I’m not one of those celebrity chef types—I don’t hang out in the circle…
Ray Tang rushes around the dust-covered floor of his new Los Gatos restaurant, The Catamount, with a mixture of professionalism and sheer giddiness. He’s getting pulled in all directions: the bartenders are there for training, men in suits are looking busy and official, and the painters are trying to match the exact pale beige color of the building so that they can paint over the old “California Café” letters. Despite busily finishing up the last necessary touches before the expected grand opening, Ray steals a quiet moment to tell the story of how The Catamount came into being.
Ray Tang has always loved food. His family is from Hong Kong (“and all people in Hong Kong are gourmands, every single one,” he says), yet he lived in Southern California, which he describes as a culinary wasteland of chain restaurants. When he came north to attend college in San Francisco, he would pass the wide windows of PJ’s Oyster Bed, where the chefs were cooking beautiful, bountiful fresh seafood. “These guys were not just frying up a box of frozen squid tentacles,” he says. And it was a revelation.
Inspired by the Bay Area culinary landscape and finding himself to be a natural talent in the kitchen, he “went to the school of hard knocks,” as he describes it. He got a job as a dishwasher (despite earning a degree in liberal arts) and asked chefs to teach him technique after hours. He gained confidence and skill and worked his way through famed San Francisco establishments Postrio and Boulevard. He then completed the necessary stint in New York, proving himself to top chefs at notable restaurants. When California called him home, Ray returned to open Mariposa, a small, very successful restaurant in Sonoma County.
In between selling Mariposa and opening a new restaurant, Ray had time on his hands and randomly entered a high-profile pork-cooking contest in Iowa. He won the whole event with a pig jowl recipe. “Now,” he explains, “I’m not one of those celebrity chef types—I don’t hang out in the circle—I can’t. I’m too crass, too sarcastic, but here I was, Ray Tang, winning this major pork contest.”
The pork board sent Ray on a speaking tour, which proved to be a pivotal moment, as it helped him formulate his brand and cultivate his public image. He remembers sitting in front of a room full of recipe testers and writers at Southern Progress, a publishing company based in Alabama. He was there to talk about his winning pork recipe, but, he realized, these people wanted to know about him—they wanted an experience. As much as they wanted to learn about economical cuts of pork, they wanted to know the chef, Ray Tang. So he turned on the charm and has never quite been able to turn it off. Every restaurant he’s opened since has been a Ray Tang creation. He has focused on more than just the menu: he infuses the ambiance with his own imaginative, humorous personality.
In 2006, Ray opened the now much-beloved Presidio Social Club (PSC), a San Francisco favorite that made the Presidio cool when, as he puts it, “no one was going down there.” The restaurant, set in a 1903-era military barracks, needed a certain look that was respectful of the location but modern and sophisticated. With no formal ties to the military, Ray turned to Hollywood and the romance and elegance of the 1954 film White Christmas. He wanted the feeling of that movie, the feeling, he elaborates, “of the soldiers coming back home—of friends helping friends—of a time when they dressed well.” As for cultivating the feeling, he had some ideas. “Remember that scene at the club in Florida? Those little lamps on each table?” he asks. And that right there is the key to what makes Ray Tang work: the attention to detail, the zeroing in on some small component that helps encapsulate an entire essence. So while the Social Club serves fresh California fare and upscale comfort food, it also offers an experience, a connection to a bygone era that Ray manages to articulate with a simple table lamp.
When Ray was ready to start a new project, he set his sights on the South Bay. Searching for a feeling more than an exact location, he explored the area, learning the unofficial boundaries between Santa Clara and Sunnyvale and discovering the myriad ethnic neighborhoods and individual villages. When his team showed him the California Café in Los Gatos, he wandered in, got a seat at the bar, ordered a drink, and waited for that feeling. After a little while, he said to himself, “I get it. I can make this work.”
The space was much larger than what he’d been looking for, but he saw the potential. The building was an old school, built in the 1920s, and it appealed to Ray’s cinematic, nostalgic aesthetic. For a brief moment, Ray considered opening a second PSC, but in the end, he decided that this place had enough personality for its own identity: The Catamount.
The name, The Catamount, comes both from the translation of Los Gatos (“the cats,” named for the area mountain lions) and the restaurant’s location, nestled at the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The space has been completely transformed from its decades as the California Café. It’s now open, airy, and polished, with brass fixtures, a creamy white marble bar (a subtle homage to his PSC), and pale greens and yellows to complement the white subway tile and reclaimed wood.
When looking for inspiration for the décor, Ray again turned to Hollywood, and zeroed in on a scene in Lawrence of Arabia. “I wanted palm trees and shutters and Moorish details.” He grins and points to open white shutters partitioning the library. “See? I got my shutters.” He points out other details that hint at humid colonial clubs of the 1920s: the rattan, brass accents, caned lounge furniture, and Chilewich fabric. Every element is incredibly understated. There’s no kitsch here. It’s carefully curated and thoughtful.
Designed to look more like an expansive country house than a dining room, the 10,000-square-foot space is cleverly organized to be flexible. Rooms can close off to host private events, but there is an easy flow between them. Ray explains the layout: a bar/lounge area (with a sleek ping pong table, a subtle tell that Ray isn’t taking himself too seriously), the living room, library (complete with fireplace and leather banquets), and two large sunrooms that overlook the Redwood treetops and the Los Gatos Creek Trail below. One almost expects doors to open onto an indoor pool, full of houseguests in jazz-age attire there for the weekend.
But again, this is the magic behind Ray Tang’s success. “Sure, there are great chefs everywhere; there’s great food everywhere. But I’m creating an experience. I want people to get that subtle sense of make-believe. They’re not going to know why they get it, but they do. And you have to make that feeling happen.”
Ray wants The Catamount to become part of the fabric of the community. He wants people to say, “I had my engagement party at The Catamount.” Or, “I had my graduation party there.” It will be a place that makes people feel transported. They know that it is something special, as they sit next to the fire in the library or play ping pong in the lounge. They just might not know exactly why.
Written by Kate Evans
Photography by Daniel Garcia
This article originally appeared in Issue 9.3 “Future”