Amanda Ray credits her successes to her positivity, hard work, and perhaps a bit of mania. The young chef worked up the ladder at every back-of-house station en route to her role as Chef de Cuisine at Biff’s Bistro, part of Oliver & Bonacini’s 11 fine dining locations in Ontario.
“I think all chefs are a bit mad and in some ways, crazy!” Ray says with a laugh. “I think I bring a good sense of that lunacy to the everyday. I mean, I’m a hard worker, and I want to inspire people. I want to make a difference. I don’t just want to cook. I want to get my team inspired about what we’re doing and not just come in and go through the motions every day. It’s not enough. You have to be thinking about how you can make it better and get people feeding off of your own passion.”
Ray’s initial stages of culinary curiosity began while watching James Barber, host of CBC’s Urban Peasant. While her mother returned to school to complete a university degree, Ray would rush home from school to see what Barber was doing and, along with her sister, use that knowledge to create dishes for the family.
With career trajectory clearly in focus, following high school Ray enrolled in the two-year culinary management program at George Brown College in 2001. From there, she started working in some Italian restaurants and catering operations in York Region where she grew up.
“At the time, I had a good friend who was a hostess at Auberge du Pommier,” recalls Ray. “She said they were looking for cooks, and if I was interested, I should take a jump to the big city and get out of the ‘burbs. So I did just that. It was the first big fine dining restaurant that I’ve worked at. It was a hugely intimidating and nerve-wracking experience, but something that you need to do to start any kind of career.”
After a four-and-a-half-year stint at Auberge, Ray moved on to O&B’s Canoe location, spending five years working in different stations, eventually moving into a Junior Sous Chef role. Ray worked under Chef Tom Brodi, who was Chef de Cuisine under Anthony Walsh.
Proven in Provence
During that time, the company offered Ray a three-month internship in France, where she worked at Hotel Crillon le Brave in Provence.
“I was working with a French chef in an all-French kitchen. I had some basic French from high school and public school, but nothing that would get you in there and involved in what you need to know,” says Ray. “But with cooking, you don’t need to know the language all the time; it’s more somebody is showing you and teaching you by example. The first month was challenging, because most of the kitchen staff were men, and they were thinking: ‘Who is this girl? She doesn’t speak French; she doesn’t know anything!’ That was what it seemed like. But I worked hard and proved myself. I had an amazing three months.”
Ray moved into a full Sous Chef role shortly after returning to Toronto. Then in 2012, Walsh approached Ray with the opportunity to become Chef de Cuisine at Biff’s Bistro.
A tale of two cities
Biff’s Bistro defines itself as “1930’s Paris meets fresh London cool.” The atmosphere is casual-upscale, and the restaurant’s beautiful patio and nightly $1 oysters are a huge draw. Several times per year, Biff’s — influenced by Ray’s love of travel — reaches beyond its regular focus on French cuisine.
“We work through all the regions of France, and then we start moving into these different countries that have French influence,” says Ray. “Next week on Tuesday, we have a Morocco dinner, and that’s also a way for us to do new things and try something that’s just a bit outside of the French vein. Those are the sort of things that make Biff’s exciting. We want people to come in and enjoy the patio and see what else we’re doing because we’re more than just buck-a-shuck!”
Fosters personal growth
In both launching and developing her career at Oliver and Bonacini, Ray credits the company culture as a big part in why she has become a 13-year veteran.
“For me, one of the biggest draws was that Anthony Walsh has been my mentor for many years. He’s such a humble chef and leader. It was always a real inspiration, because there can be abrasive attitudes in this industry… and that doesn’t always work for everyone. I think the culture of O&B is one of the most amazing that I’ve seen because there’s so much development, and they really care about the path and the careers of people that work in the company.”
Ray cites O&B’s internal website, Buzz, as an excellent example of the company catering to its younger staff of digital natives. Training videos, cooking tips, wine lessons and food basics are available for front-of-house and back-of-house staff who can connect with their coworkers in a Facebook-like online environment where they can share interests and make comments.
Meets challenges head-on
Even with the company’s focus on HR, Ray maintains that staffing is one of the biggest challenges today. With the number of restaurants in Toronto, the positions to fill are many, and the ability to retain talent can suffer as a result. Ray also feels the younger generation coming from school have yet to grasp the hard work needed to thrive in the industry.
“I sometimes find cooks don’t come with the understanding of how hard it is, how many hours you work, the proverbial blood, the sweat and tears, burning yourself – all that kind of stuff. You have to really, really want it in order to succeed in this industry,” says Ray.
While continuing to grow her career at O&B is what Ray sees in her immediate future, she dreams of owning her own small restaurant some day. Despite her love of the kitchen, she’d love to break from the back-of-house backdrop and interact more with customers.
Fuelled by a bright, creative mindset, Ray truly enjoys the day-to-day.
“I love food. I love teaching my cooks. I love being able to come in and come up with new ideas and make it all work,” Ray says. “I like to feed people. I like to come up to the dining room and see people enjoying something that I’ve created. It’s something that keeps me ticking.”
About the author:
Steven Chester is the digital media manager at MediaEdge Communications. His 13-year journalism background includes writing and editing for digital and traditional media. He is an expert in social media, online content and email newsletter development.