Clad in a black chef’s coat with his name stitched in gold letters over his chest, Ray Duey fidgets with his iPhone as he responds to both text messages and interview questions simultaneously.
“It never ends,” he said in a raspy chuckle.
The high-profile, in-demand culinary artist is always on the move.
Born and raised in Tacoma, Wash., Duey now resides in Woodbridge. But his home is little more than a place to rest his head between the never-ending storm of television shoots, classes and competitions. Despite never having artistic inclinations as a child, Duey has risen to become the premier culinary artist on the West Coast. He has been featured on the Food Network and invited to create a piece at the White House.
In October he and fellow culinary artist James Parker sculpted a haunted house-themed pumpkin for a collection of guests at the nation’s most popular home. Even though pumpkins are not his favorite food to carve because of their size and texture, Duey said the experience was something he was grateful for. He was not paid for the appearance and said he did it for the honor of serving the president.
Packed into his iPhone are scores of samples of Duey’s work. His food sculptures are a blend of the sublime and awe-inspiring.
The sculptures are done for competitions or catering functions. Duey is also regularly booked for corporate events where his work serves as a centerpiece.
Duey recently carved pumpkins at Macchia Winery for their fall release party. The chef’s publicist, Anna Karelis, coordinated with an area farmer and obtained two pumpkins weighing a combined 800 pounds. Duey carved designs of flowers into the pumpkins and was featured on “Good Day Sacramento.” Macchia co-owner Lani Holdener marveled at the chef’s work during the hours he spent diligently carving.
“He was amazing,” she said. “He didn’t have anything to look off of as he did his carvings. It was all in his head.”
Even though she saw the finished product, Holdener said she would have enjoyed seeing more of the process.
“My only regret is that I was so busy I couldn’t sit and have a glass of wine and watch him do it for hours.”
To celebrate the anniversary of the first manned trip to the moon, Duey carved a watermelon with a scene from the iconic event. It features Neil Armstrong on the surface of the moon with the lunar rover reflected off his visor. When Paris Hilton was sent to jail, he carved a pumpkin of the somber-looking socialite behind bars. He also used five watermelons to recreate Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.”
But before he could showcase his gift on television and at the White House, Duey had to scrape his knuckles and hunch his back for countless unpaid hours to develop his skill. He first started sculpting with food while working as a chef in Washington. His resume includes the Tacoma Golf and Country Club, The Tacoma Elks Club and Alexander's Country Inn. He also co-owned a restaurant called Le Snack in Washington.
While at the country club, his boss informed him the intricate designs were necessary and if Duey couldn’t produce them, his superior would find someone who could. Duey got the message.
“The necessity for running water, carpeting and indoor plumbing is a great motivator,” he said.
On top of performing his regular kitchen duties of chopping, blending and sautéing, Duey spent hours before and after work practicing designs on root vegetables like carrots. He soon was transforming cantaloupes into stars and a tomatoes into a roses. But it took time for Duey to achieve perfection.
“It was a lot of trial and error,” he said. “At first there were many more butchered melons than nicely carved ones.”
Although he is a certified chef through the American Culinary Federation, Duey is self-taught.
“I went to the school of hard knocks,” he said. “There is a branch campus on every street in America.”
The decades in the kitchen working 14-hour days have taken its toll on the 54-year-old Duey. He has cut through fingernails while doing intricate knifework, has creaks and pops in his shoulders and admittedly takes some time to get out of bed some mornings.
“My recovery time is slowing down,” he said.
But he himself has no interest in slowing down.
Not one to rest on previous accomplishments, Duey is looking ahead to his next projects. He’s tight-lipped about a possible television shoot for the Food Network, but hopeful a decision will come either way in the next few weeks. He will also be traveling to Hawaii to teach culinary principles to members of the Coast Guard. Besides reviewing and upgrading recipes, Duey will also show the students how to control food costs. The military is interested in having its cooks learn to be more efficient in the kitchen because it saves money and improves morale, he said.
“If you eat better, you perform better,” he said.
Although his artistry has made him famous, Duey is equally comfortable in the kitchen churning out his three-cheese macaroni with bacon or a light Greek lemon soup. Other kitchen hobbies of his include creating salad dressings and flavored salts.
As someone who spends the majority of the year on the road, Duey has become a connoisseur of the nation’s airports. He cringes when he has to fly into LAX, because of the congestion, or SFO, because of the drive out of San Francisco. But other airports are higher on his most-hated list because of their crowds, delays and hassles.
“You don’t want to go to O’Hare or anything in New York,” he said.
When he’s not reading a trade publication while on a layover, he occupies his time with classes he teaches to the culinary artists of the future. Though classes for this year are finished, Duey will be offering 2011 sessions in the coming weeks. He also sells instructional DVDs on his website, www.chefgarnish.com. His confidence is matched only by his abilities, and Duey is sure he can pass on his knowledge to others.
“I can show anyone how to do this,” he said.
Contact reporter Jordan Guinn at firstname.lastname@example.org.