Everything about Ray Cooney is big, from his larger-than-life personality to his athletic physical presence. His ideas, his heart, and his ambition: all equally enormous. So it makes sense that his love for firehouse culture would endure long after his retirement and leak into every other aspect of his life.
Being a fireman is a job that facilitates camaraderie like no other. Firefighters take care of each other, they have one another’s backs; consequently they share a bond more akin to a brotherhood. Cooney experienced this on 9/11 as a first responder, and this special relationship was reinforced when he took a two-story fall off a ladder fighting a fire in Richmond Hill, Queens in 2003, a tumble that ultimately forced him to retire from the job he loved so dearly.
“I was the outside vent man,” Cooney, 41, tells the Press. “I was just trying to get the baby bars off the window, but I broke the window and I got a rush of heat in my face. It knocked me off the ladder.”
The son of a fireman who’s one of nine siblings (four of whom their father insisted take the FDNY test), landed on his feet before collapsing to the ground, suffering compression fractures all down his spine. Cooney needed multiple surgeries on his knees and ankles and eventually, a hip replacement.
“I was in the ICU for like four days. I was intubated. Every day the firemen would come in and make fun of me,” he laughs. “It was great.”
Cooney, a Bayport resident by way of Massapequa, endured a long recovery, during which time he indulged in lots of time in front of the television. It wasn’t long before his pent-up energy gave way to creative vision, and he began to write.
“Not only am I a huge movie and TV buff, I’m the worst person to ask about a movie because I’m like, ‘This is how they should have ended it!’” he says. “I always have my own ideas. With that, I started a little bit of writing.”
When his nephew John graduated film school at Rochester University, Cooney offered up his home.
“I said, ‘I’m gonna be in bed for a couple of months. Why don’t we do some writing together?’”
They ultimately created four full scripts, nine television show concepts, and 31 film ideas, including a show called Intox-A-Nation, which they filmed at Dublin Deck in Patchogue. The idea was to give bar patrons Breathalyzer tests then task them with simple household tasks (buttoning a shirt, walking a balance beam, fitting a key into a lock).
“It was funny, you know, these intoxicated people who couldn’t do it, but it also showed that you can’t drive,” Cooney says. “We got some momentum. One lawyer wanted to pitch it to Viacom.”
He turned it down. It didn’t fit with the family man he was—husband to Lori, who he started dating when he was 15 years old, and a father of three young children.
And then he found it. Through his brother Joe, a NYC fireman, he met Joe Bonanno, the author of The Firehouse Grilling Cookbook—loaded with 150 mouthwatering recipes Bonanno, as a firehouse cook, serves up for his crew.
Bonanno was looking to create a television show from the book, titled Firehouse Kitchen. They shot a full season of episodes for TV55 with Bonanno as the host, but although Georgi Vodka, a big supporter of firefighter causes, helped to finance the show, they failed to get enough sponsor support for a second season.
After parting ways amicably with Bonanno, Cooney teamed up with Ian Fidel, who he’d written with in the past, to develop a children’s cooking show. Fidel, an author who followed a similar path to writing—he’d been a mailman and was forced to retire early after being struck by a mail truck—originally contacted Cooney about adapting his novel, Breathing Space, into a screenplay.
Before long, the two were writing partners yet again, this time on a new and improved Firehouse Kitchen, sparked when the host of PBS’ Taste This, Joe Ciminera, contacted Cooney about bringing some firemen to the set for a firehouse-related show. They were short three firemen for the taping, Cooney recalls.
“So I go, ‘I can cook. What are we doing?’” he tells the Press, admitting he had limited cooking experience and planned to improvise. “I grabbed two actors. I gave them firefighter T-shirts and we go into the kitchen.”
The cameraman set about taping all of the cooks, who were taking their culinary exercises very seriously, talking about food. Then they reached Cooney, who was chopping random ingredients and talking customary fireman smack.
“I start talking to the other firemen,” he recalls. “I’m like, ‘Hey! Where you from, New Jersey? Do you even have fires in New Jersey?’ The cameras don’t come off me the whole time.”
PBS ate it up. They called Cooney to reinstate Firehouse Kitchen—with Cooney as the host. He purchased the rights from Bonanno and shot a full season with support from Resorts World Casino, Maxim Group, Bohlsen Restaurant Group, and Shaolin karate schools. In January, Cooney filmed in firehouses all over Long Island and NYC, cooking with the firemen, swapping stories and cracking jokes.
Firehouse Kitchen debuted this April on New York stations and goes national May 20.
“I truly enjoy making the show because I’m with the firemen,” Cooney sighs. “I feel like I’m still a part of the fire department.”
Though he volunteers with the Bayport Fire Department, his injuries prevent him from going into fires. Being a firefighter is a key part of who he is. It’s the reason he donates every dime he makes from Firehouse Kitchen to local burn centers and to the Islip Town Firefighters Museum, being built next to Bethpage Ballpark.
“The more popular we get, the more money we can raise for these charities,” says Cooney. “I want to make more Firehouse Kitchens so I can donate more to the burn centers.”
There’s little doubt Firehouse Kitchen will be a hit. Though he’s no longer a professional firefighter, Ray Cooney’s career is on fire—though it’s only as warm as his great big heart.