By Linda Dillman
Firefighter Justin Vermillion is considered one of the Madison Township Fire Department’s “top chefs.”
He enjoys cooking and feels his crew appreciates the effort he puts into each meal. However, Vermillion admits there are many firefighters who could be considered the “unofficial best cook in the department.”
The 12-year department veteran works with a bare-bones budget—lunch and dinner are paid for by firefighters on duty who kick in $7 per person per shift—and ingredients are often determined by what is on sale at the grocery store.
“We’re not using tax dollars for our meals,” said Vermillion as he prepared omelets for a Saturday morning brunch. “It is a tradition and both stations come together (Saturday nights) for pizza, which we make from scratch. It is my favorite dish to prepare. Sometimes family members come in and join us.”
Late mentor and friend Jack Anson, who passed away in 2004 from cancer, piqued Vermillion’s interest in cooking. He said Anson took him under his wing and showed him the ropes when Vermillion was new to the fire service.
In describing his cooking style, Vermillion said, “I would have to say everything under the kitchen sink. Staying within budget can be tricky, so from shift to shift you need to be creative and flexible. I have no formal training, but a firehouse full of critics will make you learn how to be your best pretty fast.”
Vermillion takes the good-natured criticism in stride as firefighters gather together daily around the table—unless the meal (or even the cooking) is interrupted by a dispatcher alerting crews to a medical emergency, accident or fire.
If there is an emergency during meal preparation, and unless someone can step in to finish the cooking, the stove is turned off with the hope it can be salvaged when crews return to the station.
“It happens a lot,” said Firefighter Pam Price.
When crews need to go grocery shopping, they take the squad and/or engine in case they are dispatched while in the store. If they get a call in the midst of shopping, another crew steps in or store employees wheel the cart into a cooler until firefighters return to finish their visit and head back to the station to fix lunch or dinner.
“Justin tries to keep it pretty healthy. We share cooking duties, but if Justin’s here, we let him cook. He enjoys it,” said Price.
Vermillion said he uses many of his wife’s recipes at the firehouse and his favorite cooking show is “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”
“I enjoy serving others and love bringing everyone together at the dinner table,” said Vermillion. “Just like my family at home, sitting around the table is place where we talk and learn about the job and about each other.”
Preparing a meal for a large group has its own challenges, but Vermillion advised fellow cooks to know their group and cater to their likes and dislikes, but don’t be afraid to branch out a bit and try new things.
“Cooking and preparing can be tricky at the firehouse because of emergencies calls that often happen,” said Vermillion. “More times than not we are called in the middle of grocery trips, preparing, cooking, and sitting down to eat. It takes a team effort and that’s what being a firefighter is all about. It’s the way it is and we wouldn’t change it for the world.”