The Interview: Chef Zeke Wray
As executive chef for the Talisker Restaurant Collection (which includes all restaurants at the newly re-imagined Canyons Resort in Park City, Utah), Zeke Wray’s cuisine is made from scratch, locally sourced, and seasonal. Originally from Ft. Collins, Colo., Wray attended the California Culinary Institute in San Francisco. First joining the Talisker family in 2005, he returned in 2011 as the first executive chef of Bistro at Canyons, the first restaurant of its kind in the U.S. to serve new American kosher cuisine, including Friday Sabbath dinner, in a ski resort setting. In July 2012, chef Wray was promoted to executive chef of Talisker. Chef Wray and his team insist upon knowing not only where all of their organic, mountain-grown ingredients come from, but on knowing the people who bring them in. A cornerstone of the culinary program at Canyons Resort is partnering with top local farmers, including working with Summit County ranchers to raise cattle, harvesting milk with local dairies, and establishing a network of greenhouses and growers of produce for the restaurants in the collection.
The Daily Meal: What was your first restaurant industry job?
Zeke Wray: I started washing dishes at a family Mexican restaurant in Fort Collins, Colo., when I was 16. I never left the kitchen and I am still doing dishes!
TDM: When you first walk into a restaurant, what do you look for as signs that it’s well-run, will be a good experience, etc.?
ZW: It’s always a good sign to see a busy dining room with happy people, but the first hello from the host is always a mood-setter since the dining experience is about the people, not just the food. I also always do a quick scan for cleanliness and finally, if I am going to a new restaurant, I will typically order a few appetizers first because if they put effort and creativity into the appetizers they are likely to do the same with the rest of the meal.
TDM: Is there anything you absolutely hate cooking?
ZW: Pre-fabricated foods! There might be a time and place for them, but I hope I’m late and can’t find the place! As with our restaurants in the Talisker Restaurant Collection, I want to work with fresh ingredients so I can be comfortable with the source, the quality, and the handling.
TDM: If one chef from history could prepare one dish for you, what would it be?
ZW: Definitely Julia Child’s beef bourguignon. As a child I watched Julia whenever possible, she and Justin Wilson’s Cajun cooking show. I grew up on that stuff.
TDM: What do you consider to be your biggest success as a chef?
ZW: My biggest success redefines itself every day. But it starts with the realization that I have the ability to be creative every day, to make a living for my family while doing what I love, and to continually be open to learning. In the kitchen and in life, I try to instill positive influences each day — that’s success for me!
TDM: What do you consider to be your biggest failure as a chef?
ZW: I could very easily say the closure of my first restaurant, but during that time I learned important lessons that continue to redefine who I am as a chef. Failure is the first step toward sustainable success, and it also opened the door for me to return to Park City and rejoin the Talisker Restaurant Collection.
TDM: What is the most transcendental dining experience you’ve ever had?
ZW: It was a meal I had with my wife, Trish, at Bouchon in Vegas. Celebrating our anniversary, we spared no expense and ate our way through the menu with perfect wine parings. Between the exceptionally prepared food, amazing wines, perfect service, atmosphere, and loving energy (and the double order of foie gras), it is a meal I will forever compare all others to.
TDM: Are there any foods you will never eat?
ZW: Egg salad — I love eggs in all preparations, just not as egg salad.
TDM: Is there a story that, in your opinion, sums up how interesting the restaurant industry can be?
ZW: Over the last three years, our parent company, Talisker Mountain Inc., has invested more than $50 million in Canyons Resort to make us not only the third-largest ski and snowboard resort in the country, but one that offers the widest range of award-winning hospitality including our signature luxury hotel, Waldorf Astoria Park City, and The Farm restaurant that was named the best new restaurant in Utah in 2012 by Salt Lake Magazine. As part of this, we conceived an innovative new restaurant in 2011 called Bistro at Canyons — it’s the first fine dining, fully certified kosher restaurant at a North American ski resort. We opened Bistro at Canyons on the first day of Hanukkah in December 2011, after working 18 to 20 hours a day for two weeks. And with 250 reservations, that first day was especially daunting.
Then, on the first Friday we were open for Sabbath dinner, our conference services team announced they wanted to add a kosher dinner to a 500-person outdoor event planned for the very next day at our mid-mountain Red Pine Lodge. It’s not just one mile away from the restaurant, but located at 8,200 feet above sea level. With the restrictions of Sabbath we couldn’t start cooking until 6 p.m. and the party was at 8 p.m. We brought 15 extra chefs into the kitchen and hands were in a blur since everyone was moving so fast, while every inch of cooking space was covered with anything and everything we could create. We transported all food product and kitchen equipment up the resort’s Red Pine Gondola to the Red Pine Lodge, improvised a menu, scrambled for product, kosherized a grill and worked together to create something amazing — and quick! It all happened so fast, it’s hard to remember how we pulled it off. But we did.
Meanwhile, Bistro at Canyons was open for business, serving our very first traditional Sabbath dinner in a completely full dining room!
The lesson for me here was to trust in my ability to make decisions on the fly and to encourage my team to move, move, move. The event was a great success, guests were amazed, and the restaurant never skipped a beat. Interesting is an understatement — what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger!