There is a long-standing tradition in the fire service where crews gather to share meals while on duty. This in turn has given firefighters themselves the reputation of being excellent cooks. Both of these statements hold true for many members of the Olathe Fire Department, but particularly for Rescue 51 and its in-house chef, Captain Michael Rutten.
Captain Rutten grew up in a large family, the second oldest of nine children, where he spent a lot of time in the kitchen with his mother cooking meals from scratch. “Most of my fondest memories are of our family gathered in the kitchen creating a big feast,” Rutten says. To expand his knowledge of food, he later attended the Culinary Arts program at Joliet Community College in Joliet, IL.
After graduation Rutten worked in several Chicagoland restaurants, but after deciding he did not want to work nights and weekends for the rest of his life, he moved to Kansas to pursue a career in firefighting. “Now I work nights, weekends, and holidays, so that plan didn’t work out too well,” says Rutten. He also missed the atmosphere he had growing up in a big family, and the fire department gave him that. “The fire service is unlike any other career. We are one big family.”
Early in his firefighting career, Captain Rutten’s culinary background was discovered, and he has been cooking for his station ever since. “One of my captains challenged me to never cook the same meal twice,” says Rutten, “so we went 130 shifts without repeating a meal. I did all of the cooking for over a year.”
Deciding what to cook is a group decision. At the start of each shift, the crew gathers together to lay out a plan for the meals. “We start by looking at the sale ads and build our meals around what we can find cheap,” Rutten explains. “We all pitch in $10. We try to stay under budget, so we can build up our food fund and splurge on a fancy meal like steak or shrimp tacos.”
While Captain Rutten may do most of the cooking, he is not alone in the kitchen. The whole crew gets involved. “Even if someone isn’t helping prep, there are always dishes to do or a funny story to tell,” he says. “That comradery is what makes meal time special at the firehouse. It is time for the guys to relax, sit around the table, share stories and laugh a lot.”
Outside of the fire station Captain Rutten has competed against some of the best chefs in Kansas City at St. Paul’s Chef’s Classic where he prepared 400 hors d’oeuvres to be judged by the attendees. “It is a lot of fun and goes to support a great group of kids,” he says. Most recently his has been competing in smaller barbecue competitions and hopes to participate in the American Royal in the future.
Michael has served as a firefighter in Johnson County for 15 years and currently resides there with his wife and four children.