Mustards Grill Executive Chef Chef Dale Ray on how to succeed

Dale Ray, executive chef, Mustards Grill

Although the restaurant business is a field that tends to be ex-offender friendly, making it to the top takes talent, hard work and, most of all, the proper attitude. Or so says Dale Ray, executive chef of Napa Valley’s noted Mustards Grill.

He should know. Ray has a long history in the restaurant business, beginning at Café PariZade in his home town of Durham, N.C. and included culinary school at L’Academie de Cuisine in Maryland and stints at Citronelle in Washington, D.C., Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va. and Wild Goose on the shores of Lake Tahoe in California.

On March 12, he spoke to a group of students at The Bread Project, an Emeryville, Calif.-based nonprofit that offers food service and bakery production training to low income people, many of whom are ex-offenders.

Those interested in the culinary business have choices, Ray told the group. They can work in restaurants, schools, hospitals, food service companies such as Aramark or corporate kitchens at Google, Microsoft, Hearst magazines or other large companies.

How do you get ahead in the culinary business if you’re just starting out?

Here are some tips:

  • Look at the type of food service you want to be in to make sure it fits your personality.
  • Do whatever it takes. Dale worked for free many times to get where he wanted to be.
  • Develop your palate. Taste everything you can.
  • Be sure you develop the right attitude. Attitude is the most important thing. “There’s something we like to say in the restaurant business,” Ray said. “Check your ego at the door.”
  • Learn how to follow directions and take orders. The kitchen job ranking is based on the military and very hierarchical, with titles including chef, executive sous chef, sous chef, pastry chef, etc.
  • Be resilient. In the restaurant business there’s so much pressure. The life of a chef is very hard work and requires 10-, 12-, 14-hour or even longer days.
  • Start working all around and figure out your passion, unless it’s baking. If baking is your passion, the decision has already been made.
  • If you want to open your own restaurant, go work at a place like you imagine that restaurant to be, and work harder than you’ve ever worked before.
  • Be a lifelong learner. Never get to the point where you know everything, because there’s so much to learn.
  • Develop what Ray calls “systems thinking.” Everything you do affects everything else, and make sure you understand that.

Having been through adversity is excellent experience for culinary work, in some ways even better than professional culinary training. “Some kids go to culinary school and think they’re a chef, and others work for years but have been through adversity,” he says. “If you can walk out of culinary school and be humble and have a good attitude, that’s OK, but being able to deal with adversity is better. There’s always adversity in the kitchen.”

Ray believes that no matter how bad a person’s background is they can change. “You can change. I’ve hired people who I thought would change. Sometimes they did. Sometimes they didn’t. I tried to help people change,” he said. The hardest thing in the business is to be able to take criticism, but that’s also the most important thing. Otherwise you will never improve.

Being a chef takes many talents. It’s actually several jobs – four in fact, says Ray. You have to buy products, store products, develop products and sell products. As a chef you have to be able to do all those things, and often do them in a very small space. Mustards has a small kitchen for its volume of business. Last year 150,000 diners went through the restaurant, which only has 60 seats. It takes a special kind of person to handle that type of environment – a person like Dale Ray.