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Chef Raymond Southern

A worldwide traveler finds a home on Orcas Island

Outside of Vancouver, B.C., Raymond Southern's grandmother was a maid at a huge house. His father had a chain of stores in Saskatchewan which he expanded to Calgary. The family his grandmother worked for dwindled to one person. When he died, he left the house and 60 acres to her. Eventually, Raymond's dad sold his stores and the family moved into the house near Vancouver with his mother. He took over management of the farm. There were always animals around, including boarded racehorses, and lots of vegetables. "Food was a given," says Raymond. "Those were the days when women wore polyester pants. In the summer, my grandmother, mother, and aunts would cut off the legs and wear polyester shorts while sitting around a big table cleaning green beans or whatever my dad had in the garden. Everyone gravitated to the kitchen. I was always fascinated with the whole concept of dining."

Not Ray's first tomato rodeo

Raymond got his first restaurant job as a bus boy at the age of 14, telling them he was 16 to get the position. It was an exclusive restaurant just outside Vancouver, B.C. "We had to practice constantly. Each station had a captain, waiter, bus boy, maître 'd and assistant maître 'd. People smoked in restaurants then and there could never be more than two cigarette butts in an ashtray. We had to take an empty ashtray, put it over the top of the used one, flip them, and leave the clean one, all without being seen or heard. If someone heard a clink, there was big trouble. You also had to change tablecloths without exposing the table top. And we had to remove the oval bus trays with dirty dishes used by staff. Just in case a guest was in the restaurant, even when we weren't open, we had to hold the tray above our heads, balance it on our fingertips, and take it downstairs." Raymond was a bus boy throughout high school and was always the youngest. Consequently, he absorbed things from people older than him in the hotel/restaurant world. "I knew more about food than anything I studied in school," he laughs. "I also made great tips, so I always had money in my pocket which was fun."

Eventually, he told his mom that he was going to cooking school at the B.C. Institute of Technology, a trade school. "In Canada, it's different than the U.S. You go to a professional school and you start at the bottom. This industry is about paying your dues. That's valuable. Every day when I'm cooking, I remember a chef who taught me what I'm doing. I'm hard pressed to remember anyone from school. My real learning started with my apprenticeship."

He apprenticed at two Vancouver restaurants, both always in the top three best restaurants. One was the William Tell Restaurant, the other Le Belle Auberge. "The William Tell had moved to a new location and had a new kitchen with all the bells and whistles. It was a treat to work there. The owner and chef were Swiss, and it was an old-school, classic French restaurant. French was the only language spoken in the kitchen." Raymond already spoke French; his dad's family is Acadian. "The apprentice program is still very regimented, and the goal is to get your certification. You can apprentice to become a chef and also challenge other areas, like butcher and pastry chef, which I did. In your third year, you're eligible for a national competition. I won and was the top apprentice in Canada. At 19 or 20 years old, I wound up a commis after completing my apprenticeship. I was part of the Canadian team at various competitions. It could be a tough grind. When we were at the World Championships in Luxembourg, we went three days without sleep."

One of the benefits of the apprenticeship program is that you have someone watching your back. "I never applied for a chef job when I returned from competition," Raymond recalls. "My apprentice chef organized jobs for me; they would decide what was best for you. It's a close-knit community. Even executive chef positions were chosen for me. My last job in Canada was with Umberto Menghi, who had seven restaurants including Umberto's in Pioneer Square. He could be tough on people, but I learned so much from him. He stopped cooking as the number of his restaurants grew, but if he didn't like what you were doing, he'd argue with you. He would watch me work through each stage of a recipe. I credit him for keeping my passion for cooking going. I worked at his Al Porto in Gastown for four years when I was in my mid-20s."

Raymond with Umberto

Al Porto was on the waterfront overlooking the harbor where the cruise ships docked. Raymond would look at the ships and wonder what was happening in the kitchen. One of the restaurant's vegetable suppliers also supplied the ships. He arranged a tour of a ship for Raymond, who spent the whole day on board seeing the operation and meeting the chef. "I was hooked." Within three months, he was a chef with Holland America. "Being on a ship is brutally hard at first. It's a very lonely experience. I hated every minute of my first contract; it was a completely different lifestyle. A lot of chefs lose touch with cooking because, on the largest ships, you have a 180-person staff. There's a lot to do. After my first contract, I grew to love it. Each port offered so much to learn about local food culture. As a chef, you could use the corporate menu, or you could make things up. That was fun. You had an agent who could take you places, so I would ask to see the best markets and meet the best chefs in town."

Connie Adams/November 2019

Watch for part 2 of Raymond's story next month.

Kingfish at West Sound
4362 Crow Valley Road
Eastsound, WA 98245

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