For music, booze and food, Chez Ray serves it all up in downtown Eugene.
An Interview with Chez Ray
Eugene has attracted many interested and talented people over the years. This is partly due to Oregon’s relaxed atmosphere, as well as Eugene’s proximity to San Francisco, especially the counter-culture revolution that occurred there in the 60s.
One of the local celebrities who has made a name for himself is Ray Sewel, aka Chez Ray. Ray, the former road chef for the Grateful Dead (and who has known The Dead since 1965, when they were The Warlocks ). Now Ray is the owner of Chez Ray’s North Beach at 10th Avenue and Willamette Street in downtown Eugene. This alternative place serves microbrew beer and a range of good food that Ray designed himself.
I stopped by, and Ray was kind enough to grant me an interview. I found him to be a genuine guy, someone who definitely connects to a large part of the community. I look forward to stopping in more often to "hang out in the environment," but here are the things Ray and I talked about during the interview:
Nick: Ray, where are you originally from?
Ray: I’m originally from San Francisco, my mother was from the mid-west and was a "beat philanthropic". She moved to the North Beach area of San Francisco on the advice of William Burroughs.
Nick: Why did you come to Eugene?
Ray: I moved to Eugene in 1972. The 60s were over, it was time to share the experience. And Ken Kesey was here, so I came.
Nick: Why did you get into cooking?
Ray: I’ve always had a passion for cooking. I’m dyslexic, so I had to find a career. I was selected out of 1,000 entries by a Swiss chef program for European cooking. Five restaurants in San Francisco took one new chef and I got to be a third-generation chef of Escofier – the king of chefs. During my training I fell under five "black hat" chefs.
I got to know the Dead through Ken Kesey and cooked for them on the west coast. I think the band members were the best examples of the "true American": freedom of expression, a rebel that [takes] care of their own.
In those days San Francisco was just outside the European culinary grip, so to speak, it was just to far away. So some of the chefs were rebels, they stayed with the European cooking tradition, but used other ingredients. That’s one of the reasons people come to the Pacific Northwest: the organic fresh ingredients.
Nick: What is your favourite food?
Ray: I like to play with food, use a wide variation of ingredients. I eat meat and vegetables and my meals are low in carbohydrates. Cooking to me is like music, ingredients are like notes and flavours like chords etc. There seems to be a universal harmony with certain flavours: garlic, onion, tomato, for example, they go well together.
Nick: Is there still that 60s spirit here in Eugene and the Pacific Northwest?
Ray: Yes. Timothy Leary said the gathering would be in the Northwest. It’s all because of Kesey’s energy.
Nick: I read One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest when I was 15 and enjoyed it.
Ray: He’s a amazing man. A couple of years ago he was in Europe with the Magic Bus.
Nick: How long has Chez Ray’s been in business?
Ray: We’ve been 1 1/2 years at the present location, 10 years altogether. I’ve cooked for Santana and James Brown since the mid 70s using the name Chez Ray.
Nick: How did you come up with your menu?
Ray: I took French classics and integrated them with festival food, with my own style… It was a balance.
Nick: What has the reaction been to your business?
Ray: Great. Ken Kesey’s cousin has bought the recently closed McDonald Theatre on the corner of 10th and Willamette, and we’ll be doing rock concerts in there. We’re the rock-n-roll of food, it’s a natural mix of who we are, where we are.
A lot of my age-folks came out when we opened, together with a generation of youth with 60s interest. It was about the pursuit of personal freedom, with some of the older folks wanting relive some of their past experiences.
Nick: What new items will you add to the menu?
Ray: I’m getting into a fusion of health, that is… less fat and personal changes, together with an Eastern consciousness, plus a Latin influence. Whatever is available.
Chez Ray sits at the end of his bar – note the tye-dyed bar stools.
Nick: Do you plan to expand?
Ray: I’m looking at it. In fact I might do a TV show called Chez Ray’s Midnight Circus where we would have several different acts that would each perform, then take a seat at the table for a feast. We have some backing and this might go into syndication.
Nick: You might have a pretty long line outside on Saturday nights.
Ray: That’s what I’m hoping for.
Nick: As a member of the alternative community and also as a businessman, how do you feel about the activism and alternative views Eugene is known for?
Ray: I’m a firm believer in action. but it has to be a unified force. I think the community has to be represented. Anarchy wasn’t invented in 1991. One has to be conscious of actions and people can interpret a region as the "wrong side of the fence".
We do community feasts in the Whitaker neighborhood and have done for 20 years. We’re starting a food school for homeless vocation and organic farms.
Nick: I used to know a lot of homeless people and many of them were decent folks who were self-destructive and made bad choices.
Ray: Bad choices and found that that society doesn’t want to let you back in sometimes. We’re getting former homeless people to help the others out of their situation. It’s much easier to take help from someone who’s been there.
Nick: If people are reading this, why should they come to your restaurant?
Ray: There’s a good connection.
Nick: Tell us about the live acts you have. Why did you decide to have live music.
Ray: We’re an incubator for talent. I’ve been with musicians for 30 years and like to have them here. We have everything from belly dancing to poetry, plus varied music from jazz to rock. Some of the acts that have played here include Kenny Reid & Stone Cold Jazz, Stone Biscuit, Hole in the Ocean (a Grateful Dead cover band). We have a lot of old friends, and musicians who are passing through town play here.
Nick: What is your opinion of some of the events Eugene is known for?
Ray: The Saturday Market is the pulse of the community. The Oregon Country Fair has been the most unique cultural expression in the US for the past 30 years. It has been an incubator for local talent: the Flying Karamazov Brothers, for example.
Dana (waitress): Chez Ray’s is a cool place to work. A good reason to come here is that you can be free to be a human without judgement. You don’t have to be at your best to be in the Chez Ray’s environment.
Ray: This is truly an American experience, an opportunity to hang out in the environment.
Check out Chez Ray’s North Beach at 10th Avenue and Willamette Street in downtown Eugene, or at www.chezrays.com.
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our North America Insiders page.