In developing his stylish Vermillion Water Grille, executive chef and co-owner Michael Selig paid close attention to all things tangible: the swirled Caribbean-blue floor, the striking John Deering mural spanning the rear wall, and the sleek furnishings and fixtures.
And, of course, he put maximum focus on the most important tangible of all - the cuisine, highlighted by an array of fresh fish airlifted in daily.
Not nearly as apparent to guests is the attention Selig paid to another critical detail, this one linked to an intangible component of the dining experience - service. As his assistant manager and evening dining room manager Selig selected Ray Smith.
Why is that significant? Because Ray Smith for more than 25 years has been a recurring character in any account of high-profile dining in Arkansas. And unlike almost every other significant player who would be included in that history lesson, the 48-year-old Smith is neither a chef nor an owner. Never has been and likely never will be.
This is the story of a career waiter/manager. It's not the tale of a steady rise through the ranks, of a meteoric ascendance or of a well-conceived career plan playing out just as it was drawn up. It's a story with ups and downs, proud and not-so-proud moments.
Above all, it's the story of how a man committed to providing an enjoyable dining experience, and training/coaching others to do the same, has found himself at the right place, at the right time, to make a difference at many of Arkansas's premier restaurants - the hot spots of their day.
It's also a story written by a close friend. When Smith's tight-knit bunch gathers to recount the highlights and lowlights of our decades of camaraderie, Ray's places of employment are frequent backdrops, and on occasion one of the gang has played a larger role in some of Ray's defining career moments.
Waiter is one of those jobs that many, usually younger, folks take to make decent money on their way to something else. They wait tables while going to college. Or while trying to figure out what they want to do when they grow up. Or when they're between jobs. Or when that seems better than the similarly paying alternatives. But it's almost always a step along a journey and not a destination
And that sums up Smith's approach through his first several jobs:
· Burger flipper and floor mopper at age 14 at the Beaver Den Snack Bar at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, where his parents were completing their master's degrees.
· Service bartender and then bar manager at Coy's, the Little Rock outlet of the famed Hot Springs steakhouse.
· Lunch waiter at John Barleycorn's Vision, an anchor spot in the early days of Breckenridge Village. "All the waiters dressed as a characters; sometimes I'd come as Harpo Marx. I'd walk around in a trench coat and honk my horn. I didn't have to talk much. It was great."
· Bar manager at Pleasant Valley Country Club. "I quit after a guy I had been serving drinks to all day went home and shot himself. He shot himself in the chest but it didn't kill him. I was making good money, but that made me get out of bartending."
· Assistant manager at Hugo's in Fayetteville.
And nothing foretold an impending change in mindset when he signed on in 1980 as daytime prep man and dishwasher at LJ's, a new Fayetteville restaurant owned by Larry Joe (L.J.) Test. At first, Smith "did everything the chefs didn't want to do - setting up the salad bar, cutting vegetables, cutting meat, getting things ready for the chefs to cook."
But when LJ's manager Karen Haden found out Smith had experience behind the bar, he made the leap from dishwasher/prep to bartender. "The Pleasant Valley thing was still fresh in my mind," he says, "and soon I went out on the floor and started waiting tables." That's when, with Haden as his mentor, Smith adopted a whole new attitude about the business.
"I knew some things, but Karen instilled a desire to improve. It was really a quest for excellence, but in the context of making money. It was an attitude. She got me to look at this as a career. She taught me to take orders by memory, to remember people's names and what they like to drink. She took me to a different level and got me focused that this is what I wanted to do. It's really a focus, an inspirational thing, and it's all about attention to detail. It's about being conscientious, getting mentally prepared to go to work."
LJ's marked another important transition for Smith, into the world of haute cuisine. At least it looked pretty dang haute in 1980, particularly for Fayetteville.
"Coy's wasn't anything barrier-breaking in terms of the food we were doing," Smith says. "But the chef at LJ's was Will West, who'd trained at Jacques and Suzanne's and had run the kitchen at the Old Post Office [in Fayetteville)]. It was reduced cream and continental cuisine meets a roadhouse bar, and all of a sudden Fayetteville and Springfield were exposed to seafood bonne femme (shrimp, scallops and mushrooms in a white wine sauce). I made head waiter and it was just a rocking time. We expanded three times. There was so much energy; it was really a happening place."
He quit to follow his girlfriend to Austin, where he worked at Smitty's, "a steak and chops place where legislators hung out." But when chef West came through Austin "he recruited me to come back and be the assistant manager and help open the LJ's in Hot Springs." It was a new experience for Smith. "I'd never opened a restaurant before. I helped hire and train all the staff - picked out glassware, napkins, tablecloths, all the vendors we worked with, everything."
LJ's made a big splash with a lavish opening party for 500 invited guests. An Arkansas Gazette Society section report (written by yours truly) reported that "the party began at 5 p.m. and was supposed to be over at 9 p.m., but a good-sized crowd lingered until nearly midnight, enjoying cocktails and copious samples of savory entrees such as broiled prawns, prime rib, lamb, salmon, chicken curry and grilled halibut." It was a $10,000 spread, Smith reports.
Those were heady times in Spa City. The Oaklawn craze was at its height, with 1984 attendance and handle setting records that haven't been approached since. And LJ's was the pre- and post-races place to be.
"Looking back I know that we didn't realize how good we had it," Smith says. "We sat about 150 people and about 75 to 90 in the bar, and we didn't take reservations. We would have people lined out the door, and the bar would be full. L.J. would come in with names of people he'd met at the track written down on pieces of paper. He would have told them all, 'Come on down. Ray will get you in.' "
LJ's in Hot Springs was thriving, but LJ's in Fort Smith wasn't, and the economic pressures finally forced the restaurants' namesake to make some strategic decisions. He decided to downscale, cut his food costs and go to a more casual, no-tablecloth approach. Smith balked, "quit on principle, then hung around Hot Springs for three months and went broke."
Three job offers awaited in Little Rock, and Smith - now committed to the fine-dining career track - went as upscale as an Arkansas restaurant worker could: He signed on at Restaurant Jacques and Suzanne, the trail-blazing continental restaurant that offered unparalleled quality and variety, as well as stunning views from the 30th floor of the First Commercial Bank Building (now the Regions Building). It was many Arkansans' introduction to escargot, duck pate and Chateau Lafite Rothschild, that ultimate in Bordeaux. (In 1985, $195 was the going rate for the 1970 vintage.)
"That's where I learned tableside service - how to do chateaubriand, flaming desserts, decant wine," Smith says. "I knew quite a bit at that point from Karen and from opening LJ's, but I'd never worked with people who had done this and had such a set system. There was incredible attention to detail and an amazing delicacy to the food."
When Smith came, J and S, as most called it, was nine years into what would be a 10-year run, and its owners told Smith when he joined the staff that "they were going to be doing something else in a few months." But what months they were.
"Within a few weeks they announced publicly that they were going to be closing," Smith remembers - it was front-page news on Dec. 18, 1985. "And then things got busier than ever; it was booked up solid" as fans and casual observers poured in to get their final meal at the renowned restaurant.
The hoopla over the passing of Jacques and Suzanne morphed into an even louder buzz about what would come next - a meeting of the minds and menus between J and S owners Paul Bash and Ed Moore and Le Casse Croute owner Denis Seyer, who had schooled at J and S. For Smith it was another fine dining stop, another set of lessons:
"The learning curve from LJ's to J and S and Alouette's was from having a lot of employees and throwing a bunch of stuff against the wall and seeing what stuck to a tightly-run system with a smaller group, with everyone having their own role and all the pieces fitting together tightly."
Alouette's boomed. A Gazette review said, "Alouette's attains a level of excellence that would seem in its element if it were plunked down among the culinary stars at New York, Chicago and San Francisco."
It "was THE spot in town," Smith says, and where any waiter would want to be. "I worked four days a week, only at dinner, and was making $35,000-plus a year and taking nice vacations every couple of months. The restaurant rocking and rolling in money, Smith quit, finished college at UALR in 1989 and began a five-year period outside the restaurant world that included three jobs in the public sector.
After getting the 8-to-5 thing out of his system, Smith worked around town before hooking up with Chef Miles James, who was preparing to open his James at the Mill in Johnson in a dramatic, architecturally significant building outside Fayetteville that's a fitting match for the swashbuckling, flamboyant executive chef and owner.
Smith would become James' right-hand man in managing the crowds who flocked to the restaurant - which got real big real fast, a true phenomenon on the Arkansas dining scene and perhaps the first time a restaurant outside Little Rock was widely acknowledged as the state's best. Smith calls the experience "a blast," but it was grueling - as dining room manager he would generally "work about 10 to 3, then go home for a shower and some lunch and come back and work from 4 to 12 or so."
James became a celebrity, flying off to serve as guest chef at resorts on tropical islands, seeing his restaurant featured in the pages of Southern Living and The New York Times and being asked to come to New York to serve as guest chef at the renowned James Beard House, home of the James Beard Foundation, which encourages culinary arts.
Smith got to make the trip and assist. The event was a hit, and James at the Mill was selected to host a James Beard dinner, a fund-raiser to benefit the foundation's education projects.
"We brought in chefs from world-class restaurants around the country who each did a different course, and the place was packed," Smith says. "It came off without a hitch. I'll never forget the sight of looking down a long rail and seeing our waiters picking up plates just as others were putting plates down. It was like falling dominoes. It was beautiful."
The guests made James at the Mill special, too. Besides every imaginable Arkansas mover and shaker, a parade of celebrities rolled through, many as guests of Wal-Mart - including Joe Montana, Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford, Regis Philbin, Leslie Nielsen, Bart Conner and Herschel Walker, who was subbing for Michael Jordan.
But thrills aside, James at the Mill was "all consuming," Smith says. "I was there so much I didn't feel like I could be away. It was time for a change of scenery ... unless you keep reinventing yourself and reinvigorating your crew, you become stale and your staff doesn't listen to you as much."
His next major role came at Bordino's, an Italian bistro in Fayetteville operated by Joe Fennel and attached to Jose's, the Mexican restaurant that for years has been among Fayetteville's top-grossing restaurants. During Smith's tenure he was treated to a California wine country tour that included, naturally enough, great food, great wine and great accommodations - from staying in the private castle at Jordan to the private dining room experience at Mondavi to the four-hour lunch at Greystone, the restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America.
There was a nice gift on the end from Fennel himself - two nights in a hotel in San Francisco to extend the trip since Fennel thought Smith owed it to himself to see more of the city.
From there it was back down the mountain to Little Rock for stints at Brave New Restaurant, Cafe Prego and Spaule before joining Selig and company at Vermillion Water Grille. In the city's hottest entertainment area with its anchor spot in a new building that's almost in the shadow of a just-opening 12-story office building, the Water Grille is poised to launch as another restaurant rocket ship crewed by Smith.
So, at 48 years old, with more than half his life spent working in restaurants, where does Ray Smith find himself?
Living check to check, but aren't plenty of people? Without health insurance, a common theme in the restaurant world. Renting an apartment. Driving a VW Rabbit with 230,000-plus miles on it that he's owned since the Alouette's days, and he bought it used.
He's also happy, without significant debt and still enjoying the things that drew him to the business in the first place - the freedom to take vacations, to enjoy those "between job" breaks when he can afford them, to choose where he works. Another somewhat addictive pleasure is the workplace atmosphere itself - the high-stress but high-energy buzz of a busy restaurant, the on-the-go interactions with an energized crew and the challenge of creating a pleasant experience for patrons who are variously celebrating, relaxing, working, playing.
Often creating that pleasant experience is as much about minimizing or overcoming negatives as it is delivering positives. As evening manager of a popular restaurant that doesn't take reservations and often has a long waiting list, Smith is getting another course in that art.
"Managing a wait list is not an exact science," Smith says. "The first thing I try to do is make sure people understand that we don't take reservations and we don't bump people to the top of the list. But I don't try to give them an overly optimistic estimate on the time of their wait just to get them to stay."
Still, there are snags - like when a table pays its check but lingers while the next party waits and waits. Only once has Smith ever told a table it was time for them to get up and leave.
"It was these University of Florida fans at James at the Mill, and they'd been 45 minutes late coming in the first place," he says. "Everything was cool until they were leaving, and then this 60-year-old guy looked like he was going to come over the hostess stand and attack me. He had his fists raised and everything."
Remaining unpunched-out is but one career highlight for Smith. Some shifts Smith's seen in the restaurant world since the 1970s:
· "People going out more often to have a good time. Used to, people went out to restaurants on special occasions. Today there are so many more good restaurants, and more people out on business dinners. Plus with so many more two-income households there's less time for cooking and perhaps more disposable income."
· The boom in appreciation for wine. "At Coy's we had burgundy, Chablis and rosé. We had some bottled wines, but those were mainly what we poured. And now, with people traveling more, and so many more good wines in Arkansas liquor stores, the focus on wine has become very intense."
· The accepted tip for a pleasant dining experience. "When I started, 15 percent was considered a good tip, and servers now expect to make 20 percent if they do a decent job."
· The proliferation of credit cards and what that's meant for tracking waiters' tips. "In the 1970s not everybody was running around with two or three Visas or Mastercards in their wallet. Now 90 percent of our business is transacted on credit cards. And they've redone the tax laws for restaurants and waiters. A restaurant can now be held responsible for knowingly letting waiters underreport their tips. Restaurants track sales and credit card tips, and the waiters are expected to declare their cash tips. In the days of mostly cash it wasn't so black and white."
· The widespread use of fresh ingredients and from-scratch cooking. "The norm now is to use fresh vegetables and to make all your own sauces. That wasn't the case 25 years ago. You'd see Knorr's boxes in kitchens of nice places. And the fresh fish market has changed so much, particularly over the last 10 years. Before, the fish would be flown in, then cleaned and frozen before you ever got it. Now it's cleaned on the boat, packed in ice but not frozen and goes directly to the airport. Then the next day it's in a restaurant, ready to be cooked. Being inland and unable to get fresh fish is a now a non-issue. You can get fresh fish anywhere you've got an airport, and because there are a lot of people in that business, the prices are pretty competitive."
One thing that certainly hasn't changed, and never will, is customers' expectations of a good meal delivered promptly, with all their dining needs getting proper and timely attention. And that's what Smith's been about for years.
"When I was training at J and S and Alouette's they stressed one thing - not making mistakes. That was the mindset and the philosophy. So you expected to not make a mistake, and systems were set up to prevent them. You'd go day after day of not making a mistake. You've got to stress developing that attitude, because it's the first step of not making one. We want everyone to leave happy and have no glitches, whether the customer knew about it or not."
And at this point, 25-plus years into it, Smith thinks it would be a mistake to remove himself from that good-service equation.
"I know I've had a laissez-faire attitude about my career development. I chose that, my overall lifestyle. But I do give myself some credit for being a nice guy and for being in the right place at the right time."