- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 4, 2008

“Nobody does anything for firemen. Everyone just takes them for granted,” French-born chef Jean-Claude Le Lan laments, explaining his volunteer efforts to help reverse that trend on behalf of the D.C. Fire Department’s Engine Co. 6, located near his home in Shaw.

The station house at 1300 New Jersey Ave. NW is close enough that on one occasion, hungry firefighters came by in the company ladder truck to pick up a meal.

Special delivery, indeed. And very special - even gourmet - food is what the energetic chef prepares for an occasional noon or evening meal. When there is food left over from one of the cooking classes he conducts, he calls and notifies whoever is on duty. Or he might decide on the spur of the moment to cook something and bring it over himself.

Sometimes he goes to the station to create a three-course meal - starter, entree and dessert - from scratch.

Kitchen equipment at Engine Co. 6 is simple but commodious. At one end of the combination kitchen-dining room is a six-burner gas-fired Vulcan stove, a refrigerator and a handy assortment of knives and cooking pans. Condiments and spices are on hand in large containers. In the far corner sits a large television - tuned in to a Rachael Ray cooking show one recent Wednesday morning.

Mr. Le Lan brings nearly everything else needed to feed 11 or more firefighters a three-course meal, including a professional knife, a large KitchenAid mixer and a cooler on wheels for his ingredients.

The boyish 49-year-old, formerly the chef at Le Refuge in Alexandria, arrives just after 10:30 a.m., full of his usual high spirits, to begin preparations for a noon meal: cold salmon and shredded lettuce salad; chicken Basquaise with tomatoes, onions, green and red peppers; rice flavored with garlic and saffron; plus chocolate mousse.

“It would cost about $35 at lunch,” he estimates when asked the meal’s restaurant equivalent.

No one present admits to ever before having eaten such a rich combination, although chicken is a favorite. He tells the firefighters he has been working since the age of 14, cooking for 36 years, and never has had to call a fire department for help with errant flames at a stove.

The crew normally takes turns with cooking chores, spending $10 each per day - a bargain by most standards - for three hearty meals. One of the city’s busiest and largest stations, it gets about 6,000 calls a year. (Each person normally works a 24-hour shift, then is off for three days.).

Menus normally are “meat, potatoes and something green; we have no taste,” a joker says. A spatula needed for making the mousse is missing - “they burn them,” someone calls out. Mr. Le Lan races home in his striped chef pants and white pique double-breasted jacket to fetch one.

Recipes aren’t allowed for the firefighter cooks, they say.

“If you are seen with a cookbook, you lose credibility. If I get a recipe, I’ll memorize it,” says Sean Gilligan, 36, of Bowie, with a laugh. He adds that he is the grandson of a master chef and he once made “Mediterranean chicken with olives” and wasn’t booted out of the kitchen.

For most of the men - a single uniformed woman rookie firefighter is present, “being mentored,” she says - the presence of Mr. Le Lan is a novelty.

“I heard about him, and I thought, hey, man,” Ted Douglas, 40, of Northeast says approvingly while pungent cooking smells waft through the room.

Four shifts of changing personnel mean the chef doesn’t know anyone personally, but he does know that his chocolate mousse is prized. “Can we do the chocolate mousse first?” comes a voice from the hall where ladder truck, fire engine and ambulance are parked - thankfully stationary at the moment.

At 11:55 a.m., the meal is ready to be served up buffet-style. Three or four men take clean plates and cutlery from the dishwasher and put them on the metal prep table. Soda cans and jugs of water appear along with paper towels for napkins.

“Bon appetit,” Mr. Le Lan announces.

No one waits for the next person before digging in. The table falls silent; the television is turned off - a sign of success.

“You know it’s good if nobody talks,” Mr. Gilligan notes.

A spontaneous comment - “the best station-house lunch I ever had” - confirms it.

“Are you staying for dinner?” someone asks Mr. Le Lan, who is seated at a corner of the table, a blue “Engine 6” company cap resting jauntily on his head.

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