Behind the Scenes: Cooking with gas in the face of flames
May 21, 2013
Mobile kitchens are the latest food fad in America. The confluence of a bad economy, unemployment and heavy food service industry regulation has driven chefs to take to the road. These roaming kitchens go by many names — food or break trucks, lunch wagons, mobile canteens and even roach coaches. From humble beginnings as chuck wagons in post-Civil War Texas, food trucks have evolved into gourmet restaurants on wheels. Zagat's even rates food trucks!
There's one food truck, however, one might say is waiting for a disaster to happen. Whether or not Zagat's gives it a great rating is of no importance to its operators or its clients. Neither is it important that the food is low calorie. It's quite the contrary, the more calories the better. Why? Because first responders need to pack on calories when they are battling wildfires and floods or saving lives in hostile, mountainous terrain. I'm speaking, of course, about the Eagle County Salvation Army Emergency Services mobile canteen.
Feeding large groups of hard-working, hungry emergency personnel in the backcountry is a challenge, to say the least. The catch-as-catch-can pizza delivery Eagle County emergency responders once employed in search and rescue and disaster missions was woefully inadequate. A self-sufficient canteen that could be set up at remote command centers was needed.
In 2008, the Vail Valley Salvation Army, Eagle County fire, law enforcement and emergency medical services agencies and Vail Resorts responded to the call for help. The group purchased the canteen for $125,000 for the Eagle County Salvation Army. No more running pizzas to the fire line. Wherever a fire department brush truck can go, so can the canteen.
The truck's kitchen was designed to safely optimize every inch of space. Dan Smith, Vail Mountain Rescue president and board chairman of Vail Valley Salvation Army, dubbed it a "three-butt kitchen." He wasn't kidding! It takes five people – three in the kitchen and two outside – to efficiently run the operation. Two ovens and eight gas burners provide more than enough cooking space to feed as many as 500 people in one meal. The Salvation Army keeps the two freezers and four refrigerator compartments well stocked for emergency deployments. Whether running on its own generator deep in the wilderness or connected to "shore power" when deployed near buildings, the canteen is truly self-sufficient.
In addition to providing food, the Salvation Army finances the canteen's operations. Although the organization never charges for the canteen's services, donations are always appreciated. Housed at the Wildridge fire station above Avon, it is always ready to deploy on a moment's notice.
Not just for disasters
The canteen not only serves hungry emergency workers on missions, but also provides food services for community events such as Camp 911, Night Out and the Youth Foundation's Family Connect Fair.
My first experience in the canteen came on a frigid early March Sunday this year. We deployed in the parking lot of Vail Christian High School in Edwards to serve lunch to families and Youth Foundation volunteers at the Family Connect Fair. The menu consisted of burgers, brats and chicken sandwiches on delicious, crispy buns the Avon Bakery donated.
For over three hours, Pastor Mark Huggenvick and Deacon Steve Baird of the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration, Vail Resorts' Eric Pottorff and I served all comers. The two men of the cloth and I took orders, assembled sandwiches and handed Styrofoam boxes through the window, while Chef Pottorff whipped out the hot food. If "thank you's" and blessings had been tips, we would have come away with an overflowing tip jar that day.
Despite working nonstop in the cold wind that blew through the open canteen window, we were far from ready to pull up stakes once the line dwindled. With the Catholics finishing mass at St. Clare of Assisi across the street, we pulled more food from the freezer and continued to crank out sandwiches. By the time we were done, our chief Dan Smith, estimated we served 500 lunches. That tied the canteen's previous record.
My second experience in the canteen came in mid-April. Several organizations banded together to host an alternative 420 party at the Edwards Field House. Games and food were magnets for kids from the area on the cold, dreary day. Members of the valley's law enforcement departments were on hand as well. Even Canine Deputy Jake Best and Jake the drug-sniffing dog came by to demonstrate the dog's law enforcement talents. Everyone needed to eat, including Jake the dog, so once again we were deployed to serve our delicious burgers and chicken sandwiches. We all enjoyed manning the canteen and experiencing the sincere appreciation everyone showed.
An exercise in preparedness
Our most recent mission was a two-day Summit County Wild Land drill. On May 1, the winter that wouldn't arrive then wouldn't leave, made for treacherous conditions for our 5 a.m. drive from Edwards to the command center in Frisco. Fortunately, the canteen had been set up before the wet, slushy snow hit. Once we were safely there – something I doubted we'd achieve – we opened up the canteen and started serving emergency response personnel hot coffee and a breakfast of sausage biscuits and gravy.
It was a smaller group than anticipated, so we had more downtime between meals than usual. Lunch of Johnsonville brats started at 11 a.m. By 1 p.m., we had cleaned the kitchen, broke the canteen down and were ready to return to Eagle County under clearing skies and relatively dry roads. Feeding fire fighters is always a fun and rewarding experience. They are the "Mikies" of our canteen customers. They eat everything!
Waldo Canyon deployment
On June 23, 2012, smoke from the first flames of the Waldo Canyon fire was spotted. The hot, dry conditions were ripe for a raging inferno that made its own wind to feed the flames. By June 27, 900 firefighters were working to contain the fire as it crept over nearly 16,000 acres of land, consuming everything in its path.
The Salvation Army canteen was deployed to a command post in Cripple Creek on the southwest side of Pike's Peak, but they used the local high school cafeteria to cook and serve. The canteen can be pretty tight for 24-hour operation over five days and the expanded space eased the heavy burden on the volunteers. Eagle County volunteers prepared over 200 meals, three times a day for five days. Breakfast was available around the clock from volunteers who worked in shifts throughout the deployment. Fighting raging infernos in summer requires high calorie diets, which the canteen can provide.
Experts are optimistic that the late season snow we found so pesky will help to mitigate the fire danger this summer. We can only hope. If so, the canteen will stay parked at Wildridge, except for fun events. However, if needed, Dan Smith and his team, myself included, will answer the call — whatever time of day it comes — to deploy to the wilderness in the only four-wheel drive canteen in the country. No more pizzas for the firefighters, unless they come from the canteen's ovens. Who knows, perhaps after all Zagat's will award our beloved food truck a high rating!
Suzanne Hoffman is a freelance writer specializing in food, wine and travel. She is currently writing a book about the women of Piemonte's family wineries. Her blogs are http://www.winefamilies.com and http://www.suziknowsbest.com . Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.