Don’t be alarmed if you recently noticed a smoky-sweet smell coming from Fire Station 69. Had you followed the scent you would have found yourself in a kitchen manned by firefighter (and volunteer chef) Billy Barrera, who was preparing lunch for about seven members of the B Shift at 12 noon sharp as well as a few lucky guests –the Palisadian-Post’s Junior Reporter/Intern Madeline Goore, Food & Style Writer (me) and Staff Photographer Rich Schmitt.
Barrera began his day at 6:30 a.m. by tackling the shopping list and decided to celebrate the lunch with the Post guests by adding a few calories to the menu. While Barrera moved easily about the kitchen, he mentioned the entire shift had their early morning workout up and down the famous stairs of Santa Monica Canyon. A few runs on the stairs would have done us all some good after the spread we were about to devour.
Not wanting to just be a bystander I offered to help, but Barrera was just too organized and wouldn’t hear of it. The generously proportioned kitchen was well-equipped with a professional oven and sub-zero fridge, in addition to every small appliance you could think of. And just like what you experience in your own kitchen when entertaining, everyone wanted to be near the heat of the action.
My curiosity was squelched when Barrera opened the lid of one of two cast iron pots, revealing the source of the heavenly scent. A meaty pork shoulder caramelized and falling off the bone, lay in anticipation of being pulled apart and piled high. (See Barrera’s uncomplicated recipe in our upcoming Guide to 4th of July special section in the June 26 issue). The sight and smell ignited an appetite so ravenous I could hardly wait to feed it.
Our gracious hosts insisted we serve ourselves first (thankfully) and so we began building our pulled-pork sandwiches. I followed the advice of the chef by layering his Emeril-inspired cabbage slaw and onion rings between the whole-wheat Kaiser roll. I added a side of retro Tator Tots, now I was ready to feel like one of the team.
The succulent meat, slow-cooked in root beer, counterbalanced the acidity in the slaw. The onion ring added some salt. Speaking of the slaw, it was chopped rather than shredded – only confirming Barrera’s expertise in the kitchen. Finely shredded cabbage tends to create soupy slaw because it releases the water content. This slaw did not soak the bread; it only added crunch and flavor.
As I looked around the table I suddenly felt engulfed in camaraderie. How heart-warming it was to break bread (or in this case a towering sandwich) with people who so often risk and sacrifice for our lives and our belongings.
We were all surprised to learn each firefighter contributes $15 a day out of their own pocket – $10 of which goes toward meals and the remaining $5 toward things like toiletries and cable TV. I’ve always assumed the City of Los Angeles paid for these things. Typically, the cook does the shopping in the morning.
What’s the most important item in Barrera’s pantry? Olive oil. Remarkably this was only his second time preparing pulled pork so I inquired about his other specialties. He mentioned travel being an inspiration, and his trip to Ireland helped his exact replication of Guinness Stew. He also makes a mean Chinese Chicken Salad, salmon and enjoys Mexican Cuisine. Watch out Fire Station 69 – you could be the new hot dining spot in town!
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