They say the kitchen is the heart of any home, and it’s no different in a fire station.
So when 57-year-old Robert Scambia, of Clermont, made it his goal to cook for every firehouse in the state, the man affectionately called “Chef Rob” was stepping into a firefighter family.
“Never in 27 years [as a firefighter] have I been at a station where we didn’t sit down and eat together,” said Orange County Fire Rescue Lt. Derek Alligood. “People drop by and give cookies, but Chef Rob serves six-course meals.”
Scambia makes himself at home in station kitchens swarming with hungry firefighters, serving dinners five days a week.
The trained chef and part-time baker was recently honored in a unique way when OCFR teamed up with Kleenex to make his dream of publishing a cookbook come true. On Monday, the tissue brand published a tear-jerking video of OCFR firefighters presenting him with his first batch of printed cookbooks.
Scambia’s wife, Carolyn Scambia, said her husband’s devotion to firefighters began when a fire broke out at their apartment complex after moving to Florida from New York City in 2001 with their then 2-year-old boy. Firefighters bravely battled the flames and even managed to rescue a special toy for their autistic son.Two months later, the 9/11 terrorist attacks took the life of a firefighting friend. It was then Scambia said he “promised God” he would cook for all the fire stations in Florida.
He’s whipped up concoctions, and taught firefighters to cook at stations from Ocoee to Boca Raton. Now, he’s about halfway through Orange County stations and hopes to move through Seminole, Osceola, Polk and Volusia counties next.
About 10 years ago, Scambia began writing a cookbook with the recipes of firefighter favorites, intending to donate proceeds back to the fire stations.
He finished the book in 2006 with 60 recipes, but life got in the way. His family faced significant health issues and the funding for the book wasn’t there. Just a single copy of his book was published — one he takes with him from station to station for firefighters to peruse.
It was business as usual July 21 when Scambia showed up to OCFR Station 83 for a volunteer shift. A 3-foot long fish laid on the counter awaiting skinning and fileting as Scambia whipped up pasta, soup, salad and banana pastries.
But something was different: cameras flooded the station and Scambia’s workspace. Alligood told Scambia a camera crew was filming a documentary on firefighters and hoped he didn’t mind.
About 4 p.m., Alligood led the unsuspecting Scambia from the kitchen to the bay where the station keeps its trucks.
When the door opened, Scambia saw his face looking back at him on the cover of a new edition of “A Hero’s Cookbook: A Collection of Recipes Inspired by True Heroism.” OCFR firefighter Maria Bernard stood among 120 copies of his published cookbook — a dream accomplished with a little Hollywood magic.
“This is for you,” Bernard said. “We’re so thankful for everything you do, but we couldn’t have done it without a few other people.”
That’s when, in a made-for-TV moment, a firetruck pulled out of the bay, revealing dozens of firefighters he’d served over the years jumping and cheering.
The tears flowed and Kleenex tissues passed around as cameras caught every moment. Bernard also handed the chef $5,000 raised through an online fundraiser she’d secretly started months before.
Kleenex found the campaign online and reached out to Bernard with an idea to feature Scambia’s story on their “Someone Needs One” marketing campaign.
As he looked over the books he’d spent a decade preparing, Scambia said he was “overwhelmed” by the gratitude expressed by the very heroes he’d spent his life honoring with appreciation.
In the three days since Kleenex posted Scambia’s story on its Facebook page, it has been watched nearly 2 million times and cookbook orders have been flowing in. Though Kleenex only sponsored 125 books, Bernard said a new batch of cookbooks will be printed and sent out as the number of books sold grows.
A Hero’s Cookbook is now available through the Orange County Firefighters Benevolent Fund online store at www.ocffbastore.com and proceeds will be donated to the non-profit, which gives financial assistance to firefighters in need.
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