12 questions for pastry chef Ray Works
Chocolate mousse bombes and Black Forest strudel are all in a day's work for UCLA's executive pastry chef Ray Works. Works creates everything from the day-to-day desserts in every student dining hall to the sculpted chocolate masterpieces at fancy UCLA affairs. Works invited UCLA Today
writer Alison Hewitt into his kitchen for a look. UCLA Today: How did you get such a delicious job? Works:
I wanted to be a comic and I took a job as a baker to pay the rent. I started in 1981 with the French, but I've been trained by German, Italian, even a Polish pastry chef. I came to L.A. to do stand-up, but I was still baking to pay bills. I was the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf's commissary pastry chef for Southern California. My girlfriend at the time said, "Maybe you're a better pastry chef than an actor." Well, I'd always wanted to be a Vegas pastry chef, so I got a job at Mandalay Bay as the assistant executive pastry chef. Cooking in Vegas is a serious education.
Then you left Vegas in 2006 to take the top pastry job with UCLA's Dining Services, serving desserts for 23,000 meals daily. How did you adjust to serving mostly students?
Chocolate mousse bombes.
I tried to go really fancy in the dining halls, but that's not what they want. I'd make a hand-fired crème brûlée, and they'd say, "Hey, man, where are the Rice Crispy treats?" I replaced their regular cake with a blackout cake and they complained. So we still have the blackout cake, but the kids like it in a warming pan with Belgian chocolate ganache on top. And we changed the Rice Crispy treats to butter instead of margarine. We're just modifying what they had to make it better. Sounds deliciously fattening.
Sometimes people ask, "What do you have that's healthy?" but really, I'm a pastry chef. I'm a purveyor of death. Nothing I make is healthy. You want fewer calories? Pull the top off one of my muffins and throw it away. Now it's got half the calories. You still make high-end desserts for special events. Where do you get your recipes?
A lot of our desserts are originals. I have 16 pastry chefs working for me, and since I started working here, I've been hiring people with pastry school experience. I test them constantly to grow their pastry skills, the way my chef used to test me at Mandalay Bay. We had a challenge recently, where I had my chefs come up with 10 desserts they had never heard of, and then I gave them a month to perfect it. They all turned out really well. What were they?
We had a lemon roulade (sponge cake) with blueberry mousse. We had cayenne popcorn daquois (a thin, crunchy layer). There was pumpkin pannetone, and a chocolate mousse made in a, almost like a tulip cup with a warm passion-fruit reduction on it. Now we've got these nice ideas in case anyone asks us to cater an event with all-new desserts. It happened at Mandalay Bay, and you don't want to have to think of the desserts on the spot, you always want something in reserve. Describe one of your personal dessert inventions.
One of my award-winners is KC Seduction. It's an Oreo cookie crust, then raspberry cheesecake, then red currant jam, then a crispy layer of milk chocolate hazelnut croquante, then a layer of chocolate mousse. The whole thing is enrobed in ganache and sided with toasted walnuts. How can I get a taste of some of these desserts?
Some of them we only make for catered events, like a chancellor's dinner or for something up at the Arrowhead facility. The KC Seduction, chocolate mousse bombes and black forest strudel, for example. But individual cheesecakes, pumpkin mousse, mint brownies, those are in the dining halls. We also make scones, croissants and muffins and things for Bruin Café, Puzzles and other places on the Hill. You have to try the caramel apple-pecan scone we're making for fall. When's the next competition between your pastry chefs?
We need to get through Christmas first. We'll make gingerbread houses for each of the dining halls. They'll be on a two-by-two square-foot base. We made them last year and they were really nice. Since then, I've hired on a few more pastry professionals, so they'll look really good this year.
There's some gigantic equipment in this kitchen. What does it do?
This one is the cookie machine. You put the cookie dough in the left side, and your filler on the right. Today we made oatmeal cookies with raspberry jam inside. The cookie machine fills the cookies and drops them onto a conveyor belt, then we pick them up and put them on a cooking sheet. It can pop out 90 cookies a minute, but we can't pick them up that fast. And it doesn't have to make cookies. You can use any dough and filler, and change the shape of what comes out. We made tubes of bagel dough filled with eggs and bacon, cheese-filled bread sticks, tamales and more.
I want a cookie machine.
Black forest strudel.
It's a great tool. I'm looking at your desk. One drawer has all the usual – files, business cards, a calculator – but do I also see cake decorating tips in there?
Yes. And cooking extracts. What's next?
I've been trying to get my own pastry show on TV. I've been on NBC's "5-minute Chef," and I was on "Culinary Travels with Dave Eckert" on PBS.