Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, Chef Robert Scambia has been on a mission to cook for every fire station in the state of Florida in honor of the 343 firefighters who died in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy. Now Scambia plans to publish a cookbook to benefit firefighters right here in Duval County.
Scambia, who lives in Clermont, said his statewide quest is the result of a promise he made after losing a friend - a firefighter - who died while trying to save lives on 9/11. “I made a promise to a friend that I would do this and I’m going to keep my promise,” he said.
At the request of that friend’s family, Scambia doesn’t share a name. “Because, the mom said, ‘it’s not for only him. It’s for 343 that you’re doing that. Remember that,’” Scambia recalled.
Since he got started, Scambia believes he’s cooked for more than 790 fire stations throughout the state. Jacksonville Fire and Rescue is one of the biggest departments in Florida with 58 stations and more than 1,400 employees.
“I started down in Palm Beach. Worked my way through Palm Beach, Orange County, Seminole County, Lake County and Osceola County,” Scambia said. “I’ve done the city ones too: Clermont, Mascotte, Leesburg, Minneola, Reedy Creek, Ocoee... those are the ones I’ve done so far and hope to continue with that.”
Cooking for fire crews made Scambia dream of putting together his own cookbook. But he never had the money to publish it.
In 2016, Orange County Fire and Rescue, the fire department Scambia was cooking for at the time, teamed up with Kleenex to pay for a cookbook. Now all the proceeds from “A Hero’s Cookbook,” which honors Scambia's late friend, go to the Firefighter Benevolent Fund in Orange County.
“Now I’m doing another cookbook for Jacksonville,” Scambia said. But first he has to find a publisher, and he’s hoping to find someplace local.
According to Scambia, he has about ten more stations to feed in Jacksonville. His plan is to come back into town on New Year’s night, January 1, to cook for several stations through the week.
The last time Scambia cooked for firemen in Jacksonville, Andy Walker from Engine 46 presented him with a set of handmade knives as a show of gratitude.
“They all chipped in to pay for it, a lot of the firemen,” Scambia said. “And I got really emotional… I couldn’t believe it.”
But Scambia said he doesn’t do this to get anything in return from the firefighters.
“My best gift, for getting back something, is when I see them sitting down at the table and eating. When they’re all smiling and eating and chilling out,” he said. “And it’s kind of tough sometimes because they have calls and that’s priority number one. But then they come back and they say ‘we’re ready to come eat again.’ So it’s all worth it.”
Once he’s fed all of Jacksonville’s fire stations, Scambia plans to move on to either Clay or Nassau County. But, he says he’ll be back in Duval.
He and his family actually plan to move to Jacksonville in the summer. And that will surely be welcome news to all the firefighters who have had the chance to taste Scambia’s generosity.