People always ask where to get the best cocktail in Wellington. The obvious answer is “Go see Ray at the Roxy.”
Since trying his cocktails at the Roxy’s Happily Ever After High Tea, I’ve been hooked. His work is something between gastronomy and alchemy and his flair for cocktail creating won him the People's Choice award at the 2014 Diageo Reserve World Class National Finals, and third overall. Ray’s talent is to take the unexpected and turn it on its head. Safe to say, you won’t be driving home if Ray’s around.
I track him down one Saturday afternoon at Miramar's cinema, the Roxy, in it's restaurant Coco. Hunched in a booth, he’s drawing as his dreads fall, medusa like, over broad shoulder and concentrated hands. I almost don’t want to interrupt. “Lucy” he says looking up, all friendly. I sit down. As we talk, he’s expressive, powerful, and commands attention. To be sure, Ray is enthusiastic about his craft and speaks with passion and care. So how does a kid from Miramar become Wellington’s smartest cocktail curator?
Local Boy: “I’m a born and bred Wellingtonian.”
“I was born literally up the hill in Strathmore” Ray explains, pointing behind me. “I’m a born and bred Wellingtonian.” His parents migrated to New Zealand from the Pacific Islands to New Zealand before he was born. His father worked at a factory while Ray was young, while his mother brought up the family of eight children. “Then she realised she was really good at it so she opened her own creche…” Ray smiles, “and my father loves people - and has a fetish for driving - so he’s now a taxi driver.” The family's religious leanings meant alcohol was frowned upon.
Ray’s love of playing with food and drink came young, however. He started out at Strathmore School, now Kahurangi School, before going to Evans Bay Intermediate. Ray always knew he was good at talking and would often barter, getting friends to do school work in exchange for being bought a pie by a school mate. “We were one of those poor families - living in the housing flats in Strathmore - but to us - that was the exciting part!” Ray says. “We would look at our school lunches - and improvise, making a feast out of a packet of chips, some tuna and some off bread. That was us.”
“We would look at our school lunches - and improvise, making a feast out of a packet of chips, some tuna and some off bread. That was us.”
High school was Rongatai College for boys. Ray loved it. “It’s just that brotherhood - you know everyone’s face even if you don’t know their name,” he says. “At that point, there was a massive surge of refugees coming in from Ethiopia and Somalia - those guys were close to family so we all bonded being equal at school.” Ray says he still feels like he can tell when a kid has been to Rongatai - “It’s like, I know you, even if I haven't met them before” he explains.
Humble Hospo Beginnings: “Without the dishy, the restaurant can’t run. It was an important lesson.”
Ray got his start in hospitality at a small neighbourhood cafe in Karori, Cafe 162, where his brother Sam Letoa was working. When his brother moved up from dishy to a chef, he recruited Ray to help out. “He made me feel appreciated as a dishy” Ray says “without the dishy the restaurant can’t run. It was an important lesson.”
Ray graduated Rongatai and studied Computer Science at Victoria University. At the same time, he worked as a dishwasher for a business his brother was a shareholder in called Quayside on Oriental Parade, located in the Band Rotunda building. Old mate Ma’a Nonu was also hired, as a cousin from Rongatai. “Back then - you don’t know you’re gonna be an All Black” Ray shrugs. “He had one job which was to get the crayfish out of the tank because he had good arms.”
"Old mate Ma’a Nonu was also hired, as a cousin from Rongatai. “Back then - you don’t know you’re gonna be an All Black” Ray shrugs. “He had one job which was to get the crayfish out of the tank because he had good arms.”
It was there that Ray learnt another important lesson about hospitality. “One day my brother said to me ‘You treat work as your home and everyone who comes in as your family’. I was like ‘What?’ He told me: ‘You treat people like your cousins or aunties or uncles, the way we would at home - but you get paid for it here. That’s work.’ For me, it then made sense.”
Realising a passion
After graduating, Ray continued to work in hospitality at various places like Hummingbird Bar and Embassy Theatre (where he rolled ice cream). Back in the day, Ray says the drinks in a bar weren’t so exciting. “The cocktails were mainly the same drink, in the same glass but with different tropical fruit mixes”, he says. “It was boring and no one wanted to do things differently. They made out like the mixing and gastronomy were only for the chefs in the kitchen.”
Ray freelanced as a web developer, making patches for old-school social media like Bebo. However, the work didn’t light Ray’s fire. “I found it so boring. Then the Embassy started doing some cool events for film openings - and we began to up the game when it came to cocktails.”
Ray had been partially taught the art of cocktail making by the MacKenzie Brothers, Justin and Jonny - from flavours to pricing. When an opportunity came up to applying to the newly created Roxy Cinema in Miramar, Ray saw a new challenge. While applying, he highlighted his skills by putting in the middle of his CV ‘Ice Cream Roller’. “Every cinema needs an ice cream roller, right?!” he says gleefully.
"What advantages the Roxy has over other cinema’s, especially when pricing is so competitive. “We put on amazing events”, he says."
Although Ray had applied for the cinema side of the Roxy he soon found out the McKenzie brothers were also behind the development of Roxy’s new bar ‘Coco at the Roxy’. “It was like it was meant to be”, he says. Ray helped set up the box office and the Roxy was up and running in 3 weeks.
Down at the Roxy
I ask Ray what advantages the Roxy has over other cinema’s, especially when pricing is so competitive. “We put on amazing events”, he says. “Now the distributors are coming to us because it’s our point of difference - we’ve become known for it. And the trends in cocktail making? “Everyone is currently foraging their ingredients.” Ray says, “I think the next trend will be gastronomy cocktails. But I try not to follow the trends - I just want to do what makes me happy.” Ray uses elements of confectionery, dry ice and other magic in his drinks. He admits he’s inspired by Heston Blumenthal. “I like to make my cocktails so someone else wants to order it if they see it across the room. Making it aesthetically beautiful and delicious means other people get excited”
Any other influences? “I’m always in healthy competition with my brothers. Now my parents have come to terms with the fact their sons deal in alcohol, it’s all good. With being Polynesian, and very religious, it was a bit taboo. The best thing for me was when my mum tried my cocktail and told me she liked it.”
It’s clear that Ray’s brain is like a carnival, whirring and colourful, full of possibility. He’s a diagnosed insomniac and freely admits he finds it hard to switch off. “I’m always imagining things. I talk faster than I can explain so I draw things out so other people here can understand. I’ll be like ‘Let’s make pinot noir bubbles or let’s make alcoholic ganache so you can paint your cocktails.’ They’re like ‘Draw it Ray’ - then they see it later and are like ‘Oh, we get it.’”
“Good company is key."
So apart from cocktail ingredients, what does Ray need to be happy? “Good company is key. Just somewhere with a good vibe in Wellington. We could be at Floriditas or Flying Burrito Brothers….as long as the company and vibe is good it’s sweet with me. Although I don’t go out much these days” Ray laughs. “I just make content, throw it out there." What does Ray do outside work? “Surfing, hiking - God I am boring right?” he cracks up. On Sundays, he still goes to his parents house for family dinner.
Ray is a man who has taken a risks along the way - but they’ve paid off. He loves travel but home is Wellington. It’s family, community and creativity, close by. Every drink has a story and a name - and what’s more - they’re bloody delicious.
You can book Coco at The Roxy here.