By Jane Jerrard
Published Thursday, April 19, 2012
| From the June 2012 Issue of FireRescue
In late March, an FDNY firefighter served up his firehouse cooking skills on the Food Network’s Chopped reality cooking show and smoked his competition. But the show ended with a surprise turnover—the firefighter chef donated his $10,000 winnings to charity.
How It All Began
Paul Rut, a 32-year FDNY veteran stationed at Engine 262 in Astoria, Queens, says of his cooking skills, “I cook a lot [in the firehouse], although a lot of times, it’s a group effort.” Rut grew up watching his grandmother, uncle and mother cook and remembers how fun cooking appeared to be on The Galloping Gourmet, which he used to watch with his mother.
As he got older and started cooking in the firehouse, Rut developed the chops to compete in the kitchen; he’s participated in several heavy-duty competitions, all of which were fundraisers. One of them, the annual Iron Skillet Cook-Off, pits eight firefighter-cooks against eight restaurant chefs. Through these events, he was invited to compete against three other FDNY firefighters—two of whom are professional chefs—in a special “Sound the Alarm” episode of Chopped.
“I’d been watching [Chopped] since day one, but I never thought I’d be on it—let alone win it,” Rut admits. “[The experience was] very comfortable. They have a great crew and a great cast. The pressure was all on the timing.”
A Three-Course Contest
In every episode, Chopped contestants are given just 20 or 30 minutes to concoct a dish from specific, sometimes strange, ingredients. For the special “Sound the Alarm” episode, the firefighters’ first challenge was to create an appetizer in 20 minutes from a sheet of pasta, mozzarella, cherries and a hot dog. Rut made the first cut, with his cheese cannelloni stuffed with ricotta and buffalo mozzarella with a cherry wine reduction sauce. For the hot dog, he poached it in white wine and pan-grilled it to create a dish he called “barbeque meets Italian.”
“I kind of knew what I was going to do with the pasta right away, but the hot dog threw me,” Rut recalls. “I’ve never cooked a hot dog like that. I usually just throw them on the grill.”
The entrée round called for using fire-roasted tomatoes, bison steaks, spinach and hot peppers. Rut turned out coffee-crusted bison with spinach salad using garlic, shallots and Peruvian potatoes.
Finally, for the game-winning dessert round, the two firefighters left standing were given cinnamon “candy coal,” crescent-roll dough, sour cream and hot chocolate mix—and 30 minutes to put it all together. Rut won with a crescent moon pie with chocolate mousse using mascarpone, lemon zest and cocoa.
Rut describes his win as overwhelming. “You’re all tensed up the whole time, and then it’s over,” he says. “That was a rush of feeling, but to find out I won—well, I guess I broke down a little.”
The Icing on the Cake
Rut’s prize for winning was the title of Chopped champ, a chef’s jacket and a whopping $10,000. Although he’s keeping the title and the jacket, he says he always planned to donate the money to charity—although he hadn’t chosen an organization in advance.
When he won the competition, one of the charities he was considering was Autism Speaks. “I know a lot of people with autistic kids,” he explains, “including some firefighters here. These guys don’t bring it into the firehouse, but I know it’s a struggle for them. I don’t know how they handle it.”
One of his colleagues asked if he knew about the Jack Fanning Memorial Foundation “Angels for Autism,” created in memory of FDNY Battalion Chief Fanning, a father of two severely autistic sons. Fanning was killed on 9/11. Rut was excited to find a charitable organization that was a perfect fit—Chief Fanning was in Special Ops, which is Rut’s current assignment.
“I called [Jack Fanning’s widow] to get information on where to send the money, and she was ecstatic,” Rut says. “And when I told her how much it was, she told me ‘you just made my year.’”
Angels for Autism has built two independent group homes for autistic adolescents, and continues to provide resources that help advance those with autism toward becoming productive citizens. Rut believes his prize money will be used for educational tools for autistic children, including iPads.
"Apparently the kids do really well with the iPads,” he says. He adds that friends and colleagues who saw him on Chopped or have read about his win are still calling, and some are sending him checks to increase his donation to Angels with Autism.
For more information on the Jack Fanning Memorial Foundation “Angels for Autism,” or to make a donation, visit angelsforautism.org.
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