“Plates on Fire”: Coming to Your TV Screens Soon If All Goes According to Plan

Yours truly, with the most makeup I've ever worn, and flanked by Vincent Pastore and Stephen Baldwin. Not a bad way to spend a day, hey?

I spent all last Sunday working alongside actors Stephen Baldwin and Vincent Pastore.

Get out!

I kid you not.

Of course, you know the former as the youngest Baldwin brother who has starred in such flicks as “The Usual Suspects,” “The Young Riders,” and “Fourth of July.” You know the latter as the unforgettable Salvatore ‘Big Pussy’ Bonpensiero on “The Sopranos.”

And with luck, some day soon you might know them and yours truly as the judges on the pilot episode of “Plates on Fire,” which was filmed last Sunday at San Jose Fire Dept. Station #2 on Alum Rock Avenue.

It’s the brain-child of Santa Clara County Fire Capt. Joe Viramontez, who retired from his job only eight months ago. Instead of devoting time to improving his golf swing now, he decided to bankroll an idea for a reality cooking show he came up with three years ago involving firefighters battling it out in a series of culinary challenges in a fire station kitchen. The winner gets bragging rights, the title of champion and $10,000 for his/her favorite charity. The show is intended to travel around to showcase the cooking prowess of firefighters at stations all around the country.

“The charity component was important to me,” Viramontez says. “I didn’t want it to be just another cooking competition. I wanted to do something to give back.”

So, he hired producer Galley Molina, who splits his time between Los Angeles and San Jose, and whom Viramontez met at church. Molina, a reformed, convicted drug trafficker started his own independent production company, Reverence Gospel Media. He wrote and produced the film, “I’m in Love with a Church Girl,” which is expected to be released in 2012. The film, shot in San Jose last year, stars rapper Ja Rule, as well as both Baldwin and Pastore, which is how those two actors got involved with “Plates on Fire.” Michael K. Race, another producer on “I’m in Love with a Church Girl,” also was brought on board for this project.

A helmet covers the secret ingredients of the mystery basket.

Just how did the Food Gal, who has zilch acting experience, get asked to work alongside these Hollywood heavyweights? I’m told that someone who knew someone who knew someone recommended me as a good choice to round out the culinary know-how of the judging panel. I’m guessing it didn’t hurt that I don’t live too far away from Station #2, either. Or that I happen to be female — the only one in the cast, as it turns out.

Being the only female on set also has its perks. Such as when I walked into the station that morning and Baldwin leaped to his feet from a couch to say “hello” and to take my bags, which contained extra clothes that I was told to bring just in case the producers wanted me in other outfits.

It also meant I got the most time in the makeup artist’s chair. While the guys got a simple pat down of foundation to cut the shine on their faces, I got the full-blown works, including false lashes to make my eyes extra fluttery. Let me tell you, I’ve never had so much makeup on in my life. It took washing my face three times when I got home to get it all off. Ahhh, the joys of high-def, which makes every pore visible. But I must admit, I did feel pretty glam.

Station #2 was the perfect setting for the filming. It was built only about a year ago and has an enviable kitchen that any one of us would be glad to have in our own home. It’s also one of the city’s busiest stations — but not that day, as the calls were being routed to other stations instead.

A crew member preparing the lights in the station kitchen before filming started.

A look at the action between competitors Robert Herrera (with dark hair and glasses) and Joel Phelan (far right).

San Jose firefighters Joel Phelan and Robert Herrera were chosen to compete from a group of eight who had applied. Decked out in hot-pink T-shirts in honor of “National Breast Cancer Awareness Month,” they were officially off-duty on Sunday, so they could compete without any distractions.

The premise of the show is this: There are three cooking challenges — breakfast, lunch and dinner. In each case, the firefighters get 30 minutes to create four servings of a dish or two suitable for each different meal. They get the assistance of one other firefighter, who acts as a sous chef. For each battle, they must use four ingredients presented to them in a mystery basket covered up by a firefighter’s helmet. Beyond that, they can use anything else stocked in the pantry or fridge, including a variety of fresh fruit and veggies, sour cream, milk, wine, pasta, flour and tomato sauce.

The mystery baskets were a complete surprise to the competitors, too. They did not know what each contained until each challenge began being filmed. Among the mystery items were linguica and chocolate for the breakfast battle, celery and tomato paste for the lunch one, and kale and honey for dinner.

The kitchen area was transformed into a full-blown film set when all the cameras were set up, along with all the requisite bright lights, and sound equipment. You had to watch where you walked lest you got beaned on the head by the huge camera crane or jib (I actually know what that is now). And yes, there was even a guy with a bonafide clapboard to signal with a thwack when the cameras started rolling.

After each round of cooking, the cameras were reset to shoot the judges tasting and commenting on the dishes. Beforehand, I had asked Baldwin for any tips he could offer a newbie like me. He said to just say what I thought of the food, to pay no heed to focusing on any of the cameras because they would catch it all anyway, and most importantly, to just have fun.

At one point, director Steve Race wanted some B-roll of each of the judges thinking. Oh my. What exactly does thinking look like? I turned to my right, where Baldwin seemed to be staring straight ahead with a quite serious look on his face. I looked to my left, where Pastore also wore an earnest expression and periodically touched his fingers to his chin. I decided to stare ahead, too, then turned my gaze upward, pursing my lips now and then for no other reason than I couldn’t think of anything else to do. An Emmy-winning performance, I’m sure this was not.

Baldwin posing for pics between takes with a couple of San Jose's finest.

Baldwin and Pastore, who flew in from their home-base of New York just for this, were a delight to be around. During breaks, Pastore regaled us with hilarious stories about his dating woes while Baldwin talked about how he loves the San Jose climate because it’s dry like Tucson, where he lived for many years.

When filming wrapped many hours later, the two actors autographed an apron for me and Baldwin even gave me a sweet peck on the cheek as he told me what a great job I had done. Whew!

I won’t spoil the ending by telling you which San Jose firefighter ended up being crowned the “Plates on Fire” victor. Keep your fingers crossed that you’ll be able to watch it all for yourself on the Food Network, Cooking Channel, Travel Channel or one of the other networks Viramontez hopes will be eager to pick up his lively, do-good show.

A fire truck sits idle as calls were routed to other stations while filming was taking place at Station #2.

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