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Living Life Creatively: Missoula’s Ray and Susie Risho
Montana Senior News, February/March 2012
If ever a couple epitomized art in action, that couple would be Ray and Susie Risho. Ray’s artistry comes in a delicious edible form through the old-world foods he skillfully prepares. Susie’s expressions of beauty and awe take form through the sculptures and jewelry she handcrafts as well as through her poetry, paintings, and gardens. And that’s just the short list. 

Everywhere you look in the Rishos’ 1908 A.J. Gibson home, you find evidence of their love of the arts. Some 1500 cookbooks overflow their bookcases; vibrant scarves from far-off lands festoon doorways, freeform sculptures perch in corners, and eye-candy beaded necklaces drape luxuriously from walls. 

Their artistry even surrounds you in their kitchen with its battery of well-used pots and whisks dangling from the ceiling. The grand old Wolf stove, stacks of spice tins, and welcoming wooden table promise amazing meals along with warm hospitality. And to be sure, for over four decades those promises have been kept in this room where the Rishos have fed three sons, four grandchildren, and more grateful people than anyone could count.

Hospitality comes as naturally as breathing to Ray and Susie, who both learned the meaning of the word firsthand while growing up in New England.

“My parents regularly took in exchange students. Ray’s parents opened their home to anyone needing a place to sleep,” remembers Susie, who with Ray started Missoula’s first daycare for adults.

“At one time, 24 people were staying in our house and we had just one bathroom,” adds Ray, who learned to cook through observation and osmosis by watching his mother prepare Assyrian specialties such as stuffed grape leaves and skewered lamb kebabs. “I knew what a particular dish should look and taste like and figured out on my own how to make it.”

Despite his eventually launching two landmark Missoula eateries—Emmaus Road and Perugia—Ray admits he never intended to become a chef or restaurateur. As he says, “This wasn’t a path I chose. It was like falling into a funnel: it was easy for me so I did it.”

One of his first jobs in the 1960s after serving in the army was whipping up 25 different sauces and helping prepare up to 500 dinners nightly at an Italian restaurant on Cape Cod. Cupid’s arrow struck the moment he noticed Susie as they passed on a village sidewalk one afternoon.

“We shared a greeting. Then I caught up with her and asked for a date,” says Ray. “It was her first day in Provincetown, so I offered to take her around town and show her where I worked. Then I invited her to come back after-hours to cook her dinner. From then on, we made time to see each other and walk on the beach.”

At summer’s end, Susie’s leather-design work took her to Cambridge while Ray headed to Rhode Island to attend community college. They courted long-distance for a year before marrying. Shortly after exchanging vows they moved west.

“I was fascinated by A.B. Guthrie and The Big Sky. Montana seemed like the last frontier to me so we both enrolled at the University of Montana (UM) to study art. It was a chance to get away, an adventure, but also a hardship life,” remembers Ray, who sat with Susie in Rudy Autio and Walter Hook’s classrooms. “We lived on food stamps and struggled to pay the rent.”

Although Ray and Susie no longer depend on food stamps, they still live lean, donating money and volunteering time to causes close to their heart.

“You could say we have an unencumbered life. We won’t even put political signs on our lawn,” notes Susie. “Our focus is on others not on ourselves. That’s empowered us. Everything we have is a gift from God; it’s not our own. The creativity isn’t ours to keep either. If we keep it to ourelves, we die.”

Unstinting in their generosity to others, the Rishos have aided scores of people to pursue their own artistic passions and to live better lives. Chances are, if you have served on a committee to support the arts or feed the hungry, Ray or Susie very likely attended the same committee meetings you did. 

Currently, Susie pursues her artistic muse while also teaching part-time—things like bookmaking, painting, and drawing—to kids in the city’s after-school Flagship Program. She occasionally teaches at the Missoula Art Museum and serves on the Humanities Montana Speakers Bureau. To her, the arts can’t be valued enough on a personal and civic level.

“The arts bring a huge amount of money into our state through music, drama and visual media. They enhance our lives. I believe everyone is made to be creative. Whatever we do is an expression of our creativity,” says Susie. “We can know civilizations by artifacts and marks on caves left behind. They inspire us with beauty and hit deep inside our soul.”

The Rishos’ bountiful creativity and spirit of goodwill to fellow Missoulians have made them one of the city’s best-known and beloved couples. As testament to that, The Missoula Cultural Council bestowed their Individual Cultural Achievement Award on them in 2008. The couple was jointly honored for supporting the arts and enhancing the quality of life in Missoula.

“That year, we raised over $35,000 by auctioning dinners we cooked and served at our home,” recalls Susie. “Dinners for eight to ten people with themes like Babette’s Feast and Monet’s Garden went for thousands of dollars that we donated to Big Brothers and Sisters, the Missoula Art Museum, the Jeanette Rankin Peace Center and other nonprofit organizations. Ray cooked and volunteers washed dishes and waited on guests. Those of us working in the back had as much fun as those sitting out front.”

In 2003 the Rishos were also given UM’s Community Recognition Award in appreciation for outstanding and dedicated service to international students. And last year Ray received UM’s Outstanding Volunteer Award, which honored him for 40 years of uncompensated time donated in capacities ranging from campus chaplain to cofounder of the Model Arab League. 

Today, The Silk Road restaurant operated by their sons Abe and Sam and Sam’s wife, Elise, carries on the Risho legacy of serving enticing food in gracious surroundings.

“Dad taught us to cook international cuisine and find a passion for it. Many of the dishes we serve here we learned from him,” says Sam. “I’ve always been exposed to good food and hospitality was always one of our family’s gifts to the community.”

Despite enjoying retirement, Ray occasionally steps up to the stove as a guest chef at The Silk Road. He also continues to teach his course, “Cuisine Artistry: The Global Kitchen,” as part of UM’s MOLLI program, a lifelong learning institute for people 50 and over. Plus he hosts river trips on the Missouri called Ports of Call, which are culinary adventures following Lewis and Clark’s trail.

Without doubt, food and family, community and volunteering all blend together perfectly for the Rishos like the flavors in a slow-simmered stew—though Ray’s stews rarely resemble the familiar one-pot meal found on most Montana tables. Instead, his tasty melanges will likely feature fennel or eggplant rather than carrots and potatoes and taste of cumin and coriander, spices more common to the Middle East than the American West. Those who know him would expect nothing less than a delectable creation born of Ray’s love of people and cooking.