Ethan Ray sips a tonic and lime in a Highlands watering hole, all the while monitoring his phone as he talks about his battle with alcoholism.
As he casually goes into personal detail that many would balk at sharing, he gets a notice from work about fixing a toilet. That’s just how it is when you’re corporate executive chef for the Staggers Group: You work hard (it’s even his day off), and Ray’s duties are largely logistical these days.
But he’s accustomed to hard work; an adult life spent in the food service industry in Louisville and Atlanta put him for years in a position in which he would work 60, 70 hours per week, going on just a few hours’ sleep, if any. It’s part of the game. Chefs, cooks and servers alike take pride in what they do, and they work hard for their culinary team. In between juggling a million tasks, Ray created a new upscale Southern-themed menu for Roux that rolled out last week, and it’s a testament to hard work and experience.
But the story doesn’t actually begin there. One day last November, Ray’s longtime best friend Chip Hartley (who worked with Ray at the now-defunct Rumplings ramen eatery and whom Ray refers to as a brother), walked up to him and said something Ray wasn’t expecting.
“Your eyes look a little yellow,” Hartley told him. Later that evening, Ray spent a long time looking in the mirror with a flashlight. They did look yellow. He did nothing about it in the moment but knew what it indicated — that his liver was beginning to fail.
The next morning back at Rumplings, Ray was rolling and shaping dough to make noodles. This time Hartley approached him and told him to get to a hospital. Or else.
“I don’t know who the hell else you think is going to make this dough,” Ray shot back.
“Get your ass to a hospital,” was his friend’s response. “You’re no good to me dead.”
So he went to the Baptist East emergency room.
It was about two years prior to that incident when Ray began to have occasional worries that he had a drinking problem. He felt it; knew it somehow deep down in the center of his consciousness. But the rigors and anxiety of working as a chef at various restaurants, from the Oakroom to Proof on Main to The Place Downstairs, had him caught in a circular pattern. He ignored the warning signs and pressed on.
Everyone in the food service industry knows that with being part of the scene comes a lot of partying. But Ray had reached a point where he couldn’t do prep work each morning because his hands shook so much. So, he started the day with a tall glass of boxed wine over ice, which he gulped so as not to have to actually taste it. He then drank his way through each day, meticulously working alcohol into his busy schedule, and when there was downtime, he usually drank alone. He sometimes went days without eating and barely slept.
“I was fueled by adrenaline and alcohol,” he says.
But as he sat in the emergency room that day, waiting to hear a diagnosis from a doctor, he knew he also had been fueled by something else: a fear of his reality.
“You have a lot of downtime in the E.R.,” Ray says. He says there he realized, “This is for real.”
Finally, the doctor came in with a diagnosis: alcoholic hepatitis.
“What’s the course of treatment?” Ray asked him.
“There is no course of treatment,” the doctor replied. “Stop drinking, or it’s going to kill you.”
And that’s the day Ethan Ray stopped drinking.
After going through a divorce, a period of unemployment that left him essentially homeless (he moved in with his parents for a while), and beating his liver to a pulp, today he’s a trusted leader within one of the fastest-growing restaurant groups in town.
His most recent achievement (other than fixing a toilet or two) was to rewrite Roux’s entree menu, putting a modern, upscale Southern spin on it that contrasts with the restaurant’s creole staples — Po Boys, jambalaya, seafood boils — and yet complements them at the same time.
Ray notes that Creole food is heavily influenced by French culture, but there are also African and Spanish influences, among others. With the new menu, he draws from Northern African cuisine in large part, while still bringing traditional Southern ingredients to each dish.
For a Southern-style restaurant to have pot roast on the menu isn’t a surprise. But Roux’s new Teres Major Pot Roast is like nothing you’ve ever had — thick, teres major steak (a tender shoulder cut) is served au jus with fingerling potatoes, shaved carrots and pea shoots.
The Loch Etive Ocean Trout, served over lentils and vegetables, is incomparable, and there are plenty more, from a roasted pork entrée to Cold Charred Eggplant Caponata. The Confit Pork Shoulder made with Woodlands bacon, Creole mustard, pickled mustard seeds and more is a mouthwatering experience, and he even scores with his Creole Brined Crispy Tofu. One rarely thinks of a Creole or Cajun dish being vegetarian, but Roux might win over some carnivores with this delicious tofu created with beluga lentils, shaved radish and carrots and more.
Ray says he “took some liberties” with the Southern and Creole styles, but he’s using ingredients that “make sense.”
He notes, “I’m trying to be avant garde but also stay within the parameters of what Roux is. Food that has such a history to it — you can’t alienate the two.”
Of course, when Roux co-owner Dustin Staggers earlier this year asked Ray to assume the duties of overseeing the restaurant — Staggers and his team also stay busy with projects like Epic Sammich Co., America. The Diner. and Ten Tables — Ray was a little taken aback. Maybe even overwhelmed: “I looked at him and said, ‘You know I don’t know shit about Creole.’”
Staggers’ response: “So?”
It’s a long way from being jobless, homeless and nearly dying from alcoholism to where Ray is today. He has a good job and a girlfriend. He is again a respected part of the local culinary scene. Perhaps most importantly, his bearded face brings with it an easy smile. To top it all off, Roux turns one year old this weekend and will celebrate it publicly this Saturday, Oct. 3. This is when the new menu gets a real workout, and Ray and his team are up for the challenge.
“I’ve never seen my staff at Roux happier than creating that menu,” he says.
And he swears he’s done with alcohol. He doesn’t even want it anymore, and yet he’s OK with others drinking around him. He’s not a recovering alcoholic who is spitting judgment; he’s someone who simply decided it was time to quit drinking.
His friends now refer to him as their “designated adult,” because Ray has taken on the role of making sure everyone he cares about stays safe after drinking, be it a ride home or crashing at his house. He enjoys the role, he says, calling it a “source of comfort,” and never feels like he’s missing out on anything.
Recently there was a bunch of beer left in his refrigerator after a get-together with friends at his house. It stayed there for a while, until he finally got rid of it. He never considered drinking it.
“I didn’t really even see it,” he says. “Actually, it was kind of pissing me off because I needed room for more food.”
Yes, Ray is indeed OK with his sobriety. He still works long hours, he says, but he doesn’t get through it by drinking. His phone keeps him distracted enough.
After all, those toilets aren’t going to fix themselves.