With Todd Gray
Thursday, May 1, 2003; 2 p.m. ET
Chef Todd Gray of Equinox was online Thursday, May 1 at 2 p.m. ET, to discuss his cooking philosophy and affinity for local mid-Atlantic ingredients and traditional technique.
Gray began his culinary career while at the University Of Richmond. He decided while waiting tables that he wanted to pursue a career in the kitchen. Back home on summer break, Todd began his classical European training working under Christian Renult at La Petit Auberge in Fredericksburg, Va. He attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. Upon graduation, Gray found himself interning in some of the country's best kitchens including La Orangerie, Citrus, and Patina. Returning to Washington, he settled in for four years with Master Chef Robert Grault in D.C.'s La Colline. He then moved on to Galileo under Chef Roberto Donna. Gray has twice been nominated for the James Beard Award; Best Chef Mid-Atlantic. (2001, 2002) The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington has three times nominated him for Chef of the Year. (2000, 2001, 2002). Since it's opening Equinox has consistently earned a spot in the top 50 restaurants by The Washington Post and Washingtonian Magazine.
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
washingtonpost.com: Todd, thank you for joining us today. Congratulations on your nomination for the Chef of the Year RAMMY. Can you talk about the importance of these awards and the association in the restaurant community?
Todd Gray: Well, the importance -- first off the association brings together so many of our industry people and supports so many causes around the city for all of us and does so much work for local restaurants. It encompasses small cafes, fine dining in hotels, so it is a good piece of unity.
I've said all along I don't think it's the importance of the award, but the striving to be nominated and being the best you can be in whatever area of our industry you can be in. It's striving to give our customers the greatest service, ambience and food we can. These awards represent those and I'm very proud to be part of this.
Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.: Todd,
What inspires you when choosing what items will be offered on your menu at Equinox?
Todd Gray: I get my inspiration from my products and the availability of product -- whether from somebody who has local ramps or Morels from W. Va. or the first soft shells of the season. That's what gives me inspiration. If I talk to farmers in Pa. and winter chickens are ready for slaughter. I look at my Virginia heritage and the training I've received in the last 20 years and blend those two things together and come up with my Equinox style.
Arlington, Va.: Hi Todd,
I am a recent culinary school graduate. Your hard work is inspiring. Do you have any advice on how I should choose a restaurant to work in that will match my background and personality?
Todd Gray: Well, I think it's important for someone to choose an environment they can learn something in. Learning is the key in the early stages. Attending the greatest culinary school is great, but you get out of it what you put into it. If you go to work in a bistro or a haute restaurant, it's the passion you put in the work. So, go somewhere you feel someone can teach you. We learn new stuff about food every day. Don't take the fast-track. Small steps, learning curves and starting at the bottom and maybe in five years you'll be ready for a sous chef position. But not a year out of school.
Capitol Hill: Todd,
How do chefs, such as yourself, feel about divulging recipes? My husband cannot stop talking about the scallop appetizer he had at Equinox. I think it was in a green pea sauce? I would love to be able to make that for him at home.
Todd Gray: I would be happy to give out recipes. I encourage people to ask for them because I think that sharing knowledge is important -- especially cooking techniques. The old days of not sharing are a thing of the past. I am glad to share any of my recipes.
If you email me at freerange@aol, attention to Todd and Ellen, my wife will pull those recipes out of me.
Fresher the Better: Todd,
Your creations are delicious, well-thought and fun. Thanks!
I've particularly enjoyed two of your "Chef at Market" demonstrations at the Dupont Circle Fresh Farm Market. Are you planning to participate this year? Also, are you doing anything with W. Va. ramps these days, at home or at Equinox?
All the best.
Todd Gray: I am planning on participating this summer. I have not yet spoken to the folks with the farmland trust, but I anticipate or hope to hear from them as I support the farmer's market at Dupont and I love to see the people.
I have ramps on the menu right now. I am doing them with a Halibut dish with Morels and will chit chat with anyone who wants to talk about them and they are one of the true indications of true spring vegetables.
Alexandria, Va.: When and if you cook at home, what's your most dog-eared cookbook?
Todd Gray: Great question. My most-dog eared cookbook. Honestly, I don't do much cooking at home. She is a tremendous cook. Ellen cooks largely from Deborah Madison's books -- all of her vegetarian cooking, James Beard and Jean Georges' book. Those are probably her three favorite chef/authors. I could make something up. But honestly she does all the work at home. She likes to do it and I enjoy her cooking.
Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: I've heard professional chefs disparage the "TV personalities" on cooking shows. As one of the finest chefs on the East Coast, how do you view your celebrity counterparts?
Todd Gray: Well, I think that all of these chefs that are featured on the food network or PBS, we owe them a lot of respect. I don't think there's anything we can take away from Emeril or Wolfgang, these entrepreneurial chefs. They were once chef/owners and are now TV stars. I would never be one to say Emeril is lacking in technique. There's nothing wrong with what they do. But someone's always going to try to take something away from people at the top. If you watch the way they time things, Emeril's show is done extremely well. There is a method to their style and the shows. I can't say a bad thing about it. My hat's off to those guys. It's not my style at this stage of my life, but that's just a whole different level. And their still great chefs.
Washington, D.C.: I love visiting Fredericksburg, besides the obvious -- which restaurants do you recommend there?
Todd Gray: Well, I have to recommend my old stomping grounds, My Petite Auberge. It was the third restaurant I ever worked in. Christian Renault, the owner runs a terrific restaurant. I haven't lived there in many years, but there are the casual eateries -- Sammy T's and I understand there's a new steakhouse there at the old train station. There's a little Italian place called Renato's.
Arlington, Va.: I'm planning to have some friends over next weekend for a "tapas/meze" party. I'm sure I'll be using tomatoes and eggplants (among other produce) in my dishes, even though they aren't in season here, but I'd like to use some local, seasonal things too. What would you suggest I make sure to include?
Todd Gray: Local asparagus is now coming from Virginia. Not Pa. yet. We are seeing spring onions from Virginia. Lots of spinach is coming up now. Those would be some of my immediate things. It's still very early in the season. You can't cook this time of year without asparagus.
Washington, D.C.: What are some of your favorite restaurants in D.C. to dine (if you ever get an opportunity to go to any place other than Equinox!)?
Todd Gray: Well, let's here. Whenever I get asked this, I have to say my favorites are where my friends work. I like Galileo, D.C. Coast, Ten Penh. I like to eat at -- well, you know, I love Spices in Cleveland Park. Around the Dupont area, I like Pesce -- one of my favorite seafood restaurants. And I could go on and on. They're all my friends and I love to support them.
Reality: Did you read Tom's chat yesterday, with the diatribe from the Colorado Kitchen chef? While I do agree with her that diners should not reconstruct a meal at a nice restaurant, I think chefs take themselves WAY to seriously. To compare yourself with Beethoven is over the top. She and others like her (Greenwood) need to get over themselves already.
Todd Gray: I didn't read Gillian's letter. My feelings are that I didn't see it, but I am the opposite. I will let anybody order what they'd like to order. To a degree, I am the chef that allows the customer to do his fish on a dish i have meat set on. I certainly allow substitutions. We're in the hospitality business and customers have unusual requests. If in reason, it's our job to take care of our guests in every way we can. If someone wants to substitute, I'd rather have them eat here than someone else. That's the basis and I want people to leave happy.
Alexandria, Va.: Do you know Tom Sietsema personally and what does he look like?
Todd Gray: I will say this, that I know Tom professionally. I don't think it would be friendly of me to disclose what Tom looks like. I think it important that he keep his anonymity. I think he does a great job.
Clifton, Va.: Why don't restaurant owners, managers and chefs take a more first hand approach in running the front of the house? But that I mean something simple like roaming the dining room and interacting with diners. Hi, how is everything and can I get you anything might be an enlightening experience.
I cant remember the last time I spoke with owner or manager. Used to be common when I waited tables 25 years ago. My managers with always on the floor making sure everything was going okay!
Todd Gray: Well, if you have ever been in my restaurant, you will know that is what I do. I am known for gracing tables more than many other chefs I know. As a chef/owner/operator I spend as much time as I can in the dining room without sacrificing the kitchen. I'm always looking over my dining room staff and may see mistakes with the eye of an owner. I usually catch things like smears on glasses, a picture out of line on the wall. I know it doesn't happen. You get different personalities in different parts of restaurants. Often chefs are uncomfortable in the dining room. It's important that chefs know who are in their dining room as in Washington there are often people who need a handshake. Again, that's just my own personal style. It works for me. It doesn't for some others. If I am in the dining room, I hope they grab me and say hello.
Chevy Chase, Md.: Can I just give you a big kudos for being willing to share recipes?! I think it is a wonderful thing to do and I admire you for being so willing to share your creations with others, especially considering how innovative they are! I have never understood chefs/cooks who were reluctant to share a great recipe. I am an avid cook and get asked for recipes all the time -- I like nothing better than to encourage others to enjoy cooking and eating as much as I do. Well done!
Todd Gray: Well great.
Our city and our world will only be a better place if we teach others how to cook great food.
Washington, D.C.: Is part of the training to be a chef understanding and managing the business aspects of running a restaurant as well? I would think culinary school would be hard enough, but then putting together a staff and running a business would be that much more difficult. How did you prepare?
Todd Gray: As my career developed I knew at the age of 19 that I wanted to own my own restaurant. I fell in love with this business while attending the U. of Richmond. It took me 15 years from that time. I was 34 when I opened Equinox. I had the opportunity to work at Galileo for seven years with Roberto Donna. Nonetheless all the training and "theory" is never ultimately the same as reality and really the actual on-hands training and day-to-day experience. My wife and I had a firm foundation we brought to the table. I would cook and she would run the front of the house. That's the way we started and have built things considerably since we've opened. You develop into it. You don't come out of culinary school knowing how to run a restaurant. That's unrealistic. There's a lot of information from places like L'Academie de Cuisine. Go for it. We need more great restaurants!
Arlington, Va.: Good afternoon, Todd. We always read about what food critics have to say about chefs. What do the chefs have to say about the food critics, both in D.C. and in general?
Todd Gray: On the spot here, eh?
Our industry first off supports the writers and you know, food writing and restaurants and all the things in the industry -- and our industry is touted so much by our writers, sometimes in a positive, sometimes in a negative way. You take the bad with the good.
I think their important to our industry, to share with the consumer their views of what they had. Often we disagree, but oftentimes they are right. Honestly, I believe sometimes they are wrong. Dining can be a different experience depending on day, week, year. I hope we don't fluctuate much at Equinox, but it can happen to the best of restaurants. I think the writers are important and I wish there was a sentence or two that would be eliminated from my reviews, but you take it as a whole and I would never say anything harsh about a food writer because I wouldn't want to expose myself. I've never received any bad press and I appreciate that. Hard work in your restaurant eliminates that bad press, though.
There are a lot of great writers out there and a lot of beginning writers. I meet people who claim to be food writers sometimes and I hope people don't abuse that term. Or they write for something from some small county. Don't mean that as degrading, but they use that sometimes for special treatment -- but everybody deserves that treatment.
Adams Morgan, Washington, D.C.: Hi. I went to Equinox a couple of years ago for a New Year's Eve dinner with friends -- it is still one of the best meals I have ever had! We met the chef, a young man named Tony. Is he still with you at Equinox?
Todd Gray: Yes, he is still with me. Let's see here. He's one of my sous chefs. He and Brendan are my two main assistants in the kitchen that help with the day-to-day operations and he's doing extremely well and there are great things on the horizon for both of them in the near future which I will share in the very near future. They will both be doing something for me in the near future.
Fairfax, Va.: What is your favorite dish to make? To eat?
Todd Gray: Okay, my favorite dish to make... I'd have to say... I'm a regional Virginian. I'm a soft-shell crab lover. One of my favorite things with a saute and clarified butter and lemon and parsley and a crisp glass of sauvignon or white wine. That's my flavor of choice.
My favorite thing to cook. I don't have one particular thing I like to cook. I love to cook birds and seafood. So, I love ducks and squabs and foie gras and all of the wonderful varieties of seafood -- scallops, whole fish and -- risotto. I have a passion for it from all my years at Galileo. I don't keep it on the menu because it's laborious.
Arlington, Va.: How do you rate D.C. as a restaurant town? I've found great variety and talent among the better restaurants, but is it the kind of place where individual chefs can make a real name or fortune for themselves, like New York (Jean-Louis Palladin and Roberto Donna notwithstanding)?
Todd Gray: Well, that word "fortune" I don't know where that came from! As far as developing a good name, D.C. is a great restaurant city. There are so many great ones that have opened in the past few years -- from Mediterranean to French Bistros. There are great young chefs cooking great stuff at all price points. We should be proud of the international cuisine here.
Of course N.Y. is also three times the size in three times fewer space and everybody agrees that New York and San Francisco were considered dining capitals of the U.S., but D.C. is coming on strong and we should be proud of what we have here.
To make a name for themselves? The only way to do this is to do a good job. D.C. is a "big small town." People in this town eat out a lot. If you talk to people from out West, you realize that the volume we do here is a lot higher than a lot of other cities and that's due to the support from our community. I'm proud to own a restaurant in the city. I'm proud to be here.
Rockville, Md.: Is there a "chef community"? Do you all from different restaurants see one another as colleagues or competitors?
Todd Gray: Well, there is a community for sure. Many of us are buddies. Everybody has their set of friends -- as everyone does in their work arena. We have a little chefs club, I gotta tell everybody. Roberto Donna is our pit boss and he calls us together about once a month. We get together late on a Friday night and eat too much and drink too much and have a good time as friends and share what we're doing in our restaurants and events we're doing together and how to make things better. We all support each other and that's what keeps us alive and cohesive. This is why I like to eat at my buddies' restaurants. The RAMW is a good example. It brings us all together.
Are we competitive? Yes, but that's a good thing. But that helps you to strive for perfection. Makes me sleep better at night.
Springfield, Va.: Do you have any upcoming cooking classes? Or, can you do a cooking class for a group of say 8-10? Did a really fun one at Olives -- their executive Steve said great things about you by they way!
Todd Gray: Ya, first off, I recommend that you get on the Web site where our menus and classes are listed. I do one class a month. I have a seafood cookery coming up. My wife and I have been doing these for six or seven years. My wife started the first cooking school out of Whole Foods market. We rolled that into the opening here at Equinox. The new schedule will be coming out shortly and we do them at Bulthaup Kitchen Design in Georgetown -- it's phenomenal in Katie's Alley in Georgetown. All of my classes are hands-on and limited to 16 people. So please call and make arrangements through the restaurants.
We cook three courses and taste wine. A great way to spend the late morning and afternoon.
Alexandria, Va.: Hello, Mr. Gray, thank you for this opportunity.
Professional chefs have access to all kinds of local, sometimes exotic, produce, meat, etc. Where might a devoted home cook go to find such top-quality ingredients? Are there farms in Virginia or elsewhere within driving distance that might sell to individuals?
Todd Gray: Well, I think a great place to start is that there is a farmer's market schedule that starts now and stretches into mid-fall. I would go to your local farmer's markets. I would start with Dupont, there's also Eastern Market. There out in Fairfax, Arlington -- there out there for sure. There's a listing in the Post food section.
These people are there and will even encourage you to come to their farms -- to see their asparagus and bees and rhubarb.
Feed, ME: What is your favorite style of cuisine to eat? To make?
Todd Gray: Oh boy... my favorite style of cuisine to make -- you know a chef's food is indicative of his favorite style of food. If I had another favorite style I'd be cooking. Mine is regional, seasonal American with a really heavy emphasis on Virginia. I have a lot of influence from my Italian and French training, but I like to eat food that I don't often prepare and that I don't cook every day. Such as Asian, whether Japanese or I love good regional Italian although I do a lot of that. I love good vegetarian cooking. One of my favorites is Asian because I don't do a lot of that. There is some great Asian cooking going on in this city.
Logan Circle, Washington, D.C.: Hi Todd --
You own my favorite restaurant and my favorite food is soft shells. Will they be on the menu this month and will you be in the kitchen on my birthday on Monday the 19th?
Todd Gray: I will be in the kitchen on your birthday the 19th. There are few days and nights I'm not here. Funny you should ask that. The first soft shells just came this afternoon and they will be on the menu tonight and I will have them for at least the next 8-10 weeks. Look forward to seeing you. When you're here let me know who you are so we can eat one together.
Formerly Fredericksburg, Va.: Todd --
As a former resident of Fredericksburg, do you ever get cravings for Carl's ice cream? I spent four years there at Mary Washington College, and now even six years later, I still crave Carl's and stop by anytime I'm on I-95 South.
Todd Gray: Good for you. Brings back a lot of childhood memories, for sure. Many August nights with my parents. It's an ice cream landmark on the Eastern seaboard. Great family that runs the business.
Washington, D.C.: I saw you in the dining room when I ate at Equinox. I think I would have blushed if you came over!
Todd Gray: Oh really. Well, you shouldn't. I hope that I wouldn't embarrass you. The next time you're here, please, I'm very approachable. I'd love to talk a little food and wine. It's my passion. I love it.
Tyson's Corner, Va.: First, wanted to thank your staff for their very good service. I've always been treated well there, whether with my husband's buttoned-down lawyer friends, or with my graduate school (read: often casual and poor!) friends. The food's good, too!
Second, do you have any thoughts on the chef from the St. Regis (can't remember his name) who, last I heard, was suing from race discrimination? Is he still a part of the D.C. restaurant community?
Todd Gray: Yes, Timothy Dean. He was a professional associate of mine for many years. I'm very sorry for what happened to him. I understand he's "knocking on the door" for another project. I hope whatever he does he succeeds in. He's a very talented chef.
I like people to think of Equinox as a place they can come in jeans and a casual shirt or for a business luncheon or dinner. I don't have a dress code here. I would prefer that people not wear flip-flops, but I will serve you. My wife and I are pretty casual people, but I like to have attention to detail and like when most gentlemen come in dresses and women too. A good blend of dress is nice, though. The important thing is that you bring people together over good food and wine -- whether you're in loafers and jeans or a pin stripe suit, I'd rather have you here.
Somewhere, USA: My vegetarian friend insists that chefs “hate them” and all that’s ever offered to them on menus is a single dish of mixed vegetables instead of a having true vegetarian entrée. Is there a general disdain for the vegetarian/vegan among the finer dining establishments?
Todd Gray: Well, I am a little different from -- your friend probably hasn't eaten here. I always keep a vegetarian pasta on the menu. I always have a vegetarian soup available. I appreciate this because my wife is a vegetarian. We try to do stuff with veg broth so they can try it. I've done tasting menus for the Vegan society of D.C. It's a test of my creativity.
All I ask is that if you're looking for a nice three-course veggie meal, give me a day's notice so I can prepare special things. There's a half a dozen dishes on my menu that are veggie friendly. The notice helps. I can do pasta, risotto, chowders with vegetables. We think of ourselves as veg friendly and hopefully vegetarians who have eaten here will say they've had a good meal.
Annapolis, Md.: Todd! Thanks for taking these questions today; it's really great.
My question is somewhat strange. I'm a very picky eater who desperately wants to branch out, I'm just somewhat repulsed by the idea of some foods. Slimy textures I just can't handle. Same goes for gristle, stringy meats and shellfish. How can I overcome the mental barriers to enjoying good food!?
Todd Gray: The slimy and gristly thing -- hmmm. My recommendation would be to try simple foods: try the grilled fish. Ask the chef for grilled fish on mashed potatoes with sauce. Sometimes flavors are acquired. Keep cooking at home too and learn what it is you like to eat so when you go out you spend money on an entree you're not disappointed in.
I don't know about slimy or stringy, though. I would make sure your food would not be like that here.
Washington, D.C.: When you're looking to hire kitchen staff, how do you find people? What do you look for? Is there a "cooking audition" that you make people go through, or is it mostly by word of mouth or reputation of the restaurants where they've worked?
Todd Gray: Well, often there can be different ways of hiring. Often they're hired by phone calls or one chef's recommendation. Often when I get someone I don't know, we have them "trail" for a day or night or two to get an idea of their abilities -- how they hold themselves in a professional kitchen.
Unfortunately you sometimes never know the shoe you're wearing till you put it on. We want to make sure the fit is right for both of us. It's in the best interest for both parties to get a look at it and the chef you're going to work for. And vice versa.
Arlington, Va.: As a chef, do you have to be a great generalist or can you be a really good specialist with great sensibilities. I have to imagine that no matter how talented the chef, there are still dishes that just don't work or that you don't do as well as you'd like.
Todd Gray: Sometimes cooking can be a case of trial and error and there are some fundamental basics to cooking. Certain things, traditionally, don't work together. I can't find one as an example -- chicken livers and chocolate sauce. I'm not sure that would work. But have I ever done dishes I'm not happy with? Yes. If I come up with ideas that don't work, I eliminate them and go back to my foundation, to a stand-by that works well. Generally speaking you follow a roadmap and say "this works" and so on. There are certain acids that clash. It can come down to chemistry. Food is not about putting together one green veg, one starch, one meat. There is balance and that's what we spend 14 hours a day thinking about. We taste things in our brain, our mouth and and then put them on the plate.
You should call me and we can talk about this over some vino.
Thank you, Chef Gray!: No question -- just wanted to let you know that Equinox is one of my favorite restaurants, and has a very special place in my heart. My fiance proposed to me there in October, after an absolutely amazing dinner. I am so glad that he picked that location. We have since returned on many occasions.
Todd Gray: Awwww, great. congratulations on your engagement. Like several others engaged here, I hope we see you on your anniversary. Make yourself known here. I'm touched that you had a special part of your life here at Equinox.
Long time Customer, Washington, D.C.: Hey, Todd. Congratulations! You and your family deserve it.
Todd Gray: Well, thank you. I just feel that D.C. has been so supportive of us and the restaurant over these last four years. We try to execute a great experience day in and day out. We spend our life here and I hope all of those out there reading this can come see us. We're excited. I thank everyone out there for supporting us. Keep cooking, eating, drinking!
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