A celebration of life memorial service will take place April 7 for Otto Helfenstein, who died April 2, 2004, at St. Mary’s Hospital in Reno, Nev., following a short illness. He was 62.
Otto was born Sept. 23, 1941, at Lucerne, Switzerland, to Alfred and Anna Helfenstein, the youngest of nine children. A chef’s apprentice at the age of 16, he graduated from a professional cooks apprentice program at Hotel Flora and from Hotel School Montana, both in Lucerne, Switzerland, in 1960. In the mid-1960s his first job in the United States was at the Rice Hotel in Houston, Texas. With eight years of culinary experience, he considered himself lucky to work under Chef Charles Finance, who had been named National Chef of the Year in 1966. With the help of Finance’s recommendations, Otto, at 28 years of age, landed the executive chef position at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco, Calif., where he stayed for six years. In 1973 he became the executive chef at the Horizon Casino Resort, which was then the High Sierra Hotel.
Otto enjoyed many culinary achievements and received many commendations from hotels in Europe and the United States. Among them were the American Culinary Federation Chef of the Year in 1985 and 1997, as well as the Careme Medal for Outstanding Achievement by the Chefs Association of the Pacific Coast. Among his talents was ice carving and in 1985 one of his sculptures won best of show at the High Sierra Culinary Arts Show. He always said that just being a good chef wasn’t enough. It was also his job to guide, teach and motivate. He felt that one of the most rewarding parts of his job had been to give back the knowledge he had acquired over the years.
Otto and his wife, Hedi, resided at Zephyr Cove for nearly 30 years before moving to Minden, Nev., in 2000. The Helfensteins moved to Lake Tahoe because the snow and mountains reminded him of Switzerland. Otto had taken a position at the Carson Valley Inn just two weeks before he became ill.
Otto enjoyed soaring, the mountains, being outside, hiking and anything nature-oriented. He was a kind and gentle person who seemed to touch people’s hearts wherever he was with his quiet manner. He was blessed with an amazing talent, and each memory seems to be enveloped by food. Cooking was his way of giving his love to everyone.
He is survived by his wife of 34 years, Hedi Helfenstein of Minden; son, Andy Helfenstein of Dallas, Texas; daughter, Sonja Helfenstein of Minden; and siblings, Fredy Helfenstein, Walter Helfenstein, Theres Meier, Margaret Bucher, Barbara Huber and Franz Helfenstein, all of Switzerland. He was predeceased by his parents; sister, Annie Wigger; and brother, Robert Helfenstein.
A celebration of life memorial service will begin at 3 p.m. April 7 at St. Gall’s Catholic Church, 1343 Centerville Lane, Gardnerville, Nev. A special service for Otto’s extended family in Europe will take place also on April 7 at Rothenburg, Switzerland.
Donations in Otto’s memory may be made to the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association or to a charity of choice.