Former September 11 responder Eddie McNamara shares how a national tragedy ultimately led him to life as a chef
Many chefs tell similar tales of how they came upon a culinary career: They grew up learning recipes in grandma’s kitchen. They spent their teen years toiling behind the stoves of neighborhood restaurants. But for Eddie McNamara, a former cop turned vegetarian chef, it was a national tragedy that ultimately led him to find his true calling.
Brooklyn native McNamara, 41, joined the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey police department in August 1999, following a brief stint in sales. “I thought if I became a cop, I would do something meaningful that I could look back on later in life,” he tells PEOPLE, “that I actually did something that mattered.”
When the World Trade Center was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, he more than lived up to those words. For the next nine months, McNamara worked on-site as part of the Rescue/Recovery team, spending 12-hour days digging through rubble in search of people’s relatives and loved ones. “In the beginning we believed it to be a rescue mission,” he says. “But after a certain time, it became a recovery [operation]. We were all sincerely working together, trying to do the best job we could.”
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Not surprisingly, the work took its toll on McNamara and he began suffering from panic attacks, the worst of which occurred on New Year’s Day 2005 while he was driving on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. “I felt like I was passing out, and I swerved three lanes,” he says. “That was frightening enough to say I need help.”
McNamara began seeing a therapist, assuming he’d be cured of PTSD and back to work in a matter of weeks. “If anything, it may have gotten worse,” he tells PEOPLE of his symptoms. “I started getting very agoraphobic. I stopped driving, I stopped taking the subway. I was sort of trapped in my apartment.”
In 2006, McNamara retired from the police force on disability and spent most of his days watching cooking shows and re-creating the dishes he saw on TV. “I think it was just to say, OK, I did something today,” he says. “I was not a police officer and I had nothing else. I was half afraid to do things and venture out into the world.” In an attempt to encourage him to get out of the apartment, McNamara’s wife, Meirav, signed him up for three cooking classes just a few blocks away at Manhattan’s Natural Gourmet Institute. “I liked it so much,” he says, “that I wanted to go for the chef’s training program.”
After completing culinary school, McNamara interned at chef Amanda Cohen’s popular N.Y.C. vegetarian restaurant Dirt Candy and began formulating ideas of how he could turn cooking into a career. “The opportunity came along to test recipes for InStyle and HGTV, and I was able to do that from home,” he says. “I was like, Wow, this is a cooking job, but I can do it from home? This is the PTSD dream!” McNamara also began developing his own healthy recipes, sharing them on a blog that quickly gained buzz and eventually inspired his new cookbook, Toss Your Own Salad.
“I’m not trying to convert anyone to become a vegetarian,” McNamara, who still occasionally eats meat, tells PEOPLE. “I just want the meatless parts of the meal to be better.”
He believes vegetables have gotten a bad rap because of the way our mothers prepared them. “My mom boiled everything, and if you were lucky, you got salt and butter,” he says. “I do a Parmesan-crusted broccoli and it’s almost like a fried chicken exterior. That’s not the steamed, stinky broccoli I remember. My whole thing is it just takes one extra step. Just make a spice blend, put a little olive oil on it, rub it in, roast it, and you have something delicious. That’s kind of a rule for any vegetable. If you do that, you’re gonna be good.”
So far, he says, the feedback for his book has been overwhelming and even somewhat surprising. “I’ve gotten a bunch of emails from men, who I never expected to read a vegetarian cookbook, saying, ‘I’ve been making your cauliflower rice and it’s great’ or ‘My wife introduced [one of the zucchini noodle meals] to our dinner,'” he says, “and they’re just like, ‘I’ve never had vegetables like this before!'”
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And what do McNamara’s former colleagues on the police force think of his incredible Act 2?
“A lot of the guys have been really supportive. They bought the book and have been cooking the food and sending me pictures,” he says. “I get a kick out of that. That’s really kind of fantastic!”