Good eatin’: East Orange Fire Department’s cooking team is a cut above the rest

The kitchen of the local firehouse is often a place where one can find some great homecooked meals.
There is one team of firefighters who are making a name for themselves in New Jersey and beyond with their cuisine.
Meet the Rattling Pans of the East Orange Fire Department – a team of four firehouse cooks who, when it comes to the rich tradition of firehouse cooking, are arguably the cream of the crop in the Garden State.
“We go in on shift and we say, ‘Who wants to eat? What are we eating for dinner?’ And whoever wants to eat, that’s what we cook,” says firefighter Mark Gaeta.
The Rattling Pans are just off their debut last month at the World Chili Cooking Championship in South Carolina, where they took fourth place in the firehouse division. In 2020, they won top prize in the gourmet division of Cooked and Uncorked – an event that is considered the premiere New Jersey fire department cookoff.
Their success is due in no small part to their team leader – Vhaashtay Ra El, a fire alarm operator who owned and operated several restaurants in New Jersey, including the Energy Bar in Montclair and Crossroads Café in East Orange. She joined the East Orange Fire Department 11 years ago.
Rounding out the team is Gaeta, whose father owned F&B Fine Catering in Bloomfield, Ernest Cooke and Robert Springs.
When News 12’s Brian Donohue visited the team, they were making the chili that they prepared for the competition. The list of ingredients proves that Ra El has studied the art of good chili. There's the suya, a Nigerian spice blend she gets from a secret source in Newark. There's the smoked Alaskan porter beer she has a friend send her from Alaska, as well as a long list of a dozen different spices and sauces that go into the pot. The meat is a combination of buffalo, lamb, ground short rib and adzuki beans.
But Donohue says that after spending a little time in the kitchen, he realized that the secret ingredient is the camaraderie.
“It’s meant a great deal, because we’ve bonded. We’ve developed a great friendship,” Ra El says.
“I had no idea how close we were going to get by doing this,” Gaeta says. “You go into the firehouse and you rely on each other and then we get into this, and again, you rely on each other.”
The Rattling Pans won the February 2020 Cooked and Uncorked event for New Jersey firehouse cooks with a dish of Short rib arancini with herb ricotta marinara. The competition was not held this year due to the pandemic, so they still hold the trophy.