What: Flowery Branch-based home cook Ryan McKay will compete against five professional chefs on the reality TV show
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
When Ryan McKay first met his wife, Brandy, she was the adventurous eater and he barely ventured outside of his comfort zone.
“Every year, we would go to San Diego to my favorite restaurant (for my birthday),” Brandy McKay said. “He would order a quesadilla, every single time. I finally hit the table and said ‘You are not allowed to order a quesadilla,’ and made him order something different.
“With that said, it’s amazing to see where he is today.”
He may not be a professional chef, but firefighter Ryan McKay can now sprint around a kitchen with ease, and he’ll get to put those acquired skills to the test in “Food Fighters,” an NBC program which matches a home cook against five professional chefs for the chance to win up to $100,000. According to a news release from NBC, one of those McKay will face is acclaimed chef Lorena Garcia when the show airs at 8 p.m. Thursday.
The Flowery Branch resident couldn’t speak about the five dishes he will prepare ahead of the airing, but he hinted since he enjoys the cuisine, Latin-inspired dishes are a likely choice.
“It’s a lot of traditional, homey, family-style recipes,” he said. “That’s what I’m really centered on because that’s what comes from my family, that’s the kind of culture in the fire department.
“And coming from Southern California, that’s where I get a lot of my inspiration.”
Nine years ago, the McKays moved to Georgia when Ryan joined Cobb County Fire and Emergency Services as a firefighter. He quickly saw the need for someone with cooking skills.
“It’s kind of intimidating coming into the kitchen and cooking for all these men who don’t just eat small amounts,” he said. “They eat a lot. They expect it to be on time, they expect it to be hot and they expect it to taste good.”
He saw many of his colleagues eating frozen and canned food, and thought “we can do better.”
“We’re so good with what we do as a job, we’re proficient at what we do,” he said. “Why can’t we do better in the kitchen?”
McKay began reading cookbooks and asking his wife for tips and tricks, becoming more comfortable in the kitchen as he gained experience.
It was also an important bonding time for the crew.
“We spend more time sitting around the kitchen table, talking stories, talking about what’s going on inside the fire department, outside the fire department, what’s going on in each other’s families,” McKay said. “And it’s always good to have good food to keep them there.”
The pressure of cooking in a time-controlled environment was a good teacher, McKay said. With the threat of an alarm going off at any moment, he made mistakes in the beginning, including “undercooked pork ... you name it, it happens.”
But he quickly became more proficient, and it didn’t take too long before his colleagues and friends were asking him for recipes and advice. McKay decided to create a blog, thefirehousechef.com, to help teach his fellow firefighters. Eventually, he began having people contact him from across the country.
In fact, it was his blog that gained the attention of the casting directors for “Food Fighters.”
“They reached out to me in season one,” McKay said. “I was heavily involved in the auditions, and I think I made it all the way to the final cut.”
He wasn’t featured in the first season, but when NBC began filming the second season, they once again reached out to McKay, who was happy to respond.
But despite the public exposure his blog and the soon-to-air “Food Fighters” episode is bringing to McKay, he has no plans to capitalize on any newfound popularity.
“We’ll see where this takes me,” he said. “I’m not looking for it doing something for me, but at the same time I’m heavily involved in the food industry. I love doing it.”
In the meantime, he will continue dishing out meals at the firehouse, forging bonds around the dinner table.
“The first five or 10 minutes is usually silence, and that’s the biggest compliment a chef can get,” McKay said. “Nobody’s talking because they’re enjoying the food. And that’s what it’s all about for me.”