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.