One morning in the summer of 2016, there was a minor car crash on a causeway west of New Orleans, in a little town called LaPlace, on the east bank of the Mississippi River. Among those who responded was Spencer Chauvin, a chief of the St. John the Baptist Parish Fire Department. It was a standard run for him. Cars crash. Chauvin and his firefighters parked their truck in the right lane of the highway and got to work helping the injured.
Then, suddenly, a speeding bus filled with day laborers barreled through the crash site. The bus clipped the fire truck and careered off to hit another vehicle, killing a passenger, and bounced across the road. The impact threw Chauvin from the highway into the swampy waters of a canal, 30 feet below. Two of his colleagues were injured. Chauvin was killed. He was 36.
Jeremy Chauvin is Spencer’s brother. He is 35 and, except for a brief stint in Mississippi, has worked since 2004 in the same department, as a firefighter stationed in Reserve, La., one town over from LaPlace. It wasn’t always this way, but on the job now, Jeremy says, he cooks a lot for his firehouse and for the firefighters in the parish’s other stations. He is shy and doesn’t like to talk about it much, but he says he cooks mostly to honor his brother. In cooking for others, he told me, he is carrying on for Spencer, helping out everywhere he can, as much as when he is at a fire or on some other call. “I just want people to remember his sacrifice,” he told me.
To do so more publicly, Jeremy recently entered the Chauvin family recipe for chili into a national cook-off run by Hormel Foods. It is not really a chili in the Texas sense of the word. There is a roux at its base and a lot of bayou flavoring above it — it’s more like a chili gumbo, a Louisiana take on the original red. In late August, it won the prize for America’s Best Firehouse Chili.
At his firehouse, Jeremy said, he makes his chili as his grandfather and mother did before him, with a few name-brand spice blends and sauces. But Hormel didn’t want anyone using name-brand ingredients, so he reverse-engineered the recipe to make it truly from scratch. There was one exception, he said. He uses V8 juice to cut the roux instead of straight tomato juice. (I didn’t do this, but it’s worth trying.) The victory brought home a $10,000 prize for his department, which Jeremy intends to stretch out over all the parish’s firehouses, perhaps buying each a new barbecue grill. “That’d be real nice,” he told me.