Eating...Our Words has embarked on a project to profile 100 Houston culinarians of all fields, practices, careers and backgrounds. This isn't a Best of Houston list, it's not a 100 Favorites list and it's not in any particular order. Instead, the Eating...Our Words 100 is a way to introduce our readers to some of the most notable people behind Houston's exciting and deep-rooted culinary culture. Twice a week, we'll explore a new culinarian's work, his or her inspiration and what makes Houston a perfect home.
When I was first introduced to the imposing Sam Ray of Republic National Distributing Company several years ago, it was by someone who informed me thusly: "Sam knows everyone in Houston. You want to know him."
Ray, born and raised in Houston, went to Milby High School -- he'll soon be attending his 40th high school reunion, in fact -- and has made it a point over his decades-long career as a wine representative to know everyone in Houston who has anything to do with the restaurant industry.
"If I don't know a restaurateur, it's on me," Ray says. And that's no surprise, as Republic National -- the wine and spirits distributor that Ray has worked for since 1994 (when it was Tarrant Distributing, long before Republic bought them out) -- has roughly 58 percent of the wine share in Houston. If you're a restaurant or bar and you want Caymus, Silver Oak or Cakebread wine, you have to go through Republic.
But Ray is more than just a wine rep: He's owned both a restaurant and a nightclub (back in the late '70s and early '80s), he volunteers with youth sports teams and cancer associations across the city, and he's worked with the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo for years to help make the International Wine Competition into the juggernaut it is today.
"There were 2,800 wines entered this year," Ray grins. These days, he's the Chairman of the Winery Relations committee and is excited to continue helping the competition reach new heights each year. And although most of Ray's best stories are only shared completely off the record over many glasses of wine, he had a few to share about why he thinks Houston is the best food city in America.
Who he is:
Ray has moved on from being a wine rep for accounts based solely in Houston. He's been in the national accounts arena at Republic National for 13 years, and his largest customers at the time are somewhat well-known ventures like Landry's, Pappas Restaurants and Cordúa Restaurants, just to name a few.
"I knew all the old-timers," Ray laughs. "I was the first person to ever call on Tracy Vaught at Backstreet Cafe. I called on Tony Vallone, Bill Johnson, Manfred Jachmich, Bruce Molzan -- you name it."
Ray is also the guy who -- after so many years in the service industry, calling on clients big and small -- can go into a restaurant and tell within five minutes whether it will succeed or fail. Management, ownership, location, menu, atmosphere, service, wine list -- Ray takes it all in, and he's rarely wrong. The worst offender, he says? Location. "If a place is a four-time loser," Ray explains of a restaurant that's opened in a location that's failed several times before, "you can write it off."
Why does he like it?
"This is home," says Ray, who could technically live in any city where Republic National has an office. "It's always so good to get back home. It's my comfort zone."
When he's here in Houston, Ray prefers to drink and eat at old haunts where he's known the crew for years. Brennan's is a particular favorite, although he also enjoys Vic & Anthony's, McCormick & Schmick's, the Oceanaire and Irma's. He reserves special praise for owner Irma Galvan, who he calls a "big bud." Ray is still also on "the great burger quest," but is very fond of Someburger and the original Christian's Tailgate.
What inspires him?
What Ray calls "the resurgence" of Houston's restaurant scene after the big oil boom of the '80s brought us people like Tony Vallone and Robert del Grande. "The dynamic of what makes Houston great is what's going to make us into a great restaurant city," says Ray. "We as a city are growing, and I think that the economy -- which has always remained strong -- will really help us in that area." More to the point, he says, he loves that Houstonians have always been so open-minded.
"People here want to experience something different," he says. "Not fine dining, necessarily, but they want to experiment with food. Houston is so dynamic and so diverse -- not just with our culture, but with our employment even. We have a world-class medical center, for example. We're just a great town to be a part of."
Ray is also inspired by the generation of younger chefs who planted the seeds for this latest resurgence, people who he says "know what they're doing," naming Randy Evans, Monica Pope and Chris Shepherd chief among them.
If not this, then what?
Ray has already owned a restaurant and a nightclub, coming to the conclusion that neither industry is for him. "You never own a restaurant," he says. "It owns you." He's quite content in the wine industry for now, although he always wishes that his sister -- with whom he used to host regular dinners for chefs such as John Sheely of Mockingbird Bistro -- had opened a restaurant.
If not here, then where?
"The Amalfi coast of Italy," says Ray, whose favorite trips have always taken him to Italy. "Somewhere I could eat and drink myself to death." But, he's quick to note: "I wouldn't live anywhere else but Houston."
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The Eating...Our Words 100: