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Cook-off aimed at making firefighters healthier

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Members of the Gwinnett County Fire Department Billy Clark and Russell Knick of "Team Top Chiefs" share their recipe during a cook-off called "Fired Up for Health" at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville on Saturday. "Team Top Chiefs"  placed first in the competition which was judged by Food Network star Justin Balmes along with three other judges.

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Members of the Gwinnett County Fire Department Billy Clark and Russell Knick of "Team Top Chiefs" share their recipe during a cook-off called "Fired Up for Health" at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville on Saturday. "Team Top Chiefs" placed first in the competition which was judged by Food Network star Justin Balmes along with three other judges.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Members of the Gwinnett County Fire Department Patty Schaefer and Tony Meriwether of "Team Sizzle" prepare chicken breast smothered with cream of mushroom soup during a cook-off called "Fired Up for Health" at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville on Saturday. The Gwinnett Medical Center teamed up with Food Network star Justin Balmes to host the event because firefighters are 300 percent more likely than others to develop heart disease.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Judges Bill Myers, Jay Dennard, Manfred Sandler MD and Food Network star Justin Balmes taste the food prepared by members of the Gwinnett County Fire Department who participated in a cook- off contest called "Fired Up for Health" at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville on Saturday. The four judges shared their remarks along with the importance of eating healthy.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Gwinnett County Fire Chief Bill Myers, Food Network star Justin Balmes, center, Chief Operating Officer at Gwinnett Medical Center Jay Dennard were among the four judges who tasted the food prepared by members of the Gwinnett County Fire Department during a cook-off called "Fired Up for Health" at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville on Saturday.

LAWRENCEVILLE -- If stress and over-exertion are the culprits in higher rates of heart disease for America's firefighters, salt, mayonnaise and drippy heaps of fried nosh are the henchmen.

"Firefighters have to eat on the go, for the most part," said Gwinnett Fire Department Capt. Thomas Rutledge, veteran of many-a firehouse feast. "When they do it, they eat fast, and usually plentiful."

According to a recent study, the statistic is stark: Firefighters are 300 percent more likely to develop heart disease than the general public. To that end, Gwinnett Medical Center on Saturday hosted a "Fired Up for Health" cook-off with the aim of promoting healthy eating for firefighters both on the job and not, in hopes of extending the lives of those who honorably risk them.

Emergency personnel on four teams squared off in a calorie-conscious contest, preparing salmon, chicken breasts in mushroom soup and something called the Lemon Dream Fruit Salad, among other dishes. Food Network star and Atlanta Art Institute chef instructor Justin Balmes helped judge.

"They had good knife skills and techniques -- fresh ingredients, fresh vegetables, local, sustainable stuff," said Joe Polanco, executive chef at Georgia Gwinnett College, which hosted. "This is a way for them to have that comfort and stay healthy at work."

Judges were impressed with firefighters' chops. Team Top Chef (Battalion chiefs Billy Clark and Russell Knick) took the cake, but refrained from eating any. Rutledge foresees the cook-off becoming an annual event.

"Firefighters years ago, we ate a lot of fried foods, coupled with stress and over-exertion. We go from 0 to 100 (mph) in a matter of seconds," he said. "We're trying to use the grill more ... less salt and mayonnaise, and more protein for energy."

Beth Okun, GMC spokesperson, said the event was a means to give back, on the heels of the hospital's Strickland Heart Center opening.

"I think the fire-fighting community will be thinking differently when they cook," Okun said.