‘Ms. Cindy’ has a special way of creating food for thought

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Photo by Meaghan Colvin: Cynthia Ray serves up warm smiles to her hungry constituents in the cafeteria.

By Meaghan Colvin
Arts and Entertainment Editor

Nearly 10 a.m., it’s a quiet Thursday in the University of Dallas cafeteria. Holding my empty tray, I walk past the grill, past the home cooking line. After four years of eating cafeteria food, I have mastered the art of finding the best food. After four years, I know where to find my money’s worth. I’m not talking about the food, but about the relationships formed in the cafeteria.
Think about it. The food students devour in less than 15 minutes was prepared, cooked, and served by individuals. These individuals have just as many aspirations, fears and feelings as any UD student. I don’t think I’d appreciate my own cafeteria experience were it not for those individuals who have kept me well-fed over the years. And of all these lunch ladies and cooks, there’s one who stands out and shines.
Affectionately known as “Ms. Cindy” by most, if not all UD students, Cynthia Ray may be one of the most loved employees working for the University of Dallas.
I stop in the cafeteria only to grab a cup of coffee while chatting with Cindy, but then I see her latest culinary creation: breakfast burritos. Before I can stop myself, I grab a clean plate and one – make that two — burritos. While I stack the breakfast cuisine onto my plate, Cindy busily cleans the breakfast line, prepares a pizza sauce, and runs around with trays and pots. I may be eating breakfast, but Cindy already moves her focus to the next meal of the day.
She kindly hollers, “Be right there, sweetie!”
“No hurry, Ms. Cindy!”
“Baby girl, I have to clock out! So much to do though!”
And what a true statement that is. Cindy stands on her feet all day, serves meal after meal, and deals with hundreds of hungry students. And with all that on her plate, she still provides thousands of smiles to UD students. So, I’m already feeling a little guilty cutting into her short break time.

What Cindy cares about
During her break, Cindy typically takes a quick rest before the next rush of students sweeps in for a meal. But today, she meets with me instead. Before I even ask her any of the questions I have in mind, she asks me a few.
“Alrighty, ma’am! What would you like to know? This is so cool, but I’m curious, why did you pick me?”
She raises her eyebrows, and her intense blue eyes pierce into mine. Her soft smile makes me feel at ease. Cindy’s gentle exterior is reason enough to interview her. But I also remember it’s what’s on the inside that counts.
Why did I want to sit down with Cindy and chat with her? She has a special way of impacting the student body with her care — care for the food she cooks, care for the students she serves. Cindy is the kind of woman who means it when she asks, “How are you?” and when you ask her in return, she will share parts of her personal story. Some of the pieces involve hardships, other components contain joy.
I take a bite into burrito No. 1. This isn’t microwave junk. Cindy’s meals take time and effort. And, along with the eggs and peppers, I can taste just that.
“Well, I have been cooking for 25 years professionally, so I wouldn’t slack on it.”
Cindy worked as a breakfast cook at Susan’s Omelets, a former restaurant in the Dallas area. “I started working there in 1987. It was an intense, fast-paced environment. I baked everything from scratch. I became skilled with pastries and baked goods. My manager, Alexander, taught me everything I know about cooking. I got real good at the job — better than him — and I sure earned my nickname: ‘Speed.’ ”
While she enjoyed the fast-moving environment, she felt called to be elsewhere. Her mother had been working in alternative schools, and Cindy felt the desire to cook in a similar setting. “I love kids. My calling is to feed children of all ages.” Cindy has fed elementary, middle school, high school, and college students. “It’s fun to see you all during each stage in life,” she says, “And no matter what, you’ll always be hungry.”

Getting here from there

In 1995, she began working for schools in Irving. “When I began at the elementary school, I made $5.65 an hour. The lunch ladies were low on the totem pole, and we felt that way. But I did love my supervisor, Violet. She used to eat with us every day…”
I take another bite out of the first burrito while Cindy revisits memory lane. Something I am utterly impressed with is that each manager, each person she encounters in life, she remembers by name. Names matter to Cindy, more than occupations and the labels.
I drift back into her story. She continues, “One day, we mentioned to Violet how we were feeling and how we were being treated. She responded, ‘What could be more rewarding than feeding children?’ From that moment on, I knew that this was a serious calling, and there was nothing more rewarding that feeding children.”
It’s now her fourth year at the University of Dallas. “I originally came to UD six or seven years ago looking for a job, but they didn’t have anything available. But, then, in 2008, something opened up with Aramark dining services, and I knew that I needed to try again.”
By this point, a little line of Frank’s hot sauce slides down one of the corners of my mouth. Grabbing a napkin and trying not to make Cindy laugh too much, I ask: But why UD?
“You know? I really don’t know! Like I said, I love kids. I have fed kids who are a part of every aspect of life. UD’s been one of the best experiences of my life,” she says with a smile. “I love it when you guys come to see me. You’re so polite, so talkative, and very respectful. You make me feel good inside. You’re always saying, ‘thank you,’ but really I should be thanking y’all.”

When food matters most

It’s no wonder UD students thank Cindy so much for her cuisine. She not only cooks, but she takes an interest in what she’s cooking. She looks at me with a face so serious, one that shows that she means business. “If I wouldn’t put it in my mouth, I wouldn’t dare put it in yours.”
As a matter of fact, she has refused to serve food when it is overcooked or undercooked. “I remember one time when I burned the cheese on a lasagna I made several years ago for the elementary school children, and I got into a huge fight with my boss because I refused to serve the kids that lasagna. I told him just what I told you, ‘If I won’t eat it, why should they?’ He knew I was right.”
Cindy loves to spin the recipes with her own little twists. “Jut the other day, when I was making enchiladas, I made this enchilada sauce from scratch. That stuff had a zing to it. The kids came back for seconds and thirds. Ha, I remember that day in the cafeteria. The line was too long for me get in on the action. But I was so happy to see kids eating my food.”
She mentions that several faculty members have asked her to consider working on the management level.“They told me I’d be so good there. On one hand, I think it would be a neat chance to try out a new job, but on the other hand, I’d rather cook. Though cooking has been getting tough these days–the new menu is killing me!–because the Aramark menu wants healthier choices. My boss tells me that I’ve had it easy: pasta and the wok every other day for the past three years.” But she loves the effort. And she loves the positive and negative feedback. “If you don’t like what I am serving, tell me!”
She adds, “And I love my job because I get to be one-on-one with the people. Since I do get to see the students everyday, it’s fascinating to hear all the different accents and hear all the different stories. Like, do you know Jessica, the girl from South Africa?”
I do.
“It’s always amazing to hear stories that come from around the globe, and I just love the way she talks! She makes everything sound so elegant.”
While Cindy does an impression of Jessica’s accent, the wheels in my head are turning. I don’t think Jessica, a senior at UD, has eaten in the cafeteria in two or three years. I’m blown away that Cindy remembers names and personalities so well.
“And you know? There is very little compassion in the world, but I see it here everyday.”

Photo by Meaghan Colvin: For “Ms. Cindy,” the food she dishes up for students must first meet her own standards.

A life away from cooking

Cindy is definitely a part of that. But there’s another side of Cynthia Ray, a side that some UD students may hear about when talking with her in the lunch lines — but it’s a life far away from Aramark Dining Services. It is her own life.
When she is not working, Cindy enjoys taking bike rides and going on long walks. When she wants to take it easy, she loves doing puzzles. She loves world history — especially Egyptian history — and has been learning hieroglyphics. “I will go to Egypt before I die. I may be 80, but I’ll find a way there,” she told me once. More than that, she loves being with her family, namely her two daughters. And she loves playing with her 6-month-old granddaughter.
As I am starting my second burrito, I notice how Cindy keeps speaking of her family. She always talks about them when I get food from the cafeteria everyday. Her grandmother made guns for World War I. Her mother passed away in 2004 after suffering from diabetes and dementia. Her daughters were honor roll students. Her sister visits Dallas at least once a month so that the two of them can catch up. It’s amazing to pick up on the small things that really matter.

What does family mean to you, Cindy?

“Family means a lot to me. My mother was a single mom. We were living in an efficiency apartment in Miami Beach. She worked as a nurse at night, and during the day she slept. Without her around, I was something of a flower child. My sister and I had to take care of ourselves. She and and I are still very, very close. She spoils me rotten.”
And at the University of Dallas, Cindy is a part of this family.
Lucy Ricci, a senior, has eaten in the cafeteria for the last four years. She has experienced all kinds of Aramark meals, those that are satisfying and others that are not even edible. However, she had only good things to say about Cindy: “She is so friendly and is a lively person. And she always makes it a big point to talk with me.”
Allie Liebenow, another senior, agrees. “She wants to do more with her job than what she is getting to do. I don’t know all of Cindy’s story, but she seems like a tough person; she works really hard and with a good attitude. And I love talking with her!”
Michael Maher, who works in facilities, has spent time working in the cafeteria. Asked him about his co-worker, he responded, “She is great. One time when we were working in the bakery together, she played classic rock [on the radio], which was a nice break from the rap music. She’s probably the nicest person who works here, and she works the hardest. She is consistently the first to have work done, which I really appreciated. She is all-around awesome.”
Before I left Cindy…and after I finished my delicious breakfast, I asked Cindy for advice to pass on to UD students. Taking a deep breath, she gives it a moment and then responds, “Keep smiling. Always think positive. Be respectful. You only fail if you quit trying.”
There are all credos that Cynthia Ray lives by and believes in, whether she’s cooking a new creation or studying hieroglyphics. And these are principles that she will continue to follow. “I give it 125 percent everyday, and in every place I have worked and lived.”

Meaghan Colvin wrote this article for the magazine class at UD.

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