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Firefighter has a passion for cooking

Jeff Nixon, a firefighter with Fire Station 39 on Providence Road, might look familiar to you.

Last summer, he cooked on "Live with Regis and Kelly" when he competed in Live's Coast-to-Coast Firehouse Cook-Off. He also occasionally cooks on local television.

In October, Nixon, 44, competed with his firehouse in the Ballantyne Chili Cook-off, and his recipe won for the second year in a row.

For Nixon, cooking is a passion, as is his career as a firefighter. It's a passion he has shared with two important men in his life: his birth father and his stepfather.

Nixon's birth father - also a firefighter - died when Nixon was 5. A couple years later, Nixon's mother married chef Ed Adams, whom Jeff Nixon refers to as "Dad."

At the time, Nixon and his mother lived in a rough neighborhood in Rochester, N.Y.

"It was in the worst part of town ... and (Adams) got us out of there," said Nixon.

Nixon said he is proud of his stepfather's chosen profession. Adams was educated at the Le Cordon Blue in Paris and was an executive chef for Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon.

Adams, who now lives in Fort Mill, also once worked on the presidential yacht, the U.S.S. Sequoia.

Nixon was eager to follow in his stepfather's footsteps. "I wanted to be like my dad," said Nixon. "I started being interested in food to be closer to him."

Nixon started cooking when he was 10 and grew up working with his stepfather in the kitchen of his restaurant, pitching in when he wasn't at school.

They also cooked together at home, making huge spreads for special occasions, something they still do today.

"In our family growing up, my dad and I would cook for two days getting everything ready for a party for 40 that we had at our house, like on Thanksgiving or Christmas," said Nixon.

The two prepared the meals in a small kitchen. "He got in front of the stove and I got over on the kitchen table, and we went to town," said Nixon.

The parties usually included a variety of dishes, including "clams casino, filet mignon, turkey, dressings, crudités, vegetable dishes, soups, dips, desserts, five different cakes and three types of cookies," said Nixon.

After finishing high school, Nixon went to culinary school and graduated in 1989 from Paul Smith College in the Adirondacks, near Lake Placid, N.Y.

During school and after graduating, Nixon cooked in various restaurants, but he walked away from the culinary life to attend the New York police academy.

"I got so burned out after all the years of doing it: the hours ... not being able to go out with my friends because I had to work," said Nixon. "I was always working, like my dad and my stepdad did."

Since wandering off the food career path, Nixon has been a chef, a professional volleyball player, a policeman, a teacher and now a firefighter, a career he says he can't imagine leaving.

"My dad was a fireman, my uncles were fireman, my cousin's a fireman, all of my friends I knew in college and high school were firemen. They would tell me 'You need to be a fireman. You need to be a fireman,'" said Nixon. His response: 'No. No. I'm doing my own thing.' ... and ended up 20 years later, I'm a fireman," he said.

He may be a full-time firefighter now, but Nixon still enjoys cooking. His young sons, Cooper, 3, and Jake, 6, continue the family tradition, pulling up their chairs to the counter to help dad cook.

"They did it on their own. They said 'I want to help,'" Nixon said of the boys' involvement. Jake started when he was 2. "He's made a full pizza from scratch," said Nixon.

Cooper said he enjoys cooking eggs and pancakes with his dad.

For Jake, the best part of cooking is "putting the chocolate chips on the pancakes."

Nixon said he prefers cooking French and Italian dishes and does most of the cooking at the home he shares with wife, Ali, but said Ali makes the "best matzo-ball soup I've ever had."

Nixon said he enjoys the bond that sharing meals creates: "Food, family, and friends are always together."

"People come over for Tuesday-night tacos; they come for my pancakes and my waffles, and my banana bread, my chili. They come for it and they specifically want that. ... When they think of me, they think of my chili or something like that and I get gratification from that.

"To me that's the best part: I get that I've done something special for somebody else."