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Culinary arts are the way to our hearts

Barry Smith

It isn’t very often I get picked up by a limousine and taken to a secret destination. In fact, before this week, it had never happened.

I had an inkling what it was going to be about, as the invitation came from the Carson City Chamber of Commerce and was delivered, along with a personalized cake, by a couple of high school students.

On Tuesday afternoon, Publisher John DiMambro and I were picked up at the Appeal by Ronni Hannaman and the limo driver. Pete Livermore was already inside. Then we gathered up Kenny Furlong, Shelly Aldean, Bob Crowell, Mary Pierczynski and Ray Masayko.

By that time, it was pretty cozy inside. We agreed that if we got pulled over, we would let Furlong do the talking.

The limo deposited us at Carson High School, where we were led upstairs to what used to be the home economics room. But it hasn’t been home economics in quite awhile. It’s called Culinary Arts, and teacher Penny Reynolds and her students have transformed it into a cafe and teaching kitchen unlike any other in Nevada.

The students had prepared a sumptuous feast for us and leaders of the Chamber of Commerce. Appetizers, soup, salad, main course, dessert.

Don’t ask me what everything was, because other than the Thai steak I’d probably get it wrong. I know my way around a kitchen about as well as a nuclear reactor. And I’d probably be more dangerous in a kitchen.

I’m also no gourmet. I watch the Food Network only accidentally when I think I’ve tuned into a commercial. But my taste buds know what I like, and the food prepared by the Culinary Arts students was scintillating.

As good as the food was, though, the story behind it is even better. I hope you already know something about the Culinary Arts program at Carson High, because it’s a big success.

How big? Last month, when the Nevada Hospitality Foundation held its annual dinner to fete last year’s scholarship winners and raise money for this year’s scholarships, 38 of the 39 students to win recognition were from Carson High School.

It’s a model of vocational training, and just the kind of course people say high schools should be offering. Those people aren’t very familiar with Carson High, or Western Nevada Community College for that matter, because there is a wealth of practical education being taught at both places.

They don’t just learn at school, either. Reynolds has 63 students working in the community. They need to put in 400 hours to earn national certification. They also become proficient in health standards, the kind of stuff we don’t often think about when we go out to eat.

Reynolds, by the way, was named the outstanding Nevada educator back in 2000 by the College of Education at the University of Nevada, Reno. She’s a high-speed blender of enthusiasm, and the students can’t help but get caught up in the mix.

“I love it,” she told the chamber bunch after dinner. “We play every day.”

It’s some serious play, though. When I called her later at school to get some details, I could hear the banging and clanging in the background typical of a busy restaurant kitchen. (I’m pretty sure I could even hear a refrigerator door open, something to which my ears are particularly well tuned.)

“Excuse me,” she said in mid-conversation. “Hey, guys! Your tables are not clean. Get them cleared off!” Then it was back to talking to me.

Carson High grads of the culinary program are enrolled in colleges and institutes all over the country – 39 in all – including the hotel-industry program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, the Culinary Institute of America, art institutes and Johnson & Wales University, which calls itself America’s career university. That’s the one Appeal features editor Kelli Du Fresne’s daughter, Josi, wants to attend. Josi was one of the students serving us Tuesday evening.

The alumni are not all in school, of course. They have jobs, too. Reynolds mentioned to me that she heard from one of her former students, Jedd Adair, the other day. He called to say he got a job at Rocco’s in New York City.

Reynolds also pointed out that, other than her teaching salary and the Internet wiring that brings Wolfgang Puck into their kitchen every day, the program was built with $240,000 in grants and donations.

I’d say that’s the topping on the dessert.

If you have a large luncheon group interested in eating at the cafe inside Carson High, call Reynolds at 283-1773 (after 2 p.m., she says) or e-mail her at preynolds@carson.k12.nv.us.

Oh, what about the Chamber of Commerce? There’s no such thing as a free dinner, Executive Director Larry Osborne pointed out. They took us out to soften us up, then asked if we’d help lead the chamber’s annual membership drive. How could we resist?

Barry Smith is editor of the Nevada Appeal. He may be reached at editor@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1221.