sweet concoction based on one he grew up eating in Hawaii, is just a part of Yuen’s repertoire and among many reasons that his work in the kitchen is valued by his fellow firefighters. He’s working on a firehouse cookbook that will be published as a fundraiser by the Muscular Dystrophy Association – rushing to finish it so it can be available at Christmas.
Frank Wood, a lieutenant and longtime colleague of Yuen’s at Station 13 on Wellesley Avenue, says Yuen’s meals are “restaurant quality,” which sounds like hyperbole. But I ate Yuen’s cooking this week – ribs with his sauce; a wonderful salad of fancy greens, grilled pineapple and peppers; potato salad with crab meat; and a delicious flatbread – and I’m confirming Wood’s report: That food is good enough to pay for.
Another reason his colleagues lionize Yuen is his frugality. Firefighters working a shift pitch in to buy groceries. These days, the number of people on shift at a time has dwindled as a result of layoffs and reorganizations. At Station 13, staffing has gone from six at a time to three in recent years. That means the grocery pool has shrunk – the number of mouths to feed has, too, but there are economies of scale if six people pitch in five bucks apiece, as opposed to just three.
“Tony’s like the master chef,” Griffith said. “He gets the idea in hand and he usually comes in for less than five bucks a guy.”
Ironically for someone whose recipe just won a contest, Yuen said he tends to wing it – in choosing ingredients and in putting them together.
“I don’t really work from any recipe,” he said. “I just go to the store, walk around, see what’s on sale and work it out.”
Yuen, 62, grew up at Kailua on the Hawaiian island of Oahu – where President Barack Obama sometimes vacations. His father used to make a barbecue sauce for Chinese ribs that included peanut butter, along with more-traditional ingredients. Yuen has tweaked the recipe, replacing the peanut butter with molasses, and used it on everything from fish to chicken to pork.
He worked as a firefighter in Honolulu for a few years before moving to Spokane for a better-paying position 20 years ago. He’s an equipment operator at Station 13, which entails driving the pumper-ladder and overseeing the use of all the firefighting tools on the truck.
“When I first came to board here, the common meal was what they called floaters – ground beef patties in mushroom sauce,” he said. “Things have changed.”
Not long ago, Chief Bobby Williams sent out a notice to the stations that Tree Top apple juice was sponsoring a contest for the best firehouse barbecue.
“The station captain blew it up and put it all over my locker,” Yuen said.
He modified “Tony’s Puleihu BBQ Sauce” to include the sponsor’s juice. Part of the competition involved making a video; Griffith wrote and directed the video, which included a recipe demonstration and a little story about a medical call interrupting a big barbecuelunch, set to Hawaiian music. Dean Pearcy, the department’s audio-visual specialist, shot and edited it. The video and recipe was selected as the winner, and Tree Top presented Yuen with a $10,000 check for the charity of his choice – he picked the station’s benevolent fund and the purchase of some equipment.
At the presentation earlier this week, there was a reminder that the life of a firehouse cook is unpredictable. Some of the department honchos who were expected for the lunch and ceremony couldn’t make it at the last minute.
“They’ve got a working fire,” Yuen said.