It takes drive to be a car chef. Plus a good-size glove compartment, willing travel companions and an obsessive desire not to waste food.
We’re not talking about gastronauts who heat foil packets under the hood. Car chefs ride shotgun. They pack a cooler tidy enough to fit at their feet. Like most folks, they clear perishables from the fridge before they hit the road. But car chefs take the leftovers with them, to blend with fresh finds at produce stands along the way.
They can’t afford to be food snobs.
Labor Day is a national holiday for all, but it is especially appreciated by this particular subset of culinary adapters. Starting Friday, AAA reports, 27.3 million people in America are expected to travel by auto some 50 miles or more from home. If they sojourn like Ellen Kassoff Gray, they won’t go hungry.
“I’ve always been a fan of the all-American road trip,” says Gray, 46, who is married to chef-restaurateur Todd Gray. They co-own Equinox downtown, and she is instrumental in his other restaurant projects.
From time to time, her husband finds the curious habit somewhat mortifying, she admits. Mostly, he gets it. Still, there are some creations he won’t eat: Using soy cheese as a sandwich wrap is not something she will try again. But their almost-12-year-old son, Harrison, is game for anything.
“He knows we’re not stopping for fast food,” his mother says. “Over time I waved off those choices in favor of my own car picnic. Half the fun is the creativity of food; we’re in the food business, after all, so it’s not like we can’t eat before we go. It’s about a challenge.”
In her repertoire is a sun-brewed tea that sits back with the luggage for hours, then is mixed with pomegranate and lemon juices and sometimes fruit slices. Certain condiment pairings (“I do a great honey mustard”) will form dipping sauces for fresh vegetables. Leftover hash browns combined with packet mayo and fresh bell pepper and onion purchased on the road turn into potato salad.
Once the glove box is empty, Gray has been known to use it as a warmer for what she calls “pie”: a crushed nut-sugar-butter crust patted into a disposable loaf pan before the trip, then filled with a mixture of jam and fresh fruit. After a few hours, the thing has settled just enough to resemble dessert.
Gray’s membership in the dashboard dining club can be traced to her childhood, when she was one of six in a station wagon on family treks from Washington to Florida. They hauled a camper with a pop-up sink, and it functioned as a self-contained unit when it came to meals and snacks. She listened to her mom say time and again, “The most expensive food is that which you throw away.”
The maxim stuck. “To this day, I have an inability to waste food,” Gray says. “I am the most frugal foodie on the planet.”
To prove her point, she summarizes basic strategies:
You must be organized, and a bit of a hoarder. Gray collects plastic-cutlery packages with napkins and empty reuseable containers from grocery store delis (for mixing and serving). She keeps a stash in the glove compartment of her own car, ready to transfer when it’s time to road-trip. Her chef’s kit includes a small cheese board, a serrated knife, a small jug of water (for rinsing utensils), a car trash bag and cups with secure lids. The recent purchase of a multi-tasking “Tupperware thing” with a shredder top thrills her to no end.
She uses a cooler that’s small enough to fit in front of the passenger seat, for easy access. Ice is pre-portioned in small plastic sandwich bags. The cooler starts off filled with a load of figs from their tree, maybe some cooked shrimp that she passes around with a “packet” sauce of ketchup, mayonnaise and nondairy creamer (adds creaminess). The cooler’s flat top doubles as a work surface. The center console of an SUV can be used for pantry storage of almond and peanut butters, nuts, a bag of whole-wheat tortillas.
About those packets: Gray “procures” mayonnaise, relish, ketchup, mustard, cream cheese, soy sauce, salt and pepper whenever they stop for gas at combo convenience store spots. (“Don’t worry; I won’t take them without buying something,” she says.)
As it happens, the Grays’ dashboard dining can go intercontinental. Last week, the family drove around Spain and France. True to form, Gray took with her some bits from a stopover in New York.
“I’m the only one in Europe who asks for doggie bags!” she reported with pride via e-mail. She scored stylish containers (recyclable) to ferry some leftover Spanish stew, which the family ate on the road with a small stash of French cheese and single-serve packages of Wasa bread from the first leg of their flight. And she made her husband pull over when she spied a sign for French fruit sold along the road.
“The key to being a great car chef is you’ve got to have some great vehicles,” she says, no pun intended. “By that I mean this is a great time of year to support local farmers. Buy fresh at their stands; eat in the car.”
Ellen Kassoff Gray will join today’s Free Range chat at noon on Wednesday; go to live.washingtonpost.com.