Their reputations are at “steak.”
And that’s not a typo.
Instead of putting out a fire, these four Jacksonville firefighters will be stoking one on the grill.
Jimmie Snipes and Arthur Gray from Station 1 and brothers-in-law Gary Kuehner and Colin “Aggie” Aguilar from Station 4 are competing in the Walmart Steak-Over Challenge. They’ll be grilling some premium choice beef steaks at noon Saturday for bragging rights, charity and a chance to compete in the national competition.
At the Walmart parking lot at 8808 Beach Blvd., shoppers can taste steak and soda for free and vote for the winner, which will be announced at 2 p.m. In addition to the Jacksonville team, finalists from Atlanta, Charlotte, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Mo., Houston, San Antonio and Tampa will compete in Los Angeles the week of May 20 for a $20,000 grand prize. If a Jacksonville team wins, the firefighters say they plan to donate the money to firefighter charities.
Firehouses are typically associated with good food. And these guys are known for the cooking skills they acquired mostly on the job.
Gray said he didn’t know much about cooking until joining the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department 25 years ago. A more experienced firefighter, now retired, taught him the basics of barbecuing baby back ribs and smoking chicken. Then he got fired up about cooking and is now in demand at union or political functions.
“Everybody wants me to cook for them if they have a party,” Gray said. “It’s enjoyable to know that everybody likes your food.”
He’s a barbecue specialist who uses applewood chips and said the secret is to cook the meat slowly on a low temperature of 220 to 225 degrees. Ribs usually take four or five hours to reach the falling-off-the-bone point, while chicken takes five hours. For one side, he makes baked beans, using Bush’s brand, Jimmy Dean’s sage sausage, brown sugar, barbecue and other seasonings. Cole slaw is made from scratch, and the meal paired with garlic bread or dinner rolls.
With the rising cost of beef, steak is a rarer commodity at the Liberty Street firehouse, on the menu about once a month. Gray starts with a premium grade and doesn’t overseason it, which Gray said some people make the mistake of doing.
“The secret is to get the temperature just right — 550 to 600 degrees — so that when you first put it down, it really sears well,” he said. “After you get a good sear on both sides, you lower the temperature. Most people like it medium or medium rare.”
He pairs the steak with a good baked potato topped only with sour cream and butter, salad with lettuce, tomato, cucumber, hard-boiled egg, sharp cheddar cheese and vinaigrette dressing.
Gray likes to cook so much that he even does it at home for his wife and three kids.
In this friendly competition, Gray and Snipes are up against two brothers-in-law.
Aguilar learned to make Italian dishes from his Sicilian grandmother and his mother. Mom’s specialty was eggplant Pamesan but, ironically, Aguilar doesn’t like eggplant. He prefers chicken Parmesan instead.
“I think our family is very food-oriented,” he said.
Like Gray, Aguilar said the secret to cooking steak is to get the fire as hot as possible, quickly sear the meat and keep the seasonings to salt and pepper. He only marinades cheaper cuts of meat.
Kuehner gives kudos to Aguilar for his way with food.
“I enjoy eating,” Aguilar said. “I enjoy going to restaurants and having new foods. The only difference between me and some other people is I take it really seriously.”
He takes it seriously enough that he also does the cooking at home, for his wife, daughter and grandson. And if the station gets some new cooks who don’t take much interest in it, he tells them to think of what they prepare as their last meal and to make it a decent one. Some do, some don’t, he said.
Aguilar and Kuehner said they are naturalists who don’t like to alter the flavor of a good steak.
“We don’t marinade and cover with spices,” said Kuehner, who has 16 years experience as a firefighter, 13 in Jacksonville and three in Nassau County. “That’s for people who don’t like the taste of steak.”
Like their fellow firefighter contestants, they go with “fairly traditional” side dishes: baked potato, sauteed green beans or mixed veggies and salad with tomatoes, lettuce, cheese, onion, avocado, boiled egg and perhaps garbanzo beans. Other meals might consist of chicken pot pie, pulled pork, ribs, collard greens, steamed broccoli, squash and fried rice.
Kuehner worked at a couple of steakhouse restaurants while going to school, but most of his experience came at the firehouse at Jefferson and Duval streets.
“There’s fellowship around cooking and eating two or three meals together,” he said. “You really get to know each other.”
Kuehner calls himself an OK cook, but said his specialty is breakfast. He likes to take his time and do a French toast stuffed with Asiago cheese and strawberries or a cream cheese. Once he did an egg and bacon cheese sandwich using two Krispy Kreme donuts instead of buns. But he’s not allowed to make it anymore.
“They were so good, but not the best health-wise when you’ve got to work out a day to burn off a sandwich,” he quipped.
Since both teams favor simple seasonings, Aguilar said there should be just a small difference between the flavors.
“I think it will be close,” Aguilar said. “I sure hope it’s us.”
While there may be some bantering back and forth, don’t expect the trash talk to flare to the football linebacker level. They describe themselves as pretty mild-mannered guys.
“I don’t have a lot of ammunition against them,” Aguilar said. “We’ll let the steak do the talking.”
Sandy Strickland: (904) 359-4128