Governor’s Mansion executive chef departs
More than a few special recipes will go with Betty Nyswonger when she leaves her job as head chef at the Nevada Governor’s Mansion.
Today is her last day after more than 10 years of cooking everything from quiet evening meals for Gov. Kenny Guinn and his wife, Dema, to dinners for a dozen high-powered officials to state dinners requiring every volunteer and extra body she could conscript.
Nyswonger is leaving because her rheumatoid arthritis won’t let her do the job any more.
“The doctor won’t let me (lift) anything,” she said. “I’m limited to five pounds or lower. This year is the first time I didn’t cook a turkey for Thanksgiving since I was 9 years old.”
In addition, she said, reducing stress is a major factor in controlling her condition. And the executive chef’s post at the mansion can be stressful.
Her departure breaks up a team. Nyswonger and Helen Wiemer, who manages the mansion for the governor and first lady, were the only two permanent employees at the mansion when they were hired early in former-Gov. Bob Miller’s tenure.
“I say she’s my almost sister,” Nyswonger said. “The main thing about this place was the pride. We put our best foot forward for the mansion.”
“It was dedication,” said Wiemer. “If you’re going to work for somebody, give it your all. Well, she’s given it her all.
“I’m so sad she’s going.”
“The hardest part has been letting go,” Nyswonger said. “There are so many people, you can’t possibly sit down and say goodbye to them all.”
Among her favorite parts of the job are when young schoolchildren tour the mansion.
“They call me ‘the cookie lady,'” she said. “When they tour, a big part is getting that chocolate chip cookie.”
But schoolkids weren’t her only fans.
On the wall in the kitchen, written earlier this year, is a note : “To Betty: You’re the best.” It’s signed by Joe Montana, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, who had just finished a handful of her cookies while waiting to speak to a crowd at a University of Nevada, Reno, fund-raiser.
“He asked for the recipe, but didn’t get it,” Nyswonger said.
And she once turned down a request for a dessert recipe from Bon AppZtit magazine.
She said she’ll miss the annual youth art show and the Tin Cup Tea and Barbecue fund-raiser for the museums.
“And Miss Senior Nevada,” she said. “Those are just incredible women.”
Born and raised in Kentucky, Nyswonger’s cooking career began with Holiday Inns Corp. Before she took the mansion job, she ran a catering business in Reno.
“It was high-end catering,” she said. The clients included people such as Sen. Bill Raggio and Supreme Court Justice Bob Rose.
Those connections certainly didn’t hurt when she applied for the position as executive chef at the mansion.
She said Guinn has been “wonderful” to her. She also has fond memories of his predecessor.
“All the Miller family are special people,” she said. But she admitted Miller’s daughter, Megan, is probably her favorite because she was just a toddler when Nyswonger started at the mansion.
“She was just learning to read, and she’d sit on the island in the kitchen and read to me,” she said.
The Guinns’ children were grown when he was elected, but Nyswonger says she enjoys their grandchildren.
“Helen and I are a great grandmother team. She’s the storyteller, and I’m the feeder,” she said.
The menu at the mansion runs the gamut from simple home cooking to over-the-top desserts. One of Gov. Guinn’s favorite meals, she said, is meatloaf. But many of the meals served are much more elaborate.
“I have no idea what’s my favorite thing to cook,” she said. “I love the diversity.”
Dema Guinn chooses the menu for most occasions, whether it’s dinner for two or a major event.
But to make sure she doesn’t serve someone the same thing every time they are invited to the mansion, Nyswonger keeps records of what was served to every group.
“They’ve never been served the same thing twice,” she said.
Her problems with arthritis have worsened for two years. After she dropped a pot roast, splashing herself with scalding liquid, her doctors said it was time to stop.
“It’s just getting too difficult,” she said.
Her doctors are planning to put her on new medication, which should greatly improve her ability to use her hands and to walk without pain.
That, she says, could let her get back to her hobby — making dolls.
“I’m very good at it — or was. But I’m having a time with it now.”
“I have to get better,” she said. “Then hopefully I can get back to it.”