When you hear the words Wandering Wizard, maybe an image of Gandalf pops into your mind – a wise sage exploring the world, maybe stopping into the Shire every so often for a hearty meal and a laugh with friends.
While Jake Ray, chef-owner of Wandering Wizard Catering, isn’t Gandalf, he brings many of those qualities into his business, food, and community. And Ray also has a way of transforming difficult situations into opportunities, something that Gandalf would surely admire.
Ray founded Wandering Wizard during the COVID-19 pandemic following two job losses at restaurants where he was working as a sous-chef. “It hurt a lot,” Ray recalls. “I was with my kids a lot, who are four and five years old. It was awesome to have time with them, and it was also one of those moments where I was like, ‘I have to start doing something, I have to get something going.’”
Ray saw that there was a place in the local food world for him. “I want to help create a fine dining food scene here,” he explains. “We have amazing farms, and the potential to have some great fine dining food. That’s where I want to go.”
He decided to start a small business, combining his love of cooking, local food, and dreams of bringing fine dining to the folks of Whatcom County. Wandering Wizard Catering is the result: a small catering company that caters small business parties, corporate events, small to medium weddings, and the occasional larger event. At the end of this year, Ray will take on his biggest wedding yet, serving 200 people delicious classics like lasagna and Caesar salad.
Food and cooking are Ray’s passions, and he’s constantly hungry to learn and grow in the field. He’s particularly fond of Italian food. “I’ve been dialing it in and learning more about Italian food,” he says. “I went to culinary school at Bellingham Technical College and graduated in 2019. I’ve been trying to do a lot of extra learning, too. I went to Chicago to do a stage, where I worked for free at a Michelin-star restaurant for two and a half weeks. It was so informative, and I got to experience my favorite chef’s food.”
Ray has local culinary inspiration, too. He credits Mataio Gillis, culinary program supervisor at Bellingham Public Schools, with providing an exceptional introduction to the vibrant food and farming scene of Whatcom County.
“He’s the most passionate person about local food,” Ray says of Gillis. “I did an internship with him while I was at BTC, and he got me in the door, introducing me to farmers. I’d go to the farmers market every Saturday, and now I take my kids there too.”
The farmers market was where Ray found the ingredients and the inspiration for one of his most memorable Wandering Wizard events – in fact, it was his very first.
As the story goes, a lawyer and his wife had once frequented a restaurant, always ordering potato pancakes. It became a ritual for the couple, as they would go every weekend together for the same order. A friend of Ray’s who worked at the restaurant gave him a call, explaining that the restaurant had closed down. They asked if he would make the beloved potato pancakes for the couple.
“It was the woman’s birthday and the couple’s anniversary,” Ray recalls. “It was such a cool thing to do for someone that they would normally get at a restaurant, but weren’t able to. It’s great to be able to create these stories.”
Ray has many more stories in the works and yet to come. He’s looking forward to connecting with more farmers and local growers, saying, “There are such amazing farms here. It’s totally unique. When I went to Chicago, chefs would order things and weren’t sure if they were going to come. Right now, I can just call someone and get what I need pretty quickly, if it’s the right season for it.”
Wandering Wizard is getting ready to expand their operations, with the help of Ray’s family and friends. “I just want to keep progressing and getting bigger,” Ray says. “Right now, my garage is my storage and I work out of the commissary kitchen. It’s me and my wife, and my mom does some business managing.”
A journey with the Wandering Wizard and his family will take you some pretty delicious places, as Ray and his team seek to create and support a farm-to-table fine dining scene here in Bellingham and Whatcom County.