21st Morton's Firehouse Cook-off pits first-responders against each other in a culinary conflagration.
Firefighters in Sarasota are typically close-knit.
Working and living with teammates day and night will do that. Even when separated into different stations or work assignments, there's a bond that goes beyond most professions.
Except for one day a year.
On the day of the annual Morton’s Firehouse Chili Cook-Off, all bets are off. The various firefighting groups break into teams and spend weeks (or months) perfecting recipes.
“It’s a pretty big deal, we have fun but we take it seriously,” said David Brooks, a firefighter and paramedic with Sarasota County Fire Station 1 in downtown. “It’s people’s favorite thing we do as a fire department.”
Around 13 firefighter and first responder groups from across the Sarasota and Manatee area will try to impress a panel of celebrity judges to win the title. Proceeds benefit the Sarasota Firefighters Benevolent Fund, which helps firefighters financially during times of hardship and crisis.
“There's a lot of pride in winning and taking home one of the prizes,” SFFBF president Sara Riley said. “It just builds camaraderie, you spend a third of your life with these people. Anytime we get together outside of work is great because there’s no stress for a minute.”
Brooks and the other members of Station 1 have been looking forward to the 21st annual cookoff, held this year on Oct. 17, especially after last year’s event was cancelled.
They have often won runner-up awards, or the “Best Booth” prize, but have never taken home the big one.
“Firefighters are horrible losers,” jokes Lieutenant Ryan Jekonski, who works in Station 1 and is a co-chair for the competition. “If you’re number four, you’re mad you’re not number three. And if you’re last, some firefighters' egos can’t take that. We tell everyone the (winners) are one through three and then throw out the list.’
When the group isn’t responding to calls in the community, they’re back at the firehouse workshopping new recipes. Those practice batches typically end up as dinner that night.
While the house loves mixing up recipes and trying new flavors — sometimes making popcorn, alligator and crawfish chili — Brooks will admit sometimes you can’t mess with the classics.
The competition's celebrity judges, which this year includes interim city Chief of Police Rex Troche and Olympic swimmer Tripp Schwenk, are rarely chefs themselves so the station has turned to making more classic, recognizable chili recipes.
The fire station members whip up those 25 gallons while off duty— there’s simply no way to cook it at the station during work hours so they make a party of it at a station member’s house each year — and load the food into a massive pot that’s delivered to Morton’s Gourmet Market on the back of a truck.
There’s a tradition for the least senior member of the team to reserve a booth spot at competition as early as 5 a.m. and wait for the rest of the team to arrive hours later. Jekonski spends his days working with Fire Station 1 but cuts them off the day of the event to be an impartial co-chair.
“The best compliments I’ve gotten are when people come up to me (at the competition) and say ‘Thanks for inviting us to your party’” Jekonski said. “
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