cooks at home

SIERRA CHEF

Carson Valley culinary innovator wears many hats.

WRITTEN BY SUSAN DITZ
PHOTOS BY CANDICE NYANDO

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Blend an entrepreneurial spirit with a deep love of good food and you have Cynthia Ferris-Bennett, one of the busiest small-business owners in the Carson Valley.

The founder of Sierra Chef, her cooking school in Gardnerville, Ferris-Bennett wears many hats, depending on the season: She’s also a corporate event planner, a wedding coordinator, a culinary product creator, a writer, a marketing consultant, a photographer, a graphic designer, a farmers’ market manager, and a community volunteer. Creative, organized, and detail oriented (aided by a small team of assistants, including guest chefs), she thrives on orchestrating all these activities, calling them her “retirement plan,” after working for years with her husband, Mike, in a successful technology product research and development company.

Innovation may be a family trait. Her ancestor, George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., designed the Ferris wheel after observing the water wheel at Cradlebaugh Bridge on the Carson River. His father, George Sr., was the horticulturist who settled in Carson City and first landscaped the capitol grounds in the 1870s.

That character and Ferris-Bennett’s love and talent for cooking have been key drivers, and the seeds for both were planted early. Growing up in Las Vegas, Ferris-Bennett learned to cook from her grandmother and acquired culinary skills from classes offered by chefs in the numerous surrounding luxury hotels.

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Falling in love

With picturesque Carson Valley possessing much appeal as a wedding venue, Ferris-Bennett — who moved here in 2014 as an experienced event manager (after a stint living at Lake Tahoe) — saw a need for a bridal expo to help people plan weddings in the area. Her brainchild became the Fall In Love Festival Bridal Show, which happens every February and October in Carson Valley. By carefully curating a lineup of more than 40 vendors (there’s now a waiting list) and presenting a range of engaging activities in a personalized boutique atmosphere, the showcase draws visitors from around Nevada and California.

Connecting people to good local food was the vision Ferris-Bennett had when launching the Farm to Fork Farmers’ Market, which runs Wednesdays in May through September in Gardnerville’s Lampe Park. It’s a popular visitor destination featuring farmers, food trucks, entertainment, and cooking demonstrations from local vendors.

Throughout her varied 25-year career, Ferris-Bennett has honed her cooking expertise, becoming especially passionate about Italian cuisine.

“My husband’s mom is Sicilian,” she explains. “She says I cook pretty well for an Irish/English girl, and I’m the only one allowed to cook in her kitchen.”

Ferris-Bennett’s personal motto, “Expressing the language of life through food, home, and garden,” informs her daily activities, and she relishes every aspect, even the challenges. She’s the kind of cook who gets home after a long, hectic day and relaxes in her small kitchen by whipping up a healthy, attractive meal using just what’s on hand.

“My husband is pretty thrilled that I really love to cook,” she says.

Her secret weapons are a well-stocked pantry and freezer, she adds. Nuggets of wisdom such as this are shared frequently at Sierra Chef, the cooking school for adults and children that she launched in the hope of inspiring others to discover the joy of cooking. Teaching brings her great pleasure, especially with the many children’s cooking classes she offers each month. The classes provide experiential learning where children gain important skills such as making gifts, creating healthy snacks, practicing etiquette, and exploring the different uses for a key ingredient.

“Watching children realize their culinary potential and gain a sense of confidence is really rewarding,” she says. “And nobody ever goes home hungry!”

Susan Ditz is a freelance writer from Minden who is a lifelong learner and always intrigued by the opportunity to expand her own culinary capabilities. 

Resources

Sierra Chef Culinary Center

1516 Hwy. 395, Ste. D, Gardnerville • 775-671-2164 • Sierrachef.com

Farm to Fork Farmers’ Market

Every Wednesday, May – September, 9 a.m. – 1 p.m., Gardnerville’s Lampe Park

Recipes

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Braciole (pronounced bra-zhul)

(courtesy of Cynthia Ferris-Bennett, owner, Sierra Chef Culinary Center in Gardnerville. Serves 6)

Meat and filling

6 slices deli roast beef, about ¼ inch thick each

4 to 6 garlic cloves, minced

¾ cup fresh basil, chopped chiffonade style

1 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated

6 to 8 slices smoked mozzarella

6 slices prosciutto

¼ cup toasted pine nuts

Freshly ground pepper

Extra-virgin olive oil

Toothpicks

Sauce

2 pounds crushed Italian plum tomatoes

¼ cup basil, roughly chopped

½ teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon ground allspice

6 cloves garlic, smashed

Salt and pepper, to taste

Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, to taste

Lay out all roast beef slices, assembly line style. Sprinkle top of each with garlic, basil, cheeses, and pine nuts. Top each with slice of prosciutto. Roll up each one, jellyroll style, and secure with toothpick to keep closed.

Heat olive oil in large, heavy skillet and brown meat rolls thoroughly on all sides. Add crushed tomatoes and seasonings to browned braciole. Cover skillet and simmer on medium-low heat for at least 2 hours or until beef is fork tender. Serve with your favorite pasta — Ferris-Bennett recommends pappardelle — then top with Parmigiano-Reggiano. Mangia!

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