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America's Best Firehouse BBQ

  • Tony Yuen and colleagues at Spokane Fire Station No. 13

  • Tony Yuen's Puleihu BBQ

After six years in the Honolulu Fire Department, Hawaii-native and Vietnam veteran Tony Yuen found himself in Spokane staring at a plate of “floaters.” Beef patties submerged in cream of mushroom soup -- “they called them ‘floaters’” -- were a Spokane FD staple. “The pay was better,” he chuckles, “but the weather was worse.” And so, apparently, was the food. Yuen’s flavor-packed, Asian-inspired dishes immediately won him serious kudos.

Twenty years later, Yuen, who had grilled, roasted and stir-fried his way into the hearts and bellies of his fellow firefighters—Spokane’s fourteen stations are now fully-equipped with a rice cooker and a wok—achieved national recognition. His Puleihu BBQ Sauce won Tree Top’s “America’s Best Firehouse BBQ Cook-Off Contest,” which required recipes that incorporated apple products. First place was a $10,000 donation to the firefighter’s charity of choice.

Yuen’s father began cooking in the Navy and became a terrific cook. Mom, not so much. “She did her best, put it that way,” he says. His dad specialized in roasting whole pigs for luaus where pigs are cooked while buried underground and not, as popularly portrayed, over smoky pits surrounded by swaying women in grass skirts. “It’s a dying art,” says Yuen, a fire equipment operator and driver with Spokane Fire Station No. 13.

Yuen’s station captain pasted copies of the department chief’s e-mail about the contest all over Yuen’s locker. Then the entire Spokane FD swamped him with e-mails and phone calls urging him to enter. He succumbed, adapting one of his dad’s Chinese sauces (“puleihu” means “barbecue” in Hawaiian). He swaps out peanut butter for molasses, removes soybean paste, adds ginger and garlic and switches out rice vinegar for apple cider vinegar. Soft-spoken Yuen humbly demurs when asked if he’s Spokane’s best FD cook: “I just happen to be the cook that people want. If you’re a fireman and can cook, you do the cooking.” 

Click here for the full recipes

Paintbrush. Firefighter glove. Thermal imaging camera. These are Kevin Thornton’s dual-use, hairy-chested essentials for his West End Truck Slow-Cooked Ribs, which also made the finals. Thermal imaging cameras, says Thornton, of Setauket, New York’s Hook & Ladder Company No. 1, let firefighters determine temperature through smoke, darkness or walls and can detect the body heat of trapped victims. And, they’re great for barbecue. Aim the camera at the grill to see if it actually gets to the temperature you set, he explains.

Thornton is a third-generation firefighter. His dad was a great role model everywhere but the kitchen. “His typical meal was franks and noodles mixed with ketchup,” say Thornton. Thornton and his siblings survived by sneaking to McDonald’s. He fell in love with cooking when he moved out at eighteen and boasts, laughingly, “My wife will tell you I’m the better cook.”

Applesauce, he says, makes his recipe. “It’s like adding a little sugar to water for boiling corn or to pasta sauce. It tastes better but people don’t know why.” Applesauce, Bass Ale and Guinness are his recipe’s secret weapons. Eager to talk food, Thornton says his fries—oven-baked Idaho potatoes with paprika, sazon, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper—put his ribs to shame and his ribs are “awesome.” And forget sugar to sweeten pasta sauce. Thornton swears by duck sauce, the kind you get in packets from Chinese restaurants.

Stephanie Watts, who’ll be enrolling at the Lincoln Culinary Institute in Suffield, Connecticut this fall, read about the contest first. But as a member of East Litchfield, Connecticut’s junior firefighter program, she was too young to enter. But dad, Bruce Watts, a fireman/policeman with the East Litchfield Connecticut Volunteer Fire Company, wasn’t. “It was all her idea,” says Watts, of his seventeen-year-old daughter. “Without Stephanie, this never would have happened.”

We just sat down and thought, “What goes well with applesauce?” says Watts. The answer: Pork. Watts who was once a chef at barbecue restaurant says that applesauce is “pretty typical” in ‘cue. Watt’s father-in-law manned the backyard smoker and then Watts and Watts turned out Carolina Apple-Smoked Pork Sandwiches. On paper they sounded really good, “in reality they turned out really phenomenal,” he says. My daughter said, ‘Dad, I think we have something that can really win here,’” says Watts. They didn’t win but they did make the finals.

Stephanie will earn an International Baking and Pastry degree and plans on becoming a chef. “But,” she says, “I also want to be a firefighter, doing volunteer work.”

Like father, like daughter on both accounts.

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