(Originally published November 4, 2015 on Examiner.com).
With food television shows featuring children and sixteen year olds opening pop-up restaurants, today the decision to pursue a culinary career is being made earlier and earlier. Though for many the decision to pursue such a culinary career path wasn’t as obvious. Other career paths were explored first before ultimately, after great deliberation, the decision to become a chefwas made. But being a chef takes more than simply knowing how to cook. So often much of what’s learned down those other career paths provide insights as well as practical knowledge that otherwise wouldn’t have been obtained.
As a child, because both of his parents worked, Garcia spent a lot of time with his grandparents. He’d be dropped off early and picked up late by his parents at his grandparents. So aside from weekends, his grandparents’ house was where most of his childhood meals were consumed. He never visited the areas of Mexico that his grandparents were from, so he never recognized or knew what regions of Mexico his grandmother’s food came from. Her food was just food. Later when he got older, Garcia asked his grandmother what were the names of the items he liked. She didn’t have a name for any of these items. She didn’t know. She just knew what ingredients she liked to use to achieve the flavors she liked.
Garcia got his first job in a restaurant as a seventeen year old before starting college. He also worked in restaurants during his years at college. He always worked in the front of the house simply because servers made a lot more money and had more flexible schedules. At UCLA, Garcia pursued a legal career rather than a culinary one. Ray Garcia graduated from UCLA with a BA in political science and business economics. His education, and later internship detailed below, provided him with a very critical and analytical way of thinking, to research and to problem solve. These skills later would be useful in restaurants as a chef for interactions with guests and staff as well as analysis of sales and operations.
Garcia’s roommate his freshman year at UCLA was a sushi chef whose family owned a sushi and Japanese restaurant in Seal Beach. So in addition to being a pre-med student, his roommate was also a great cook. His roommate is the reason Garcia started learning more about food. His roommate didn’t end up going to medical school. Instead his roommate ended up taking over his parents’ restaurant.
Looking back Garcia noted, “My roommate had this incredible appreciation for food that in very few cultures other than Japanese do I see it where he was this nineteen year old kid. He had the CIA cook book and serious cook books, and I’d get home and I’d see bottles of wine, bottles of bourbon and cognac thinking there was going to be a party, and he was just making this French sauce for his duck he was making for himself for dinner while I was making spaghetti with a can of Ragu and a can of tuna thrown in there.” Later on Garcia realized that he loved to eat, cook, and make tamales together with his family, but none of those memories or actions drove his career path at that time. So to reiterate not until college, due to his roommate, did Garcia realize- plus see- how amazing, delicious and creative food could be. This exposure is what really peaked his interest.
After receiving his degree from UCLA, Garcia was still determined to go to law school. So his next step was a legal internship in Washington DC. During this four month internship everyone Garcia was in contact with was miserable, hated their job, and career choice. Those people also saw Ray as someone taking the next step down their paths and consequently encouraged him to strongly reconsider what he wanted to do. So Garcia decided to take a year off and re-evaluate his career decision before investing more time and money going further down this legal path. But since Garcia isn’t the type of person to take a year off and do nothing, he enrolled himself in a local culinary school.
So he took the year off and went to culinary school. But Garcia noted he’s very determined. Once he decides to go down a path, he continues down it. So even after going to culinary school. Garcia said to himself, “I’m not going to cook.” At this time around 2000-2001, Garcia was working in a restaurant in the front of the house. He just needed to get someone to sign off on his internship to complete culinary school. His boss at the restaurant said sure he’d sign off on it. But his boss also said to Garcia, why don’t you go actually work in a kitchen and get some experience. His boss had a friend who was a chef de cuisine at the time at the Belvedere at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. Garcia said okay he’s game. Once Garcia was in a kitchen and into that environment the energy and everything else about this environment just sucked him in and kept him there…pretty much ever since that fateful day.
Garcia’s path to becoming a chef wasn’t a linear one, but insights and skills he gained first by pursing a legal career helped him to become a better and more well-rounded chef later in his culinary career. That culinary career will be described in greater detail in the forthcoming parts two and three of Chef Garcia’s profile.
Now finally in a kitchen at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. Ray Garcia and the rest of the crew did all the food for everything from banquets to the restaurant to the roof restaurant to outside parties. The hotel was an incredibly intense and challenging environment. The restaurant’s kitchen was very traditional. Ray Garcia worked first for an older fifty something Irish chef who started his career in Europe and then worked in Japan before coming to the US. This chef was old school. His style and mentality was very harsh He did all this stuff that doesn’t happen as much anymore. This chef’s kitchen was a very strict, demanding and disciplined environment which was something Ray thrived in. Ray’s childhood, with his upbringing by his father and grandparents, was very strict so Ray understood strict rules.
While still working at the Peninsula. Ray would go work for another night or two in kitchens at other restaurants. Though ultimately he got to a point where he wanted to take a longer break to see what was out there in order to grow as a chef. So through connections from people at the hotel and friends, Ray was able to set up two longer stages in two other kitchens for longer periods of time. The first was at Chef Douglass Keane’s Cyrus in Healdsburg, California for two weeks, and the second was at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry in Yountville, California for a month. Though both of these stages were brief, both were eye opening and transformative for Ray, so much so that when Ray returned to the Peninsula Hotel, despite loving the guys he worked with, he knew it was time for him to move on with his career,
Chef Keane’s crew at Cyrus was small. Much smaller than the crew Ray was going to be part of shortly at The French Laundry. Chef Keane was literally cooking out of his house so the kitchen space also was small, thus there wasn’t any place to put more people. The kitchen also wasn’t fastidiously designed like Keller’s. Keane’s kitchen literally and figuratively had a lot of warmth. The food being cooked in Keane’s kitchen had heart and sincerity. There was a ton of technique being done at the Cyrus kitchen but again the kitchen just had a lot of heart. Whereas Thomas Keller’s kitchen was precisely designed. Keller is adamant about precision and accuracy, so his kitchen runs that way. Keller’s kitchen is precise though without being sterile. Cory Lee (now owner of three Michelin starred Benu) was the chef de cuisine at the time. Cory is a tough guy. Working with him was a great experience for Ray.
What Ray took away from Cyrus was the soul and integrity of the food. The food tasted really good and was amazing. But there weren’t a ton of rules to it plus there wasn’t any extra pomp or circumstance. Every dish was taken very seriously. Douglas Keane is a very serious chef. His team was very serious and committed. Ray loved this commitment. Now, these many years later, Ray tells his staff that he takes his food more seriously than he takes himself since none of the food is about his own ego or showing others what he can do. Ray stated, “My goal is not to seek how evenly pink I can get the entire thing or how evenly I can roll it in a crust or a crumb or how straight this line is with a ruler. I want it to taste good. If those steps of precision detract from it tasting good then I’m going to air on the side of making it taste good.” So for Ray, cooking is simply about making something that tastes great. This is something he took away from Cyrus where Chef Keane’s food was soulful, full of integrity and not something that was overly intellectual with a lot of unnecessary technique that took a lot thinking to eat.
After finishing his stage at Cyrus, Ray next went to The French Laundry. He was there in the early fall and thus remembered that the tomatoes and corn were still good. But Ray admits, “To be honest I really hadn’t thought of sustainability or seasonality before this. I really had never tried to be destructive to the environment. If someone told me one practice was better than the other, I’d research it and choose the better of the two. But it wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. For most chefs who were working in a city like Los Angeles or anywhere in this country, at that time, they’d get their produce by picking up a phone, sending a text or email and then, the next day, have a truck show up with pounds or cases or pallets of these ingredients. You didn’t really know from where. The box said California produce or something. But at The French Laundry they’d instead hand their farmer a list. This list was literally like eleven tomatoes, sixteen of these, fourteen of those, and a bunch of this. And the farmer would bring back exactly what was needed for the night’s service and it wasn’t something that was pallets of vegetables that sat in a refrigerator.” This still isn’t the reality for most chefs today because they don’t have the ability to walk outside snip fourteen tomatoes and bring them in for service and leave the rest on the vine. But the thought and the idea of the connection to the ingredient is something that has driven Ray since his time in Yountville.
At The French Laundry, Ray saw the power of a restaurant. So after finishing his stage there and returning to Los Angeles, his experiences made him want to create something like the French Laundry: Not French food or at the level that the French Laundry executes, but an environment where everybody comes through the door to work, has an extreme appreciation for food, and has an extreme appreciation for what they do as well as a respect for ingredients and products. Ray though realized and still realizes this doesn’t happen overnight. Chefs spend their entire careers trying to achieve these kind of work environments.
So after completing his stages, Ray knew it was time for to move on from the Peninsula. Next he was just going to take a break and decide which direction he wanted to go with his career in particular whether or not he wanted to proceed down that route of Michelin starred restaurants like a French Laundry. Most people who choose that route continue along that pathway for a while going across the country and often around the world cooking at different Michelin starred restaurants for years. Ray was considering this path when he got a call from someone he worked with before about a new project at a hotel in Santa Monica. Ray’s initial reaction was no f’ing way. He just came from a hotel and didn’t want to go to another hotel. Ray wanted to go to San Francisco or Napa or some other food city to really take his food in a different direction….or what he felt was a different direction.
But out of respect for the person who contacted him about this new hotel opportunity, Ray had a conversation over a cup of coffee about this other new hotel opportunity. Next thing Ray was at the Fairmount where he walked in and was completely underwhelmed. Ray had just worked at a 5 star 5 diamond hotel that was the top hotel in the country on many rankings. But Ray sat and talked with the asset managers for the hotel who were his former bosses. They went back and forth after three or four meetings and a little longer, then Ray said this is what I want to do. So Ray was again back in another hotel, the Fairmount in Santa Monica.