In an arguably male-dominated industry, Chef Ray Ray lives up to her name. A ray of positivity, of inspiration, and determination to continually put out her best work for both her co-workers and customers. “You don’t realize how big the shoes you need to fill are until you’re in them.” She’s referring to leadership and what it takes to be an effective role model, and she made one thing clear: there are no short-cuts.
Chef Ray Ray, or Chef Riyonna Caswell, worked her way through the kitchen ranks, starting as a garde manger and sauté cook at Creo, seven years ago. “I loved the environment; I loved the people, and what I was doing.” Her passion, coupled with her talent, soon propelled her to Executive Sous Chef, “I truly was living the dream, but with the restaurant space, you need to be agile and adaptable.” When Creo closed its doors in 2015, it didn’t take long for her to land in another kitchen, with even more responsibilities.
“It wasn’t but two weeks later that I became the Executive Chef and opened Savoy Taproom.” Savoy opened on Lark Street in late 2015. “I learned a tremendous amount working there; things when you’re cooking on the line, you don’t think of: scheduling, hiring, developing and executing a successful menu.” After her year and a half residency, Chef Ray Ray wanted to refocus on fundamentals. “Every job I had compounded the people skills, but I knew I needed more.” She left Savoy in November 2017 and enrolled full-time at Schenectady County Community College (SCCC).
“I wanted to round out my experience, and that meant focusing on my education.” In the constantly evolving world of culinary, perspective is not something that can be entirely learned in one place or one role. “You’re always learning when you’re cooking. I wanted to gain insight from teachers and other students and enhance my skills.” But all the time in the classroom only caused her to miss the active practice. “I thought about when I was happiest, and that was when I was working for White Management. So, I called Bountiful Bread, and it wasn’t long until I was back doing what I loved, with people I loved.”
Like everything, Bountiful Bread is also evolving. The highly-anticipated second location is opening this summer on State Street in Schenectady. “I am beyond excited because we’re expanding on the already-loved café and turning into an entertaining space where we can show off our catering chops.” Being just a stone’s throw away from SCCC, Chef Ray Ray plans on sourcing top talent from the school’s culinary program. “This will be a great opportunity for everyone involved— and served.”
Chef Ray Ray will be the Executive Chef at both Bountiful Bread locations, but don’t call her a boss. “I look at myself more as a leader than a boss. I work with my staff; a boss tells their staff what to do. I believe in leading by example.” As for advice for inspiring chefs, her tip may seem obvious, but in reality, take years to truly accept: “You don’t know everything. It’s impossible. So, take advice from everyone, because there is always room for improvement.”