Passing the Toque

Passing the Toque



Meet chefs who guide the next generation of cooking experts.


Chef Michelle Palmer met chef Richard LaCounte when he was a struggling 14-year-old in the culinary arts program at Glen Hare Occupational Center in Reno (now the Academy of Arts, Careers and Technology high school. See related story in this issue).

“The teacher called and said, ‘I have a kid with talent, but he’s walking the fence,’” says Palmer, who now owns Absolutely Michelle’s catering in Reno. “I met with Richard and told him I’d be his mentor, but he had to decide which way he wanted to go.”

Fifteen years later, LaCounte is an award-winning chef at Rapscallion Seafood House and Bar in Reno. He still calls Palmer “Mom.”

Chefs in the Reno-Tahoe area have mentored hundreds of kids through school programs, in their restaurants, and during special events. All of those whom we spoke to agree it’s time well spent.

“You’ve got this body of knowledge gained over 50 years,” says retired chef Joe Eidem. “Then you retire, and suddenly it’s over. But it doesn’t have to be — that’s where mentoring comes in. I love sharing my passion.”

Chef Clint Jolly, of Great Thyme Catering and Butcher Boy in Reno, feels the same way. He volunteers weekly at Carson High School’s culinary arts program, and when it’s time to hit the road for competitions, he’s packed and ready to go. The students recently won their 11th Nevada State ProStart culinary arts competition.

“I want to give kids the same opportunities I had,” Jolly says. “It’s awesome to watch their growth personally and professionally.”

Becoming a mentor

Mentoring doesn’t require a standing commitment or regular classroom visits.

“Last year, I had five students working as sous chefs during Reno Bites,” says Carson High culinary teacher Penny Reynolds. “It’s a wonderful experience when chefs invite kids into their kitchens or have them help at fundraisers.”

Chef Mark Estee, of Campo, Burger Me, Heritage, and chez louie, opened his Reno Provisions business to Hug High School culinary arts students for a pop-up restaurant, an annual fundraiser for nonprofit Future Kind. Local chefs Chase Daley (of The Fig in Reno) and Ian Madan (of SouthCreek Pizza in Reno) worked with students to prepare for the event.

“It’s a step toward putting our students on a career path,” says Wayne Tuma, who leads Hug High’s culinary program. “It was a huge compliment when chef Estee said he was impressed with them.”

Demonstration classes are another option. Douglas High School culinary arts teacher Kerry Stack and Lake Tahoe Community College culinary arts instructor Stephen Fernald appreciate when chefs share specialty food techniques, such as sushi making.

If chefs are interested in volunteering, they should contact teachers directly. There’s no shortage of opportunities — almost every Northern Nevada and Lake Tahoe school district has a culinary arts program. School websites provide faculty contact information.

The High Sierra Chefs Association also has a Chefs Move to Schools program, designed to form partnerships between chefs and schools.

As for future chefs, the experts agree the best place to start is a culinary arts program in high school or community college.

“That’s where you get real-life experience before heading to work in a kitchen,” Palmer says.

“You’ll learn the fundamentals of cooking, and things you never thought about such as sanitation,” Eidem says. “You’ll develop teamwork skills and a good work ethic. These are all things you’ll need in the real world.”

Fernald encourages interested students to pursue culinary careers.

“There’s always work in the industry,” Fernald says. “It makes for a great career.”

Freelance writer Sue Edmondson has written for various publications in Nevada and California. Until recently, she wasn’t aware that the two most important words in the kitchen are, “Yes, chef.”


High Sierra Chefs Association: For details about mentoring, visit

Clint Jolly offers to connect chefs with students and vice versa. Call 775-453-0847 or email

The Nevada Career and Technical Education website lists all high-school culinary programs:

North Tahoe High School culinary program:

South Tahoe High School culinary program:

For details about culinary programs for older or nontraditional students:

Truckee Meadows Community College:

Lake Tahoe Community College:

Sierra Nevada Job Corps:



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Stay updated with our Newsletter

Discover new products, thriving traditions, or exciting food events, festivals, restaurants, and markets – all of the things that are helping to make us a true culinary destination.