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Graton volunteer firefighter, chef creating cookbook for beginners

Jacob Mual has a restaurant resume a mile long. A graduate of the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan, he has fired and plated dishes at fine-dining restaurants from New York City and Maui to Las Vegas and Australia.

But after spending 22 years working as a chef, Mual found himself with a fire in his belly to do something that would make the world a better place. In 2017, after the catastrophic Tubbs fire tore through northern Santa Rosa, Mual became a volunteer firefighter for the Graton Fire Department, which led to his current, full-time job as an EMT for King-American ambulance service in San Francisco.

That, in turn, brought him to the attention of celebrity chef and restaurateur Lidia Bastianich, who chose him as one of the first responders to highlight in “Lidia Celebrates America: A Salute to First Responders,” an annual special which debuted on PBS stations across the country in February (see the segment on Mual at pbs.org/food/features/california-firefighter-jacob-mual).

A big, burly guy with a soft heart, Mual bantered good-naturedly with Bastianich over Zoom while cooking one of her dishes, Chicken alla Pitocca, at the Graton firehouse. The simple rice dish from Lombardy is similar to risotto, only a little heartier, with a deep chicken flavor.

“I think it’s awesome,” Mual said, after Bastianich asked him to taste her dish. “It’s cheesy and creamy. Lidia, I’m pretty sure they’re going to kick me out and offer you a job next.”

It was obvious from his knife skills that Mual was not a novice in the kitchen, but the chef also seemed surprisingly at home in front of the camera.

“I like to talk, and that’s part of my job, too,” Mual said. “I try to put people at ease.”

In one moment during the shoot, Mual asked Bastianich if he should heat up the pot before adding the olive oil to cook the pestata, a base of finely minced onions, carrots, celery and garlic.

“I just put in the things (the oil and pestata),” she said, explaining that olive oil is sensitive to heat, so she never overheats it. “Then they get heated up together.”

Mual’s question did not go unnoticed by his restaurant friends, who have been ribbing him about it.

“Everybody I know in the cooking world has been calling me up and saying, ‘So, shall I heat the oil first?’“ he said. “I think it’s mostly the fact that I asked, and she went into a thorough explanation, that everyone got a kick out of.”

On a more serious note, Mual also spoke to Bastianich about how important cooking is to a firehouse, where kitchen duties are shared, and what it’s like to risk your life for a job.

The segment was shot late last October, and Bastianich was well aware of the intense battle Northern California firefighters had waged against the Meyers, Walbridge, Hennessey and Glass fires from the end of August through early October.

“Yes, there is inherent risk,” he told her. “But I trust the guys here enough to know I’m going to come home.”

Then, as usual when he thinks about his family, he choked up.

”Family is a big thing for me, and that’s what this is at the firehouse,“ he said. ”It’s an extended family.“

More purposeful work

The former chef’s cooking chops and love of barbecue have come in handy in his new role as a first responder. At the Graton firehouse, the crew of paid and volunteer firefighters have come to rely on him to cook hearty meals to get them through long days.

During his volunteer shifts, Mual also goes out on calls with the team, pulling hose, forcing doors, extricating drivers and passengers after crashes and stabilizing vehicles.

Last summer, he responded to the Meyers fire at Fort Ross and worked on a dozer line high in Armstrong Redwoods State Park during the Walbridge fire. In 2019, Mual went out to the Kincade fire in Windsor, where he worked on structure control and attacked a field on fire.

“We had to run up a hill with hoses,” he said. “That was the first time I did a mobile attack on a live fire. ... It’s a very emotional job, at least for me.”

As a parent to 5-year-old daughter Vera, Mual has a burning desire to set a good example and make the world a better place, one reason he switched careers. Once he started volunteering, he was inspired by the crew he works with at the firehouse.

“Some of them are very young,” said Mual, who turns 40 this month. “Matt (Miller) and I started volunteering the same night, and he went on to the SRJC Firefighter 1 program.”

When a few of his colleagues were called to Cal Fire duty during the Tubbs fire, the idea of writing a cookbook for first responders took hold.

“They were asking me, ‘Hey man, can you give me a recipe for chicken?’ ” he recalled. “And I wished I had something to give these guys, like recipes in a spiral-bound cookbook.”

Over time, the simple cookbook idea has morphed into what Mual now envisions as a “real,” hardcover cookbook.

Currently, Mual is about two-thirds through the process of writing the recipes for his cookbook, “Functional Food for First Responders,” which he works on in his spare time. He set a personal deadline to finish the project by June 1.

“I’m writing it for the 20-year-olds who don’t know how to cook,” he said. “Functional means nutrient-dense and calorie-dense, food that can carry you through the day and through all kinds of physical activity.”

As Bastianich remarked of Mual during the special, “Cooking is a way of nurturing his team, of giving what he knows well ... how to cook food that will make them feel good, bind them as a team but also nourish them physically.”

Simple and accessible recipes

In the past, Mual raised money for the cookbook through a GoFundMe account, and that’s how producer Callie Wiser of “Lidia Celebrates America” first discovered him.

“This woman called me one day in August 2020,” he said. “I was super skeptical at first, but I know Lidia’s son, Joe Bastianich, who has restaurants in Las Vegas. ... So I called her back and said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

Although he has cooked for Wolfgang Puck’s popular Spago, Las Vegas and farm-to-table pioneer The River Cafe in Brooklyn, his cookbook is aimed squarely at the novice cook who wants to make something simple, straightforward and delicious.

That’s why Bastianich chose the Chicken alla Pitocca, a relatively easy recipe that appeals to everyone, for the segment with Mual. The recipe will appear in his cookbook, with credit given to the well-known chef, who has written 16 cookbooks of her own, including her latest, “Felicia: Recipes from My Flagship Restaurant.”

Mual’s cookbook also includes breakfast dishes like Caramelized Onion, Goat Cheese and Arugula Fritatta; lunch fare such as Southwest Chicken Cobb Salad with Vegan Chipotle Ranch and dinner dishes like Broiled Salmon with Mustard and Herbs.

There are also lots of savory sides, snacks, smoothies, sauces and dressings, along with a recipe for a whole-wheat pizza dough. Mual went out of his way to include healthy ingredients such as mushrooms, spinach and dark chocolate.

“I have a recipe for Loaded Sweet Potato Wedges instead of regular potatoes,” he said. “And I have some Chocolate and Goji Berry Bites and Walnut and Date Bars, things that are good for you.”

After moving to Sonoma County in 2015, Mual worked at the Sunflower Cafe in Sonoma, Belcampo Restaurant and Butcher Shop in Larkspur and Handline in Sebastopol. He also launched his own barbecue catering business, the Jolly Pig BBQ, in Sebastopol.

“I built my smoker myself,” he said. “I did it for one full season, including four farmers markets per week, plus events.”

While volunteering at the Graton Fire Department, however, his passion for cooking in restaurants began to wane. He attended the trainee firefighter academy in November 2017, then enrolled in a semester-long EMT training at Santa Rosa Junior College.

“I found that, slowly but surely, this was taking precedence,” he said. “Yes, cooking makes people happy. You are making them healthy and nourished. But this is more purposeful work. ... I do it because of my daughter.”

This salad is a favorite of the firefighters at the Graton Fire Department. To go gluten-free, replace the croutons with crispy fried chickpeas.

Torn Kale Caesar

Makes 4 servings

6 cups torn lacinato kale, loosely packed

12 ounces Caesar Dressing (see recipe below)

1½ cups shredded Parmesan cheese

Kosher salt

Fresh cracked black pepper

For the croutons:

6 slices crusty sourdough bread

4 ounces extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and fresh cracked black pepper

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Toss diced sourdough and olive oil in mixing bowl; spread out on baking sheet in a single layer. Season with kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper. Bake 10 to 12 minutes until golden brown. Set aside.

In a mixing bowl, toss kale, dressing, 1¼ cup Parmesan cheese and a pinch of kosher salt. Massage kale to evenly coat with dressing. Add croutons and toss just to incorporate.

Divide salad onto four plates. Sprinkle remaining Parmesan cheese on top of each salad and finish with a generous sprinkle of fresh cracked pepper.

Caesar Dressing

Makes 2½ cups

2 egg yolks

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

¼ cup balsamic vinegar

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 anchovy filets

2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons kosher salt

2 tablespoons cracked black pepper

2 tablespoons cold water

2 cups extra-virgin olive oil

Combine all ingredients (except oil) in a blender and blend. Slowly drizzle in olive oil in steady stream until all of it is incorporated.

_____

This recipe is another favorite among the firefighters at the Graton Fire Department. A bolillo is a small baguette-like bread from Mexico.

BBQ Pork Meatball Hero

Makes 4 servings

4 bolillo rolls

2 pounds ground pork

2 tablespoons minced garlic

4 ounces canned green chiles, drained well

1 small yellow onion, grated

1 whole egg, large

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 tablespoon ground cumin

2 tablespoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon fresh cracked black pepper

4 cups Smoky Chipotle BBQ Sauce (recipe below)

2 cups arugula, loosely packed

¼ cup Vegan Chipotle Ranch (recipe below)

Olive oil

Preheat a grill to 425 degrees.

In a mixing bowl, combine pork, garlic, green chiles, grated onion, egg, baking soda, cumin, kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper. Mix thoroughly.

Portion evenly into 24 meatballs and set aside on tray.

Lower the grill’s heat to medium and grill meatballs. Once meatballs are nicely grilled on the outside, put them into a medium saucepan with the Smoky Chipotle BBQ Sauce. Simmer over medium heat for 25 to 30 minutes.

Lightly brush the outside of each bolillo roll with olive oil; toast on the grill until golden brown.

In a separate mixing bowl, toss arugula with the Vegan Chipotle Ranch.

Place six meatballs in each bolillo roll. Top with a generous portion of the dressed arugula.

Smokey Chipotle BBQ Sauce:

Yields 4 cups

24 ounces tomato ketchup

1 cup dark brown sugar

1 7-ounce can chipotle peppers in adobo sauce

2 tablespoons minced garlic

¼ cup smoked paprika

4 tablespoons kosher salt

2 tablespoons cracked black pepper

½ cup red wine vinegar

Combine all ingredients in saucepan. Simmer over medium heat for 1 hour. Remove from heat and cool. Store in refrigerator.

Mual recommends the Sir Kensington’s vegan mayonnaise.

Vegan Chipotle Ranch

Makes 2½ cups

2 cups vegan mayonnaise

¼ cup red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons Old Bay seasoning

3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme

3 chipotle peppers, canned in adobo sauce, chopped

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon cracked black pepper

Thoroughly combine all ingredients in mixing bowl.

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This recipe is from “Lidia Celebrates America: A Salute to First Responders.” You will need a food processor and a large heavy-bottom saucepan with a 3- to 4-quart capacity. Grana padana is a cheese similar to Parmesan.

Chicken alla Pitocca

Makes 4 servings

1 cup dry white wine

1 cup yellow onion, large dice

1 cup carrot, large dice

1 cup celery, large dice

2 plump garlic cloves, peeled

⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 fresh bay leaf

1½ pounds chicken thighs, boneless and skinless

5 cups chicken or turkey stock, hot, plus more if needed

2 cups Italian short-grain rice (arborio, carnaroli or vialone nano)

2 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces, for finishing

3 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley, chopped

½ cup grated grana padano, plus more for passing

Trim any extra fat from chicken thighs and cut into 1-inch pieces.

In a food processor, mince onion, carrot, celery and garlic into a fine textured pestata.

Pour olive oil into saucepan and heat over medium-high heat. Stir in pestata and season with 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Cook about 5 minutes, until pestata is dry and begins to stick to bottom of pan.

Add chicken pieces and the bay leaf. Sprinkle remaining 2 tablespoons kosher salt over the top. Tumble and stir the chicken in the pan until browned and caramelized, about 4 minutes.

Increase the heat and add white wine. Cook, stirring and scraping up the browned bits in the pan, until the wine has almost completely evaporated.

Pour in the hot stock while stirring, then add all the rice. Bring to a boil over high heat, cover and reduce heat to keep the rice bubbling gently. Cook about 14 minutes or until rice and chicken are both cooked and texture is creamy.

Turn off the heat and add butter pieces while stirring vigorously. Add parsley and ½ cup cheese. Serve in bowls and pass additional cheese at the table.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56

Diane Peterson

Features, The Press Democrat

I’m interested in the home kitchen, from sheet-pan suppers to the latest food trends. Food encompasses the world, its many cultures, languages and history. It is both essential and sensual. I also have my fingers on the pulse of classical music in Sonoma County, from student mariachi bands to jazz crossover and symphonic sounds. It’s all a rich gumbo, redolent of the many cultures that make up our country and the world.

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