Todd Gray, chef/owner of Equinox in Washington, has worked with culinary leaders such as Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller, but Gray names a much older devotee of food as a model. “Thomas Jefferson was a gourmand who brought a lot of French and Italian heritage to the United States,” Gray explains. “He was passionate about French products and the pasta machine and wines of Northern Italy.” Like Jefferson, Gray says, “I am a regionally rooted chef, although I incorporate a hint of French and Italian in my cuisine.”
Rising to the top as a chef in the nation’s capital at age 39 is an unlikely story line. But Gray, who opened Equinox four years ago with his wife, Ellen, has done just that: The restaurant is one of the hottest reservations in town. Just a short walk from the White House, Equinox counts among its regulars Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, and Motion Picture Association of America President and CEO Jack Valenti.
Gray states his philosophy this way: “show people your passion, and they understand you’re serious about your work.” He breaks away from the kitchen to mingle in the dining rooms. He stops tableside, sharing tidbits about his menu or wine list with his guests. He might assume the role of waiter, making recommendations and taking orders. For lucky regulars, he may even cook dishes not on the menu.
Gray grew up in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and he uses regional and seasonal ingredients. Winter guests to the restaurant will discover first courses such as brandade-crusted diver scallops with green lentils (brandade is a mixture of salted fish, olive oil, garlic, milk and cream), and entrees such as bacon-wrapped monkfish loin on creamed celeriac, or rib rack of Randall veal with chanterelles and Perigord truffle au jus. (Randall veal comes from a small mid-Atlantic herd that’s grass-fed and hormone free.) For dessert, perhaps red wine-poached pear with hazelnut and mascarpone mousse.
Such dishes have earned Gray three nominations for Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic by the James Beard Foundation (2001, 2002 and 2003) and raves from critics. “I wanted to order everything in sight at Equinox,” wrote restaurant critic Tom Sietsema of The Washington Post in a 2002 review.
Equinox, 818 Connecticut Avenue, NW, 202-331-8118, www.equinoxrestaurant.com. In spring 2005, fans of Gray’s cuisine can get more of it at the restaurant at The Salamander Inn annd Spa in Middleburg, Virginia.
Gray’s passion for the world of food dawned quite early — at age 7, when he accompanied his grandmother to an Amish market in Pennsylvania. “I saw children bringing baby lambs into market, the cheeses and charcuterie,” says Gray. “I admired that and wanted to learn more about it, and I’m still learning more every day.”
After graduation from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, he interned in several top kitchens in Los Angeles — L’Orangerie, Citrus and Patina — before returning to D.C., where he worked with Robert Grault at La Colline, then for seven years with Roberto Donna at Galileo. “At La Colline I learned to be a disciplined chef and to always value cooking and business as a single entity,” says Gray. “From Roberto [Donna] I learned passion and customer service.”
So long a student, Gray has now become a teacher, with frequent demonstration cooking classes at Equinox on Saturday afternoons. “We try to give people knowledge,” says Gray. “They want to learn about food and wine when they dine.” Some classes are specially designed for families with children, and his own son, Harrison, 4, helps teach these. Like his father, he shows culinary skill at an early age.