Chef Q&A: Sunny Raymond, Union Square Cafe

By Channaly Oum
Channaly Oum
Channaly Oum
August 4, 2013 Updated: October 8, 2018

Sunny Raymond is the pastry chef of Union Square Cafe. Originally from Saint Lucia, she infuses her classic American desserts with Caribbean flavors. She is especially gifted with infusing chocolate with herbs—she gets high marks for her lavender-infused truffles.

Epoch Times: What did you want to be when you were growing up?

Ms. Sunny Raymond: It happened in stages. In preschool we took part in pageants, we dressed up, had tea parties so I thought I wanted to be a princess, naturally. And then in high school, I was thinking along the lines of a lawyer or a teacher, or something like English literature.

It wasn’t until I attended college, my second semester, I had to take a few maintenance classes, like repairing air conditioners and refrigerators, and we took stoves apart. And I noticed I loved using my hands, and I loved using equipment, I loved using tools. So I thought I’d be a repair lady or something. I loved opening up stuff and figuring out how stuff worked. I didn’t ever think I’d do pastry.

Epoch Times: What is one of your significant childhood memories of food?

Ms. Raymond: My dad teaching me how to bake and assemble my first cake, from the beginning to the end; how to trim and slice, and how to make an icing, and spread the icing on. I remember where we were and what we were wearing. It’s something that really stayed with me and from then on I knew I wanted to cook or be in a kitchen. He always preached we should choose a career or a trade using our hands, that way, we can always take care of ourselves, give us some level of independence. I think I was about 17.

Epoch Times: What is your approach or philosophy to pastry/baking?

Ms. Raymond: A couple of weeks ago—this sums it all up for me—I saw this quote from Jonas Mekas, a Lithuanian poet, artist, filmmaker, “If you ask me what art is, I would answer: it is a miraculous testimony of the intensity of a human moment.”

Somehow I translated that into what I do, baking and food, and I just love having a story behind what I’m preparing. What motivated me, how I felt while I was making it, what I was thinking, and my vision of how I wanted the guests to receive it and eat it. I just love making something, and there is this story behind it all. I want everyone to feel the way I felt when I was making it.

Epoch Times: What’s your current favorite ingredient to play with?

Ms. Raymond: Generally, it’s chocolate. But right now it’s cherries. They’re great this year in the greenmarket. They’re perfect. Not too sweet, not too sour, perfect texture.

I’ve been working with them so much I’m literally covered in red [from pitting the cherries]. I used them with a frangipane base, which includes almond flour.

I feel like the pit of the cherry tends to taste a little nutty. We make a purée with it, and put the pit in there and you get that nutty flavor.

Epoch Times: What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen happen in the kitchen?

Ms. Raymond: I don’t know if I can tell you that. [Laughs.] I’m kidding.

This kitchen is just so unusual. We have a really small pastry area back here, and I’m pretty tall. We had a really small range, and we’re cooking and I’m smelling something burning. I’m yelling, “Something’s burning, guys. Something’s burning.”

Everybody’s looking around. And then I hear one of my staff scream. I was on fire. I had something in my hand and for some reason I knew if I put it down, maybe something hot, but my hands were occupied, and I’m screaming to throw water on me, so she grabs a really wet rag and starts beating me with it.

And I just remember the rag hurt more than the flames themselves, and I told her to stop hitting me. Service stopped for a while. It was a bit embarrassing. We gave it some time before we could laugh about it. It just burned through the side of my pants, pretty much my pockets.

Epoch Times: When you’re not cooking, what do you enjoy doing?

Ms. Raymond: I spend the first half of my day—everybody thinks I’m crazy—at the gym, from 8 or 9 until 12 because I think it’s very important to take care of myself physically and mentally. It’s a really good way for me to release stress and also helps build up endurance, and that’s something, which is very important, working in a kitchen.

I’m not trying to lose weight, I’m just trying to stay fit and healthy. The job is very demanding: the time, the hours on our feet. It helps, working out. And the second half of my day, it involves dragging my husband to T.J. Maxx. I love it there. You take away the toques, you take the dredged flour, I would consider myself a fashionista.

Epoch Times: What’s an underrated/under-the-radar restaurant in NYC you’d recommend that you like?

Ms. Raymond: A local diner or a local mom-and-pop joint or the bakery across the street from your house or the bagel shop across the street from your house, I think these are so underrated, I guess because the trend is changing so much, and it’s all about who’s doing this and who’s doing that.

If it’s not a three-star, a five-star chef running it, people won’t give it much thought or appreciate it as much as our deli guy. I think there are some diners that serve some really decent meals. I just remember being abroad and missing New York City and missing these small local places, just the simplicity of it.

It doesn’t always have to be over processed or overthought or anything, just sitting down and saying, “I want a decent burger.” The bun doesn’t have to be from the best bakery or the meat doesn’t have to be from the best cow, just a decent meal.

Epoch Times: What current trend do you find worthwhile?

Ms. Raymond: Definitely sous-vide. I know it’s been around for a while, that’s just one trend that I’ve gotten to appreciate—cooking food slowly in its own juices. You get better flavor, tenderness, and you’re preserving all that wholesome flavor and all that wholesome goodness. And my best memory of a sous-vide dish is chicken I had at this restaurant—a four-star restaurant in New York City. I cut my knife through it, and it was literally like butter and it melted in my mouth. It was juicy and immaculate. It’s a memory that’s stamped, embedded, printed in my heart, and my stomach forever, I will never, ever forget it.

Union Square Cafe
21 E. 16th St., New York
212-243-4020
unionsquarecafe.com

This article appeared in our New York Summer Dining Guide, 2013 Special Edition. To see the complete summer dining guide as a pdf, click here.

Channaly Oum
Channaly Oum