Face Time: Ellen Kassoff Gray

March 1, 2013

Equinox chef Todd Gray and his wife, Ellen Kassoff Gray, just released a cookbook starring updates on traditional Jewish cuisine.

Ellen Kassoff Gray and Todd Gray can add a new title to their résumés: cookbook authors. The foodie power couple (he’s the chef, she’s the GM at Equinox and Muse at the Corcoran Gallery of Art) just released “The New Jewish Table” ($35, St. Martin’s). They chat about its trad recipes (blintzes, brisket, matzo ball soup) Wed. at 7 p.m. at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue (600 I St. NW).

What was it like introducing your non-Jewish chef-husband, Todd Gray, to Jewish cuisine?
Getting anybody who’s not Jewish to understand what matzo ball soup is is interesting. He grew up in the South and never really ate gefilte fish or herring before. With some couples who are interfaith, the [non-Jewish] partner might never have a penchant to go out and remake a recipe. But Todd’s a chef, so he really wanted to up the ante on matzo ball soup.

How’d he do that?
He tells me club soda [mixed with matzo meal] will keep the matzo balls a little fluffier.

Did he have any ideas about how to improve latkes?
Using a little less oil and some salt, and not letting the potatoes oxidize.

Why are we seeing more chefs making Jewish food in D.C.?
D.C. definitely has a big Jewish base. All these young chefs are looking for old dishes to update and new inspiration. A lot of these cooks are Jewish and grew up with this kind of food and were thinking the same thing Todd thought when we started this book: “Hmm — let’s make these recipes better.”

Why is traditional Jewish food so resonant with chefs?
These people are doing what their grandmother was doing because it’s food that evokes a memory. The best chefs create food that does that while you eat.

Are there intersections between the cuisines you and your husband each grew up eating?
A little bit, because his grandmother was German so there was that European influence. There are definitely some crossover recipes in the book, too, where he did take his Southern roots and kind of combine the food with Jewish traditions.

What’s an example of a Jewish-Southern fusion dish in the cookbook?
Southern fried chicken — the recipe is about a coincidence growing up between Todd and I. It’s an absolute example of the Southern meeting the Jewish. “SoJew,” as we could call it. I just coined a phrase!

I hear you’re a vegan — how can that be in your line of work?
I’m a social vegan. It’s really hard in my business to be 100 percent vegan. It’s my greatest desire one day, but I’m married to a chef and I own a catering company, a cafe and a restaurant, it’s tough. I do what I can. But I haven’t eaten meat in 19 years.

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