Incline Village resident and California native Michael Sheldon joined the U.S. Navy at 17 years old as a way to help pay for college in San Francisco.
His GI Bill covered most of his education. However, when he needed extra money for tuition he entered the service industry initially as a server, eventually moving to the back of the house working nights as a cook.
Cooking, he said, has always been a passion of his. It appeals to him.
“It just caught my attention,” Sheldon said. “I liked pairing food with wine and it just kind of worked that way. I mean it helped me pay my way through college.”
Sheldon earned his degree in finance and became a mortgage broker after graduating from college. Cooking remained a hobby of his, though, and even helped him through the downturn in the economy in 2008.
Sheldon went on to use his love of cooking, along with his professional background in finance, to help back several restaurants.
It was something he always came back to and he often found himself cooking at dinner parties with friends in San Francisco and then in Incline Village when he moved to North Lake Tahoe.
A neighbor recently encouraged Sheldon to participate in the eighth annual Sierra Chef Challenge as part of the upcoming Sample the Sierra event on Saturday, Sept. 14. He signed up.
“I was like ‘I’ll try it,’” he said. “I’ll do it.”
The cooking competition requires participating chefs to prepare two dishes within 45 minutes.
The chefs will be given a mystery basket of locally grown ingredients as part of the contest, only a few of which they know beforehand.
The dishes will be judged on creativity, presentation, taste and use of ingredients.
Sheldon will be competing alongside professional chefs: Michael Lynard of Cold Water Brewery & Grill; Lonny Huot, Edgewood Tahoe; Gunbarrel Tavern & Eatery’s Andrew Anderson; and Dean Hiatt of Poor Red’s BBQ.
Sheldon is the only competitor who does not cook professionally.
According to Emily Abernathy, director of operations for the Tahoe Chamber, it is the first time an amateur chef has been allowed to participate even though the challenge has featured catering and executive chefs.
“It takes a certain type of chef to want to do this,” Abernathy said. “We usually don’t have too many people who want to do it.”
While Sheldon’s amateur status makes him a standout amongst the other competitors, his brief appearance on Gordon Ramsay’s “MasterChef” cooking show earned him a spot. Sheldon appeared on the show while living in San Francisco.
He admits his time on the show was brief, adding “I think there is a certain type of person they are looking for on those shows and I didn’t have that flamboyancy as some of the others.” He didn’t make it past the first day.
“It was interesting,” Sheldon said. “They don’t tell you a lot about what you are going to get into and you have to bring a dish to the event, not cook it there. I ended up cooking mine out of the back of my car. I was not prepared for what I was getting into.”
Sheldon joked that he would be willing to try out again for another one of Ramsay’s cooking shows, especially if it were to be held in Lake Tahoe. Ramsay recently announced he would be opening a Hell’s Kitchen Restaurant in the former Sage Room in Harvey’s Lake Tahoe later this year.
When asked about his cooking style, Sheldon said he “doesn’t really have a specialty.” But, he did reveal that he has an affinity for cooking scallops.
“For me, it just all comes down to what is local and what’s fresh,” he said. “Funny enough, that is what this competition next week is all about.”
The Sierra Chef Challenge is a highlight of the Sample the Sierra event, Abernathy said. She said it is scheduled to start at 2 p.m. The winner will be announced at 3 p.m. The winner of the Sierra Chef Challenge will take home a handmade Sample the Sierra engraved chef knife from Town Cutler.
The Sample the Sierra event is described as a farm-to-table festival that will feature food from 20 restaurants paired alongside a wine, beer or spirit from the Sierra region. The restaurants worked closely with local farmers to purchase products that highlight local ingredients. Local artists will also be on hand selling photos, jewelry, candles and other handmade items.
Tickets can be purchased online prior to the event. Abernathy encouraged people to buy them now because the event will likely sell out. For information go to samplethesierra.com.
Sheldon said he’s looking forward to the competition and isn’t intimidated by the other competitors who make their living as chefs. He added, “I love the challenge.”
“I cook all the time here around town and have fun doing it,” he said. “It will be cool to compete with people who this is their profession and I will get a chance to show what I can do on that kind of stage.”