By Lisa Anderson
It is always fun meeting someone who grew up in the same town as you did. In this case, it happens to be Ray Venezia, who I had the pleasure of speaking with about his new bestselling book “The Everyday Meat Guide,” which sold out on Amazon within four hours of his appearance on “The Rachel Ray Show.”
But first, let’s go back a bit, back to Ray’s grandfather’s butcher shop, Koelbl’s Market, in the Peterstown section of Elizabeth.
The ‘berg,’ as we used to call it, featured some of the best stores, a fish store with tanks of live eels, waiting to be skinned for Sunday gravy, a farmers market where little old Italian widows would begin shopping at 7 a.m., always in black, their stockings rolled down to the ankles in the summer.
“I had such fun times at my grandfather’s shop”, Ray told me. “My grandmother would be there, my family, my cousins, and I remember along the ceiling there were these shelves lined with toys and trucks and all kinds of cool stuff.
“That’s probably where I got the idea to become a butcher, but I didn’t know it at the time. When I was about 10, my family moved to Edison, right next to Metuchen, where I went to grammar school at St. Francis, high school at St. Thomas Aquinas.”
When Ray turned 16, his father told him, “Make sure you have a job by the end of the week.”
By the end of the week, that job was pushing carts at the local Stop and Shop, but Ray was promoted to part-time manager by the end of summer.
“I busted my butt,” laughs Ray. “My father worked extremely hard his entire life. He instilled that same work ethic in me. He and I are both known as the ‘go to guys. ‘I’ve worked 10 hours a day, six days a week for 40 years.”
Next came the Metuchen Foodtown.
“My uncle, who worked there, asked me if I wanted to be an apprentice butcher. He told me it was good money, so I said yes. By union standards, it usually takes about three years to become an apprentice butcher. I finished in two years.”
Ray, who had just turned 20, then followed his uncle to Corrado’s in Paterson, where they were opening up a meat, fish and dairy section.
“It was the biggest market in Paterson and I stayed there for 18 years. I also met my future wife Dorean there, she worked part-time as a cashier while she was in college,” he said.
Ray’s next stop was at Food Emporium, whose intentions were to open stores in New Jersey as well as New York.
“The Jersey stores didn’t do well, so the supervisor asked me to stay in the meat department in the New York store. I stayed a year, then moved on to Fairway Market in New York; they were looking for a meat guy,” he said.
That is where things began to really pick up for Ray, who quickly became the “go to guy” at the age of 38.
“My boss was amazed at how much knowledge I had about meat at such a young age. My career at Fairway took off. I quickly rose to the head of the meat division at the Harlem store,” he said.
That year, Julia Moskin, a reporter at The New York Times, came to do a story about how to carve a Thanksgiving turkey.
She was looking to interview butchers and when she found Ray he was so animated, entertaining and knowledgeable that she asked him if he would do a video.
That six-minute video became an Internet sensation, with Brian Williams showing it on “Rock Center.” Staff at the food website chow.com saw that video and asked Ray to do another video, which was then seen by Rachel Ray’s people, who soon contacted Ray the butcher and asked him to be a guest on her show.
“It’s unbelievable. One minute I’m a butcher in Fairway Market and before you know it, I’m in front of the cameras talking to Rachel Ray. I’ve been her guest now two to three times a year for the past 10 years. She called my book a masterpiece! Imagine?”
Ray has appeared on “Fox and Friends,” “Good Day New York” and “Today.”
“I’ll be back on with Rachel Ray May 24 with grilling tips, look for me!” he laughs.
Had Ray not retired a couple of years ago, the book wouldn’t have been written. “I’m so grateful to fellow writer Chris Paterson from Chronicle books who helped me tremendously throughout this process. Chris is the best, he helped me turn my knife into a pen.”
After working six to seven days a week for forty years, Ray’s enjoying time at his home with wife Dorean and sons Raymond, Robert and daughter Barbra. And of course his biggest fan, his Dad Ray Venezia, Sr. He said the only cloud over his success is his mom Dolores not here to see his success, but he knows she’s always with him.
“I’m looking around at a few possibilities,” says Ray. “Maybe get back into the meat industry, maybe even open a little business. I’d like the book to be recognized enough so if I decide to put a meat product in the stores with my name on it, people will know it’s me.”
“The Everyday Meat Guide” is available on Amazon books.
Lisa Anderson is a Greater Media radio personality and a columnist for Greater Media Newspapers. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org