"I think there's a sort of malleable or moldable quality that people have when they don't go to culinary school—I just kept my eyes and ears open the whole time."
I first met pastry chef Alexandra Ray at a SHARE event benefiting ovarian cancer research. She looked right at home among the collection of celebrated female chefs cooking together for a good cause, all smiles and positive energy. Her sense of fun keeps coming across at subsequent meetings—maybe the secret to life is filling your days with fluffy lemon meringue pie in the comfort of a Danny Meyer restaurant.
Ray didn't go to culinary school, instead working her way up the ranks in pastry first in San Diego and then at a couple of stints in New York before working with Nancy Olson at Gramercy Tavern. To win over Executive Chef Floyd Cardoz upon opening North End Grill, she served what she knew, and that lemon meringue pie secured her the job. Now she continues to learn as she goes, absorbing new techniques and layering them into the American classics that are getting her much deserved attention, like being honored as one of Zagat's "30 Under 30."
You were on the path to law school when you walked away to work in pastry. Where did that motivation come from? I started cooking at this one restaurant in San Diego were I grew up, and then did the normal "Randall Ray family thing" and went to college. I really wanted to make a lot of money and go out into the world and travel and be an international corporate lawyer. And then I move to an island in Micronesia for about eight months to study for the LSATs and I kind of had an awakening out there, like, "what's fun in life? What's more important—making money or doing what you want to do and are passionate about?"
I don't think I could have been passionate about sitting at a desk and analyzing sentences. I always wanted to open a pastry shop when I was done being a lawyer, so I just went back to the same restaurant. It was one of the best choices that I've ever made.
Do you feel you had an advantage by not going to culinary school and just jumping in? I think there's a sort of malleable or moldable quality that people have when they don't go to culinary school—I just kept my eyes and ears open the whole time. I think I was at an advantage, because I knew I loved the actual job of being in the kitchen. I think some people love the idea of being a cook, but once they get into the kitchen, they realize how stressful and psychotic it can be.
Did fear play into the shift in careers? You don't make a lot of money being a pastry chef. It obviously factored in, because part of the reason I wanted to be a lawyer was for the money and prestige. But it didn't really hit me until I moved to New York where there are so many positions that everybody wants, so jobs can pay very little. Here I was like, "Oh my god! I have a dog and I have to feed her! I have to eat, somehow!" But it never affected my desire to keep cooking.
You worked at Danny Meyer's Gramercy Tavern before his North End Grill. What was the biggest takeaway? Wow, Gramercy was insanely wonderful. Gramercy is so much production—such a large amount of stuff. So you really figure out how to organize a staff and make the baking process efficient. Working through the ranks makes you better at the job when you work at that high volume of a place. It shows how intense pastry can be.
Was it a nurturing environment? Beyond nurturing. Nancy Olson is my dear friend, still. She is so Midwestern—she just loves to do the right thing and nurture people and push them up and not let them fall. I kept feeling, "I want to learn this and this and I haven't done this yet," and I think she really picked up on that.
Now onto your desserts at North End Grill. You seem particularly pumped by American classics. Yeah, Nancy gave me the advice, "Do what you know, and do it well." And I thought, "What do I know?" And it was these things—great desserts done with a few tricks from up my sleeve. Comfort food in general has never been a huge part of my life, but pastry chefs want to make people happy and feel good. I think when you have those classic desserts done amazingly well, you do that.
What most excites you about taking something like a lemon meringue pie and pushing it as far as you can? I don't like things insanely sweet, so I like to balance them out with something acidic or salty, and then make it all work when you taste it. And then the plate—how do you make it look beautiful and stunning? But the balance thing is a big deal for me.
In talking with pastry chefs I've noticed the somewhat dwindling pastry scene in restaurants with the continued rise of the specialty bake shop. How do you keep the orders coming in? A component of it is getting the staff really excited about it so that they love it. "Salt-Honey Bread Pudding" doesn't sound too amazing, but the staff love it, so they sell the crap outta it. It's also about accessibility on the menu—people go for chocolate, cheesecakes, etc., so I think you have to use these vehicles that are accessible to the customer, and then add a little jolt of energy into it and change it up.
Have you found that it's a hard sell for restaurants to invest in their own stellar pastry department? I feel like I'm seeing more of my colleagues opening new places, and doing a couple of things on the menu executed by the savory team. In a way it's cool, but in a way it's a throwaway: dessert is the celebration at the end of the meal and should be super-awesome. And when you don't have a pastry department, or even someone that specializes in dessert, I think you lose something.
But I like the idea of savory chefs trying pastry out, because it's hard and it's different than what they normally do. I haven't really noticed or been involved in the diminishing pastry department problem, but I can see in this economy why that's the first thing to go.
So should we expect more integration between savory and sweet in restaurants? I see the potential for that. I don't know, maybe our generation of pastry cooks has their close friends who are sous chefs on the savory side, and we teach each other techniques and play around. I think people are open to it.
About the author: Jacqueline Raposo has a heart full of love for Chef Ray for making her a gluten and dairy-free dessert on the day of this interview, because dessert is her favorite thing and she rarely gets to have it. She's baking away herself at www.thedustybaker.com and tweeting silly things at @dustybakergal.