Amanda Ray has worked in some of the swankest restaurants in the city. After graduating from George Brown’s culinary programme she worked at Auberge du Pommier before taking on the role as a sous chef at Canoe. Following, Amanda was able to live her dream by studying rustic Provencal cuisine in France. Now she’s the chef de cuisine at Biff’s Bistro, another Oliver & Bonacini establishment and a longstanding favourite amongst Bay Street brokers and discerning foodies alike.
We caught up with the busy chef to talk about her hectic schedule, passion for cooking, and leadership role in the male-dominated food industry.
SDTC: What was your first job out of school/How did you go about actually working in the industry?
Amanda Ray: My first job out of school was at an Italian restaurant called Joia in my home town of Aurora, Ontario. I had done a culinary externship while I was at George Brown and they offered me a position afterwards. I worked in garde manger and pastry.
What are the three skills you require most to do your job well?
Creativity, patience & hard work, sharp knives.
Did you have any mentors along the way?
I’ve had a few mentors but my main mentor over the years with Oliver & Bonacini has been O&B’s corporate executive chef Anthony Walsh, formerly the head chef of Canoe.
What do you love most about your career?
There are so many things; the creativity of creating a menu and the energy of the restaurant is first. I love cooking for people, and making people happy with food is my passion. I really enjoy teaching my cooks and growing as a chef. I love to travel and try to do a few culinary trips every year to embrace a new country, cuisine and culture. This past August I went to Vietnam for three weeks, and some of that adventure influenced a special seasonal menu we did at Biff’s in fall 2013.
What does your typical Thursday look like, from waking up to going to bed?
There is no “typical” Thursday for me…depends on if I open the restaurant or come on mid-shift. If I’m in mid-shift, I usually will be there for both parts of service lunch & dinner at the restaurant.
8am — Wake up, check work emails, orders, and closing notes. Make a protein smoothie to take with me so I get some sort of protein and fruit & veg to start my day off right.
8:40am — Head to Moksha Yoga (if I have enough time before work, depending on if I closed the night before in which case snooze through my alarm), coffee after!
11am — Leave for work.
11:30am — Arrive at Biff’s Bistro: follow up on any emails in office before starting my day in the kitchen. Check with the Front of House Manager, look at the lunch reservations & check the private dining events for the day. Check in with my opening sous chef on what’s what, then station checks.
Noon — Start of lunch service and deepending on the day I will either help work lunch service, expedite or work the private dining function.
2:30pm — Check on dinner numbers, check in with my closing sous chef. Then work with my sous chefs & cooks to prepare for dinner service: this usually entails some butchery, prep, and setting specials up for the evening.
4:30pm — Staff meal & dinner briefing: lead the front of house staff in evening briefing, going through specials, and any particular notable or VIP guests that we may be expecting for dinner service.
5-9pm (depending on the day!) — Dinner service begins! We have a “Buck-a-Shuck” oyster promotion at Biff’s (only $1 per oyster!) everyday starting at 5pm, and that keeps us busy. So I usually start dinner service by shucking a few oysters, expediting the pass, and helping on various stations during service until service slows down.
9:00 pm — Office time: emails, daily invoicing & food cost, do my weekly bread order, maybe have a light dinner.
10:30pm — Homeward bound and time to unwind! I like to read or catch up on some TV.
Midnight — Bed. Finally.
What have been some of the most difficult challenges you’ve had to overcome to get to where you are?
Working long hours, nights, weekends and holidays, when most of your family and friends are enjoying life. You definitely have to love the industry because you make many sacrifices to get to a head chef position. Often relationships and friendships suffer, but if you have good friends who understand your passion it helps. I have worked my whole career to get to this position and like any industry, you have to pay our dues. Also: blood, sweat, cuts & many burns!!!
What’s your most memorable meal ever?
That’s tough. I have a few that are memorable for different reasons. I think the omakase menu at Sushi Kaji was one of the best meals I ever had. It was a few years ago but it was also special because I was with three girlfriends who are all in the industry.
Do you have any warnings for people who want to get into the industry?
Make sure you absolutely love every minute of it, and if you can’t handle the heat get out of the kitchen (literally and figuratively)!
You’re cooking dinner for someone you admire. Who is it and what’s on the menu?
Hmm…I’ve always thought of (famed French chef) Anne-Sophie Pic as someone who is a female culinary icon who I’ve admired and have been inspired by. That or (renowned British chef) April Bloomfield. I’m always incredibly impressed by tough strong woman in kitchens who can roll with the boys. If I could make them anything I’d probably start with an appetizer: esplette & black sesame crusted Albacore tuna with Jerusalem artichoke, black garlic, crispy shallots & maple shallot gastrique. I’d follow this with a main dish of orange-glazed duck breast, with ginger spaetzle, confit hearts and legs with chili jam and red wine jus.
What’s coming up for you in 2014 that you’re excited about?
There are a lot of things I’m excited for this year! I’d like to learn more about Vietnamese food and find a Vietnamese chef to mentor me. I’d also like to plan another Vietnamese food & cocktail dinner menu at Biff’s Bistro for the spring. I want to add another language to my repertoire; I have a base of Spanish and French but want to be completely fluent/bilingual in one. Finally, I definitely want to plan a trip to Spain for 2015.