To some chefs, “vegan” is a dirty word, representing an expletive-punctuated scramble in the kitchen to pull together a vegetable plate for a diner who eschews meat, eggs and dairy. Todd Gray, however, sees things a little differently.
As chef-owner of Equinox, just a stone’s throw from the White House, Gray — who is neither vegan nor vegetarian — has found the process of creating fine-dining vegan dishes (a rarity in Washington) to be a challenge and a delight. “There’s a tremendous world of great vegetables,” enthuses Gray. “I love my local soft-shell crabs, beef, pork and duck, but, once you get past those four items, there are actually 60 vegetables on our menu right now.”
As the vegan options at Equinox have grown over the past decade or more to include a brunch, originally served on Sundays at the now-defunct Corcoran Gallery of Art, and a tasting menu complete with wine pairings, Gray got itchy to play around with some other ideas, leading to this year’s Vegan Smackdown Challenge. If you never thought you’d hear the word “smackdown” associated with a white-linen-tablecloth restaurant, then you probably also never thought you’d eat an edible “oyster” shell. “If anyone had told me 10 years ago that I’d be flirting with making dashi with local mushrooms,” says Gray, “I would’ve said, ‘You’re out of your freaking mind.’ But that’s the evolution, and it’s exciting for me.”
The concept of the smackdown is simple: Unlike most such challenges, it’s really an exhibition, not a competition. Gray asked several prominent chefs, including José Andrés, Todd English and Carla Hall, to give him a meat-based recipe of theirs that he could convert into a vegan version, featuring one on the Equinox menu each month. The smackdown began in April with Spike Mendelsohn’s Prez Obama Burger, the most popular burger at his Good Stuff Eatery restaurants, which Mendelsohn says he thought would be a “fun challenge” for Gray. The original is laden with applewood bacon, Roquefort cheese and horseradish mayo, but Gray took on the challenge with gusto, using leek ash to simulate veining in a tofu-based “blue cheese” and creating a smoky “bacon” out of oven-dried royal trumpet mushrooms for his quinoa-black bean patty, calling it, cheekily, the FLOTUS Burger.
Mendelsohn says he found the smackdown concept intriguing, particularly now that he’s cooking more vegan-friendly dishes for his vegetarian fiancée and exploring adding such plant-based options as a savory mushroom tartine to the menu at his meat-focused, Montreal-inspired bistro, Béarnaise. “I’ve stumbled on some really delicious flavors,” Mendelsohn says. “Todd’s vegan challenge is definitely another push of creative inspiration.”
That kind of response from other chefs is exactly the point of the challenge for Gray’s wife and Equinox co-owner, Ellen Kassoff, who has been the driver of the vegan experimentation at their restaurant since they opened 16 years ago. “Chefs, being at the top of the food chain,” says Kassoff, “can effect change. Conscientious living provides a balance for mass consumption.”
Describing her current diet as 80 percent vegan — “I like cream in my coffee, and I love oysters” — Kassoff became interested in plant-based cuisine after spending several years working as a sales rep for Sysco. She sold foie gras, ducks and geese to Washington-area restaurants, meeting the chef who would become her husband while on a sales call. However, one day, she says, “I had an eye-opener into the world of meat production, and the way things were raised really got to me. And I just said, ‘That’s it.’ ”
Kassoff’s move toward part-time veganism was not a turnoff for Gray, trained in classical French and Italian cooking, where proteins are often considered more of a condiment than a centerpiece. And he was already well versed in seasonal cooking after working in his early career with chefs Roberto Donna and Jean-Louis Palladin. While Gray began seriously playing with vegan dishes as early as 2002, he and Kassoff had a sense that a plant-based diet was, as she puts it, “something for smelly hippies . . . and we did go to a lot of Grateful Dead concerts.”
When in 2011 they opened Todd Gray’s Muse at the Corcoran, Kassoff saw a chance to experiment: “I always wanted to have my own little hippy-dippy vegan cafe, so Todd agreed we could try it — once a month.” They decided to offer a completely vegan brunch, advertising only by word of mouth, and it filled up completely the first time. By the third month, there was a waiting list to get in, and demand was so high that they decided to have it every Sunday rather than once a month. “We had no proper kitchen,” remembers Gray, “just a panini press and two induction burners. It was like someone had opened the floodgates.”
For Kassoff, it was a chance to connect with other people who were “vegan-curious.”
“The stories of who these diners were was fascinating,” she says. “We spent a lot of time just talking to people and finding out why they were there. Some people were actually vegetarian or vegan, but others were their non-vegan spouses or people who were health- or environmentally conscious and wanted to try it out.”
Through those conversations, Gray began to notice something. “The vegans were a little wistful for something of their own, and their friends and families wanted to be able to participate in their veganism,” he said. The smackdown has become Gray’s response, a search to create a series of signature dishes for vegans, and the vegan-curious, and have a little fun at the same time with original dishes from his peers.
While diners in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and even Asheville, N.C., can sit down to first-class vegan and vegetarian meals in some of the country’s best restaurants, Washington has so far lagged behind in dedicated plant-based fine dining, despite the fact that vegetable-centric cooking and eating generally have been on the rise. Equinox is picking up the slack, recently impressing Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema with what he called “a meatless meal with pomp . . . spreading the message that you don’t need fish, fowl or flesh to draw people to the table.” In fact, Sietsema gave Equinox 2
For the smackdown, chef Jamie Leeds of Hank’s Oyster Bar dared Gray to rethink her Hog Island Style BBQ’d Oysters, a delectation of broiled oysters in a spicy beurre blanc sauce. “I was interested to see how this particular recipe could become vegan,” she says. Undaunted, Gray started by thinking about the oyster shell itself, creating an edible vessel from a deep-fried round of nori, then considering the combination of ingredients that would nestle into that shell to provide just the right bite for his version: BBQ’d Oyster Mushrooms “Roosevelt Island” Style.
“I’m not trying to emulate the flavor of the oyster,” he says, “but there are elements you want.” He naturally gravitated to salsify, a little-known vegetable also called “oyster root,” as the first flavor element he placed inside the nori shell. “It has that little bit of oyster sweetness, so it was perfect for this dish,” notes Gray. He then added grilled oyster mushrooms — “It seemed like the obvious choice” — but later revised the recipe to use maitakes, which he thought had a better overall texture.
It’s clear that Gray is having fun in the kitchen, thinking through textures and flavors down to the tiniest detail: “For instance, I thought about that burst of juice that you get when you bite into an oyster, and I knew I had to come up with that experience.” His solution? A few drops of fresh cucumber-melon juice strategically placed on the grilled mushrooms, which are then topped with a spicy cashew cream sauce and, finally, tiny leaves of red-veined sorrel for a lemony note of freshness. “This dish is probably the quintessential example of where I want to take my vegan cooking,” says Gray.
In the coming months, the Vegan Smackdown Challenge will continue as Gray tackles a cheesy frittata recipe from Cat Cora; Mary Sue Milliken’s cochinita pibil, a slow-roasted pork dish from the Yucatán Peninsula; and a chicken and mushroom paella by José Andrés, among others. “Taking other chef’s ideas is challenging,” says Gray. “Our goal is not to replicate the taste of meat; that’s not the point. It’s about arriving at a creative destination that you didn’t even think you could get to.”
Equinox: 818 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-331-8118. equinoxrestaurant.com.
Hartke is a Washington-based food writer and editor. On Twitter: @khartke.