About

I hopelessly watched the events of 9/11 unfold from afar, while my heart filled with grief.

I am no different than any other American. I hopelessly watched the events of 9/11 unfold from afar, while my heart filled with grief. The day of September 11, 2001, did not strike me more profoundly than any other Old Glory-loving individual.

Some donated money, others their volunteer spirit. I am still giving today. I do this not to best my neighbor. I repeatedly cook for my local heroes because it is the only way I know how to say, “Thank you.”

I remember when the news came in: “An airliner has struck the World Trade Center.” As a former New Yorker, I knew the ramifications. We were talking about thousands of people in danger, including some of my close friends – my wife’s good friend in building seven, a cousin residing on the island, and my buddy who owned a Manhattan pizzeria. What I had so selfishly forgotten were the men and women whose job it was to run headstrong into the burning infernos to save others. My stomach turned hearing the firefighters brave the unthinkable. Then it hit me. “You dummy,” l said to myself, “You promised to make something for a group of local firefighters. Now what happens one day if something happens to them, and it’s too late?”

Seeing the New York City firefighters in action on that fearsome day reminded me of my own hometown heroes. A fire at my apartment structure two months prior had left me with a deep appreciation for the firefighting profession.

My family had just relocated to Boca Raton, Florida, and the transfer was turning out to be a disaster. After moving everything into the apartment, the family and l headed to a local store for some essentials. As we were returning home, a billowing cloud of smoke on the horizon quickly caught our attention. My mother was in the car and she said jokingly, “It must be your apartment.” As we were turning the corner, to our utter disbelief we saw that it was indeed our building! Damage was limited, but my senses were less than acute. I remember a group of firefighters escorting me through the charred building shortly after the emergency to fetch some personal items for my son. I felt a sense of gratitude and debt. I distinctly recall the firefighter “Tony” kindly accompanying me to the apartment.

 

“I want to do something for you guys. What do you think I can do that you would enjoy?” I asked him. “Can I make you cake or some pastries?” Sort of a silly question when l think back on it. Of course, the firefighters love the gift of food! I decided at that moment that I would give them a break and do some cooking for them.

 Time went by and my empty offer faded away. The day of September 11 was like a wake-up call for me, but it did not happen overnight. The day after the attacks, colleagues at work were all making promises to do something for the families of the firefighters who had lost their lives that tragic day. Two weeks passed and the level of support was slim. The experience was weighing on me. That night I made a promise to God that I would do something.

The next day after my shift, I visited the fire station to propose my idea of cooking for the firefighters. There was skepticism at first – officials checking my driver’s license, lieutenants asking a series of questions, and a background check. Three days later, I was granted the opportunity! I decided to start simple with my Napoleon puff pastry filled with vanilla mousse and raspberries. I remember those tentative stares as I prepared the dessert before their eyes. Apprehension quickly dissipated as sounds of laughter and camaraderie filled the station. This magical feeling was overwhelming. I decided my original promise wasn’t good enough anymore. I wanted to do more.

My new goal was to prepare a four-course meal for the station. I learned there were three shifts at the station, and my desire grew. I cooked for all three shifts, one each day. The appreciation from the firefighters was heartwarming, but the look of awe on their faces was the real treat when I presented them with the smorgasbord of pasta, London broil, Caesar salad and cheesecake. I found myself looking forward to the after-hours cooking rendezvous at the fire station. Word carries fast about delectable cuisine making its way into a fire station. Requests were coming in from other stations for my presence in their kitchens. With the blessing of my family, it was time to take the leap. I met with one of the fire station commanders to lay out my plan of cooking for all 46 stations in Palm Beach County.

The experience of routine cooking had also whet my appetite for a full-time culinary career. Working from a cubicle at night and meeting the routine schedule with the firefighters, I entered culinary school. With each day completed at the school and another fire station visit, my skills as a chef steadily improved. The goal of cooking for all the Palm Beach County fire stations was nearly completed by the time I graduated from culinary school.

 

The experience of routine cooking had also whet my appetite for a full-time culinary career. Working from a cubicle at night and meeting the routine schedule with the firefighters, I entered culinary school. With each day completed at the school and another fire station visit, my skills as a chef steadily improved. The goal of cooking for all the Palm Beach County fire stations was nearly completed by the time I graduated from culinary school.

My family and I moved to Lake County, Florida, on Thanksgiving weekend, 2003. My life had taken a turn as I found a job shortly thereafter at a resort restaurant, but my desire to continue helping firefighters burned stronger than ever. Now, as I work through Orange County Fire Rescue, I have undertaken my third major fire department.

This cookbook features several photos of Orange County Fire Rescue crew members since it is because of them that this cookbook has become a reality. I have spent a great deal of time working through all the fire stations of this huge department, and I have come to feel like family with them. This is a quality I have seen and admired throughout the fire service, and all the fire departments I have visited. My dreams to aid fire stations across Florida and the nation do not end here. The sole purpose in creating this cookbook is to raise funds for all fire departments in need.

I hope you enjoy this cookbook as much as I have benefited from cooking these dishes for our local heroes. Do not dismay if I have not roasted a chicken or served an authentic Italian dish at your local fire hall. With every copy sold of this cookbook, a percentage of proceeds will go towards helping the firefighting profession, and I hope to bring the smiles and joy I have brought firefighters to families across the country to enjoy in their homes.

Chef Robert Scambia

About Chef Robert Scambia