MEDFORD — With a fire station located in his Melrose neighborhood, Jason Santos grew up watching the trucks whiz by and imagined what it would be like to rush off and save lives.
The son of an EMT and a former Navy SEAL, he was raised in an atmosphere of public service, attracted to the adrenaline and urgency to perform associated with firefighting.
When he was 15, Santos was particularly impressed when firefighters came to his family’s rescue on Christmas Eve when an oil heater started smoking.
“I’ve always been fascinated by it,” said Santos, who now lives in Medford. “It was really cool to see them come so fast.”
Over the years though, Santos recognized his talent for cooking, a skill that eventually led him to the runner-up spot on the seventh season of Fox network’s “Hell’s Kitchen,” where Gordon Ramsay puts chefs through a grueling job application to run one of his restaurants. Now part owner of two Boston destinations, Blue Inc. and Abby Lane , Santos, with his trademark blue hair, spends time working over fires rather than putting them out.
But recently, Santos jumped at the opportunity to explore his childhood attraction to firefighting. After he learned that Abby Lane’s general manager, Colleen Hagerty, is dating a Medford firefighter, he made the city’s fire officials an offer they couldn’t refuse: He would cook them dinner in exchange for experiencing some time in a day in the life of a firefighter.
Last week, Chad White, who’s been a Medford firefighter for nine years, took an excited Santos on a tour of the department’s headquarters on Main Street. They toured the trucks, hoses, ladders, and storage areas and White explained the uses for each piece of equipment. Santos asked dozens of questions about putting out fires, work hours, response time, and procedures.
White said that he always enjoys talking to children about his job, and it was fun to share with an interested adult.
“To see someone that age so into what I do, it’s pretty cool,” he said.
Then it was Santos’s turn. With stacks of Tupperware full of prepared ingredients donated from Abby Lane spread across the firehouse kitchen counters, he went to work on six dishes at once: New England clam chowder, roast pork loin with maple cranberry jus, asparagus salad with goat cheese and black truffle, shrimp lo mein, German potato salad, and baby wedge salad with bacon and blue cheese.
“It’s such a treat for these guys,” said White. “We don’t get a lot of time to sit together like this.”
When the fire bell rang for a chimney fire, firefighters briefly beefed about having to leave their meals, but Santos’s eyes lit up.
He hurried away from the steaming lo mein on the stove to watch the fire trucks exit the building, pulling out his iPhone to document the moment.
“Literally, my heart’s beating. It’s crazy adrenaline,” said Santos, who compared the feeling with the rush of competing on “Hell’s Kitchen.” “I almost jumped on the back [of the truck], but I thought it might be a liability.”
Santos said that while the purpose of his profession is different from firefighting, there are many similarities in the nature of the businesses.
“The speed, the accuracy is important,” he said. “And the fact that you’re a team. The camaraderie is the same.”
Fire Chief Frank Giliberti noted that while children often look up to firefighters, they don’t always recognize the risks that come with the job.
“The kids just see fire engines flying down the street, but they’re going to real emergencies,” he said. “A lot of the time, it’s dangerous. It’s not all lights and sirens and engines. It’s real.”
Santos, 37, said that if he had to pick a different career, he would choose firefighting.
“I think I’m technically too old at this point, but it’s cool to be a part of it,” he said of his visit.