David Ramos: Cooking up success at Feast Your Eyes

David Ramos: Cooking up success at Feast Your Eyes

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 “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”                       -J.R.R. Tolkien

Fortunately, this week’s Portrait, David Ramos of Feast Your Eyes Catering, has a fine appreciation for all three. A handsome former military man who can cook is a catch — but, sorry guys, he’s taken.

PGN: You’re from a large family. What would your mascot be?

DR: Ha! Yes, I’m one of six children. I’d say a blue crab since I grew up in a small town in Maryland. Our backyard was the Potomac River and we grew up fishing and eating crabs.

PGN: Where in Maryland?

DR: It’s a tiny little town called Issue, about as far south as you can get in Maryland before plunging into the water. The only thing that put us on the map was that we had the first F4/F5 tornado to hit Maryland and it pretty much wiped out the entire area.

PGN: What was it like growing up there?

DR: It was very conservative and closed-minded. I, of course, was in the closet the whole time I lived there. I don’t think there was any open LGBT community there.

PGN: What’s your background?

DR: My father’s side is Mexican and my mother’s side is very old-school Southern Maryland, Hamilton background. I got the blue eyes from my mom and my sisters got the beautiful Latina genes, big brown eyes and olive skin.

PGN: Was there much of a Latina community in Issue?

DR: [Laughs] None at all! It was a very white Catholic and Baptist community. My parents divorced when I was 1 so I didn’t grow up with my dad. There were three of us, then my mother married James Richmond when I was 2. I call him my dad. He was a very inspiring person, the longest-running superintendent in Maryland’s history. He won the Superintendent of the Year award several times and even spoke at the Nobel Peace Prize awards ceremony. My bio dad got remarried as well and had three great girls. They’re my best friends.

PGN: A fun family vacation?

DR: Our big family vacation was going up to Bethany Beach each summer. My dad would golf and Mom would paint.

PGN: Was she an artist?

DR: For her day job, she worked for the health department, but she was also an amazing portrait artist so my early childhood was filled with lots of nude bodies.

PGN: What’s a Southern dish you learned from your mother?

DR: Oh man! Stuffed ham! It’s kind of scary to look at, but it’s delicious. You take a ham shoulder, make little slits and stuff in collard greens, wrap it in cheesecloth and boil it. I went to a French culinary school and found that a lot of Southern recipes go hand in hand with French cuisine.

PGN: Do you collect anything?

DR: I love old cookbooks, especially from the 1950s, that Betty Crocker era with gelatins and Jell-O molds and kind of bland food. The way they spoke to women in the pages was awful but it’s captivating and part of our history: recipes to “treat your man to the dinner he deserves after working hard all day!”

PGN: What prompted you to join the Coast Guard?

DR: I went to culinary school, Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, S.C., and I was working as a sous-chef and living a beach-bum kind of life. I was partying a lot, maybe too much, so my brother-in-law, who was in the Coast Guard, told me that they were looking for chefs and I bit, hook, line and sinker.

PGN: What was the hardest part?

DR: Definitely boot camp. I was a little older than most so it was difficult, but because of my culinary schooling, they sent me straight to A school and gave me my choice of billets. I’d never been to the West Coast before so I chose San Diego. I took the two-week government per diem and drove across the country by myself, zig-zagging up and down the country.

PGN: What did you do?

DR: I was assigned to the Coast Guard cutter “Chase.” We did migrant work, drug interdiction and search and rescue. I was the personal chef for the commanding officer and ran the galley. I did the menu planning, ordered inventory, but then two years in I became the trigger man on the 11-foot-long, 25-mount cannon and sunk drug boats.

PGN: What?

DR: Yeah, my captain knew I was interested in playing with the guns and offered me a position on the cannon. We’d go after these self-propelled semi-submersibles, what we called “go-fasts.” We’d take the crew off, confiscate the drugs and sink the boat in the middle of the ocean. It was funny, I’d be up on the cannon wearing a camo flack jacket and black-and-white checkered chef pants.

PGN: What was your most harrowing moment?

DR: It was in Alaska in the Bering Sea. We’d just gotten off our details and were trying to play cards when an alarm went off. When you’re in the middle of the ocean, there’s no one there to help you, no rescue. I was on the fire team so I donned my gear and ran to the engine room. I was a boundary man, which meant I went straight to the fire and tried to cool down the walls so it wouldn’t spread. At the same time, we were experiencing 20-foot swells so it was pretty terrifying. I remember after the fire was out, laying in my rack, which was only a foot-and-a-half wide, and thinking, What in the hell am I doing? I’m a chef, why am I putting out fires and firing guns? But by the next day, the camaraderie on board was even tighter having gone through the ordeal and I was fine. The Coast Guard was amazing. I got to travel around the world and cook for dignitaries and government officials from all different countries.

PGN: Did you ever get fired at?

DR: No. Never ever, not even with the drug missions. The Coast Guard is not known for having big fire fights; mostly we come across small boats filled with drugs and once we surround them with helicopters and boats with cannons pointed at them, most don’t put up a fight. It was mostly people who needed a way out of poverty, a way to feed their families, running the drugs. They were not with cartels, they were not scary, evil people. We had to protect our country from drugs coming in, but at the same time it was depressing knowing once they got caught, their future was probably not going to be very bright.

PGN: What did you do after the Coast Guard?

DR: I started a catering company, 19 Below. A lot of event planners don’t know much about food and a lot of chefs aren’t good with people. I’m handy with a knife, but I’m also good with clients so I wanted something that would combine both skills. I actually came out of the closet the day that I got out of the military. They’d just repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and San Diego had a big gay scene so it seemed like the perfect time.

PGN: You came out to family, self or your shipmates?

DR: [Laughs] I came out to the world. I’d always felt I had to put up a façade, especially in the military. But once I came out, I wanted everyone in the universe to know. The first person I told was the girl I’d been dating, Janice, and she took me to my first gay bar, Mo’s. Her brother had come out not long before. I met a guy from West Hollywood and we instantly hit it off. It was during Pride in San Diego and we spent the weekend together.

PGN: The fates were welcoming you to Gaydom!

DR: Yes! The next weekend I went to visit him. I told him about my idea for 19 Below and he hired me to cater for his real-estate company. It was the birth of my company and modern-day me. I stayed in California for a while until a friend of mine invited me to come work in Denver, Colo., which to this day is the most wonderful place I’ve ever lived.

PGN: Really?

DR: It was a small town, but the LGBT population is very tight-knit and like family. People are kind and it’s beautiful everywhere. And it’s where I met my husband!

PGN: How did you meet?

DR: I propositioned him. We were both waiting for an Uber — I’d seen him in the bar — and when my car pulled up I ran up to him, opened the contact list on my phone and said, “Here, I’m taking you out to dinner tomorrow night.” He gave me his number and I did. It’s been an amazing ride ever since. It’s only been a year, but it feels we’ve known each other forever. When he got a job in Philly, there was no question that I’d be moving here with him. When you know, you know.

PGN: With all your moves, which place was the most surprising?

DR: Definitely Alaska. We have a vision of Alaska being a beautiful, pristine wilderness but it’s pretty grim in the cities like Dutch Harbor. There isn’t much culture other than meth and fishing. It’s very dirty and really hard to have a healthy lifestyle up there. It was too cold to exercise, it was hard to find decent food, it was the opposite of everything I thought it would be. But the biggest culture shock for me was moving to West Hollywood. I was 27, but having just come out I was a baby gay immersed in this beautiful LGBT population. It was wild. I remember going to the Abbey and they had a curtain you could stick your hand through and touch whatever anatomy you wanted, male or female. Pretty wild stuff for a small-town boy. I went to my first Pride wearing khaki pants and a buttoned-down shirt while people were walking around with assless chaps! I quickly learned to adapt and that’s where I started becoming myself as a gay man in the world.

PGN: I read you had one job that wasn’t so serendipitous.

DR: Serendipity Catering. Yes, about a week after working with them I realized that they were owned and operated by Scientologists and that my sales team were all Scientologists. I’m very open to all religions and I grew up in a faithful house but it was a very cold and weird environment. There was no warmth or camaraderie, nobody helped each other and it was very dog-eat-dog. If someone sneezed and you said “God bless you” you were corrected. You were instructed to say “Shush!” or to tell the person to stop it.

PGN: I guess you’re not supposed to get sick in Scientology.

DR: I have no idea. It was very uncomfortable. They would leave Scientology books on my desk. I told the owner, “I appreciate you thinking of me, but it’s not for me” and she told me, “That’s nice but you’re still going to have to read them.” I wasn’t there too much longer.

PGN: Now you’re with Feast Your Eyes. What’s the coolest event you’ve done with them?

DR: There have been so many in a short amount of time. I’d say the Penn Alumni event. It was a big event; it was an 18-hour day with a gala and a picnic and all sorts of things. It was cold and rainy but everyone was in a great mood and we got it done. We’ve also been doing a lot of work with the LGBT community, gay weddings and events, and now that I’m here we’ll be doing even more outreach to the community. We had these cute little ring boxes that we handed out at Pride to everyone and are looking forward to finding other ways to get involved. The owners, Lynn and Skip, are very supportive and now that they’ve opened Front and Palmer we have room for big events too.

PGN: What’s Front and Palmer?

DR: Feast Your Eyes bought and renovated a barrel factory in South Kensington, just 10 minutes from Center City. It’s a really cool space, very chic-industrial, and it can hold 350 people for cocktails or 250 for a sit-down event. It was voted one of America’s Top-45 wedding venues by brides.com.

PGN: I read you do food styling. I did a commercial once for Wonder Bread and they brought in about 200 sandwiches just to find the perfect one for a single shot. Then the stylist positioned each piece of lettuce just so and painted it.

DR: … with glycerin. Oh yeah, we did an ad for a bread company too. The scene was supposed to be “two kids run up as Mom is making sandwiches. They each grab one and take a big bite.” Well, the little actress, who played JonBenet [Ramsey] in the telemovie, refused to eat lettuce and said she didn’t like the bread. So we had to build a sandwich with all the lettuce, tomatoes, etc., showing for the camera, but the piece that she was supposed to bite into had to have it removed. We ended up crafting about 70 of them. But the most bizarre part was finding just the right slices of bread. We went through an entire garage-full.

PGN: Because you need to use the actual bread sold in stores, correct?

DR: Yes, so they bring you cases upon cases of bread to find the perfect piece. We’d open each loaf and check and measure each piece, the center crevice, the thickness and color. It was the longest six hours of my life. The saddest part is that with all the homeless shelters in Denver, they just throw the rest away.

PGN: Silly questions. What’s the longest line you ever stood in?

DR: The Dumbo Ride at Disney World. My poor dad, Jim, stood with me and by the time we got to the front, I didn’t want to go on it anymore. He pretty much dragged me onto the ride. Wait, change that: The longest line was at the Bonnaroo music festival. There were 80,000 people trying to get in and only one entrance opened. It took nine hours to get in! It was ridiculous.

PGN: Worst etiquette breach?

DR: Talking, texting or just dicking around on your phone during dinner. It’s so rude. If you have to take a call, excuse yourself, then come back and put the phone away.

PGN: Ever have to fire anyone?

DR: Yes! And it was kind of funny. At the Boulder Marriott, an expensive light fixture on the fourth floor was broken and there were black streaks on the ceiling. We were trying to figure out what the hell happened. An hour later, I was looking at Facebook and one of the guys I’d hired, a beautiful-looking guy who was a gymnast, had posted videos of himself doing back handsprings up the hallway. He did a flip and broke the light and scuffed up the ceiling. Later he tried to deny it but I was like, “You posted it on Facebook with the caption, ‘Oops, I just broke the light!’” It was so dumb, we had to let him go.

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