Sahar Arafat-Ray grew up in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex with her parents, Husam & Margaret, and her two younger sisters, Danyah & Haneen.
She and her sisters grew up eating good food. “Mom was always collecting and experimenting with recipes, especially from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and recipes from McCall’s Magazine. Dad always cooked Arabic food on Sundays. We were very lucky we didn’t have the same seven meals every week. It taught the three of us to appreciate food and, believe it or not, helped us to understand other cultures; especially our Middle Eastern heritage. It was quite the education.”
When her mother went back to work full time, the task of cooking the family meals fell to a 12-year-old Sahar. “There was definitely a learning curve. Recipes that my mom would put together in seemingly no time at all would take me hours. I also had my share of culinary disasters. Like peanut butter soup and when I put whole cloves in the salad. Luckily, Dad was usually pretty patient. Mom gave me some advice and I trudged on. I discovered that, after a little time, I was actually pretty good at cooking.”
After graduating from University of Texas at Arlington, Sahar moved to Austin in 1992. Her interest in cooking as a career was sparked when she threw a Middle Eastern-themed dinner party at her apartment for her roommates and friends. However, instead of pursuing a culinary career, she worked in various offices. She just kept practicing her skills and continued cooking for family and friends.
In 1998, she joined the Central Market Cooking School as a volunteer. Under the guidance and advice of the late CMCS Executive Chef Roger Mollett, she applied for a position in the Cooking School. She was hired by Cooking School Manager Cathy Cochran-Lewis in October of that year.
“I honestly had no idea what I was doing and I was always afraid I’d be found out. I’d never worked in a professional kitchen before. And even though it wasn’t a restaurant kitchen, there were nights it may as well have been.” From shopping, to prepping the food, to taking care of the customers, to cleaning, it was a challenge to make sure no one saw how the sausage was made. Some nights went smoothly, others didn’t. But it was always fun and rewarding.
Sahar soon started teaching her own classes. “My first class was, of course, Middle Eastern. It went well overall, the food was good. But my timing was off. There were long stretches of time where no food was served and I had a hard time filling the space with conversation and demonstration. But, the audience and I survived.” Since then, Sahar has taught hundreds of classes at Central Market to thousands of students. “I’m still learning on the job. There’s always room for improvement. The students and staff at the cooking school give me great feedback.”
She teaches all manner of classes and is a popular favorite at Central Market Cooking School. “I’ve taught soufflés, crepes, puff pastry, croissants, Middle Eastern, Persian, Peruvian, Vegetarian, Soups, French, Italian. You name it, I’ve probably taught it.”
Beginning in 2001, Sahar began assisting Cathy Cochran-Lewis, who had become the director of the new expanding cooking school chain, as well as Austin Cooking School Manager Kelly Ann Hargrove not only with the administration of the school but also coordinating with the other Central Market cooking schools around Texas for guest and traveling chefs. “Working with Cathy and Kelly Ann, two of the best in the cooking school business, gave me the guidance and confidence I needed to continue growing in my position as not only a teacher, but as an administrator.”
In 2003, Sahar became the Manager of the Central Market Cooking School, a position she held for the next 2-1/2 years. During that time, she had the opportunity to work with such chefs as Ann Willan, Bobby Flay, Alton Brown, James Petersen, and Deborah Madison; as well as cookbook authors like Shirley Corriher, Ruth Reichl, and Colman Andrews.
“I had a great group of people on the Cooking School staff. Chefs loved to teach at our school and it was all due to the staff’s efforts in the kitchen. I made the arrangements, but it was the staff who made the chefs happy.”
After Sahar left the cooking school in 2006 and Central Market in 2009, she moved on to a brief stint at Patricia’s Lunchbox. After recovering from a 2010 shoulder surgery, Sahar started making tentative steps back into the kitchen. “I approached the manager of the cooking school, Meredith Beeman-Lynes, who was my former assistant, and asked her if she would be interested in having me back as a teacher. Luckily, she thought it was a great idea.”
Sahar has continued teaching her popular cooking classes at the school and in private homes. Her specialties include Middle Eastern, crepes, croissants, ethnic foods, and vegetarian cuisine. “I love teaching people how to cook and showing them, that anyone, with a little practice and patience, can cook. It’s not a mysterious thing.”
Sahar is a current board member and treasurer of the Austin Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier and a was a panelist at SXSW 2015 Interactive. She lives in Austin with her husband Steve, a middle-aged cat, a fully stocked kitchen, and lots of books.