Story by Caitlin Medearis
Photos by Debra Josephson
Chef Ray Sewell, adorned in tie-dye and sporting a long, bushy white beard, might appear to look like a 1960’s relic – a flame burning out. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Sewell, better known as Chez Ray, has fed some of the most famous rock musicians of the 21st century, including the Grateful Dead, Carlos Santana, Bob Dylan, Sting, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to name a few. He’s a classically trained French chef, and he’s always brought his love of the hippie culture into his food. Combining nostalgia and gourmet cooking, Chez Ray’s food has been in high demand by famous musicians and regular foodies alike since the ‘60s.
As a teenager in 1960s San Francisco, Chez Ray met and befriended members of the Grateful Dead. “I grew up getting to know them a bit,” he says, “and then ended up cooking for them, going on the road. Backstage, it was like God’s tour. The best of the best were there. Everyone was just the top of the line.” For Ray, being on the road with musicians was more than a chance to watch the performances and fill stomachs. “The thing about cooking for bands is that they spend more time on the road than at home, so in many ways, you’re home for them. So, I try and treat them that way. Some band members will want to eat before a show, some eat onstage during their break with lovely table sets and the whole thing, some eat at four in the morning when they feel like they can eat. So, in that world, you’re available whenever. You may finish with the bands at three or four in the morning and only get two hours of sleep, but it’s really fun. More fun than I can tell you, to be honest.”
Chez Ray says nothing he does can be simple; he has to get some sort of laugh out of it. “Life can be so incredibly boring that if you don’t do something to spark it up or make people have some kind of reaction [it isn’t worth it].” Chez Ray says.
Once, he was cooking a salmon feast for more than 500 people. He told the guests that the fish were swimming in the location’s hot tub, and that he needed to keep them alive until they were cooked in order to honor the host’s Norwegian heritage by preparing the poached salmon traditionally. “In her country, it would be from the hot springs, but in this case it was a hot tub, we told them.” He duped the guests into believing the salmon would begin to quickly swim clockwise and the water would get so hot that the fish would filet in place and swim right out of their own spines. “Of course that can’t happen, but we had all of these people convinced that [it would]. It was fantastic.”
The free-spirit lifestyle of the 1960s influences Chez Ray’s cooking, but also his way of doing business he says. “There was a lot of important stuff [in that era], and right now it’s real relevant, and it’s time to put it to work.”
Ray is beginning to produce a radio show, Chez Raydio, inspired by his 60s persona. “This show will be pretty much exactly whatever I want to do,” he says. “There [are] all kinds of suggestions, and I don’t spend much time listening to people, so I just go to whatever comes to me.” He’s also writing a book, working on a cooking show, and starting a new organic coffee brand inspired by rock bands. The book will have photos of Chez Ray cooking for Santana, James Brown, Bob Dylan. “With each one of those, there’s a backstory,” Ray says.
The cooking show, which will be called ‘Midnight Munchies’ is being produced by Gary Heines, the same man who produced the popular PBS children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
“I think it’s time for it,” Chez Ray explains, “[because] it’s sort of been on the block out there for some time, an idea stewing around.”
Chez Ray’s coffee will include roasts based on 60s personalities and musicians like the Grateful Dead and Wavy Gravy. “I designed tthe roast to mimic sort of how I see Wavy Gravy, this colorful, incredible human, a bright clown. So how do you create a coffee roast that tastes like that? I’m working with some of the best roasters in Portland, who spent about eight months going through these kinds of roasts and educating me, because I knew nothing about coffee.”
It may seem Chez Ray has a lot on his plate, but in the everlasting spirit of the 60s he’s taking it in stride. “I think you hope to spend your life doing as many adventures as you can possibly come up with, and if you’re not, then you’re an idiot. Because, you get to a certain point where you’re no longer able to do such things. But, I think if you don’t have the time or the courage to go have adventures, then, that’s what sad. It’s never too late, totally.”