Arkansas’s first environmental education state park interprets the importance of the natural world and our place within it.
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."
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