Going out to dinner is not that uncommon a thing to do on a Friday evening. But sharing a gourmet dinner with the members of the McLean Volunteer Fire and Rescue squad doesn’t happen every day.
For the past two years, the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce has included a silent auction during the annual Valor Awards dinner, a major fund-raiser for their scholarship program which supports children of firefighters, emergency crews and police officers with college scholarships. Last fall, one item up for bids was a dinner with the McLean Fire and Rescue Station.
“Originally, it was just supposed to be like a pizza party here,” said Lt. Tom Papoutsis. “But Lt. Castillo thought we could do something better.”
It turns out Lt. Papoutsis is a self-taught gourmet cook, one of two firemen from Fairfax County who has competed against other firemen in national cooking contests.
Standing in the fire station’s kitchen, Papoutsis was preparing green beans almondine to complement French onion soup, bruschetta, prime rib and chocolate mousse.
“This is the first time we’ve done something like this,” said Lt. Raul Castillo, a public information officer with the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department. “With what the Chamber of Commerce does to recognize these heroes, we thought it would be nice to do something a little special for whoever won the dinner.”
The winners were Cathy Lange, her husband Glen Keith and their children.
“When could you do something like this?” Lange asked, trying some French onion soup. “The idea that a fireman is a gourmet chef is intriguing. When I saw the menu I just thought this would be a great thing to do, so I kept bidding,” said Lange, a board member with the Chamber of Commerce and president of Business Works, a leadership and management developing business in Fairfax.
FOR THESE MCLEAN residents, the dinner was also a chance to meet with the men and women who would be called to help them in an emergency.
“It’s good for us to know the people who serve our community,” she said. “Plus, it’s good for our kids to meet some heroes and role models.”
Mingling with firemen and women, Glen Keith said the dinner, which spread across four tables, “reminded me of having a meal aboard ship.” He retired from the Navy in 1992 after serving for 20 years and said the dinner was “much nicer” than what he ate while at sea.
“I thought this was a really interesting idea. We’ve never done anything like this before,” he said. “We’ve all been looking forward to it. When I saw the poster with the menu, it looked much more legitimate” than when his wife told him what she had won.
“This is awesome,” said their daughter, Mary Nichols. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. My friends all said, 'Wow!' when I told them what we were doing.”
For Papoutsis, it gave him a chance to cook for about twice as many people as he is used to cooking for at the firehouse, and a chance to make some fancier foods.
“I try to make most things from scratch ... I started the soup this morning and the baklava at home last night,” he said. “On a normal night, depending on how busy we are, we can have anything from pizza to shrimp alfredo.”
The fire station is opened for public tours at several times during the year, including the second Saturday in October during Fire Prevention Week, said Captain James Istvan. “We do birthday parties here but this is a big deal,” he said of opening the doors to a family for dinner.
However, if an emergency had occurred during he meal, it would have been back to work for the fire crew.
“This is how it works,” he said. “If we sit down to eat and the alarm goes off, we leave everything on the table. That’s why we have two big microwave ovens in the kitchen,” he said.
There are 16 people on each 24-hour shift, Istvan said. “Something like this is a nice change of pace,” he said. “I hope everyone will get a little perspective on what we do. This might be the beginning of an annual event.”
“This is a great opportunity to do some outreach,” said Deputy Chief Dereck Baker. “The family gets to talk to us about what we do out on the streets and we enjoy having outsiders in here to have dinner with us. Something positive could come out of this,” he said.
“The real treat is to be able to meet some citizens here,” said Craig Furneisen Sr., a master technician at the fire department.