Kojo and Tom Sherwood chat with D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson and Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker.
Guest Host: Matt McCleskey
Chef and restaurateur Todd Gray grew up in an Episcopalian home in Virginia. His marriage to Ellen Kassoff Gray — now his business partner — fused his roots and cooking style with her Jewish heritage. The two join us in studio to talk about merging culinary traditions and to look at how they put their seasonal, farm-to-table philosophy into practice daily at their D.C. restaurants: Equinox, Watershed and Muse cafe at the Corcoran Gallery.
- Ellen Kassoff Gray Co-owner, Equinox restaurant; co-author, "The New Jewish Table: Modern Seasonal Recipes for Traditional Dishes" (St. Martin's Press, 2013)
- Todd Gray Chef and Restaurateur, Equinox Restaurant; co-author, "The New Jewish Table: Modern Seasonal Recipes for Traditional Dishes" (St. Martin's Press, 2013)
Weezie’s Indian Summer Gazpacho With Pesto Croutons
From “The New Jewish Table” by Todd Gray and Ellen Kassoff Gray.
Ellen: Indian summer has such a pleasant ring to it. It immediately conjures up a farm market with a cornucopia of produce, which straddles the seasons of summer and fall. Every Labor Day weekend, we go down to Todd’s parents’ place in Irvington. It’s on the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia’s Northern Neck. We arrive in the early afternoon for a late lunch, and Weezie, Todd’s mother, always has her famous gazpacho ready for us.
Todd: Her given name is Louise, but everyone calls her by her childhood nickname—not even my father calls her Louise. Mom’s gazpacho is something she’s always been known for. Her secrets: use V-8 for extra flavor, leave the soup fairly chunky and give it plenty of time in the refrigerator for all the flavors to meld. I added the pesto croutons because we have so much basil in our back yard every year that I have to come up with ways to use it, never wanting to waste a good harvest.
Makes 12 cups soup
2 large ripe tomatoes, preferably an heirloom variety, cored and quartered
1 small cucumber, peeled, seeded, and chopped
1 medium Vidalia onion, quartered
1 small green bell pepper, cored, seeded, and chopped
6 cups V-8 Juice (four 12-ounce bottles)
1/4 cup olive oil
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon Tabasco Sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Basil Pesto Ingredients:
4 cups packed fresh basil leaves
1 1/2 cups olive oil
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts (see Chef’s Appendix)
3 garlic cloves
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese (2 ounces)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 small baguette, cut into 1-inch cubes
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon salt
Pinch freshly ground black pepper
Make the gazpacho: Place the tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and green peppers in the container of a bar blender. Process just until the vegetables begin to liquefy. Add the juice, oil, vinegar, Tabasco Sauce, salt, and pepper; process until the mixture is a coarse puree. Transfer to a food storage container, cover, and refrigerate for at least 6 hours before serving.
Make the pesto: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Stir in the basil and cook for 15 – 20 seconds then immediately drain in a colander. Rinse under cool running water and then, with your hands, completely squeeze out the water and transfer the basil to a cutting board or wooden bowl. Coarsely chop the basil with a kitchen knife or demi-lune. Place the basil, 3/4 cups of the oil, the garlic, and pine nuts in the container of a blender; process briefly to form a coarse puree. With the blender running, add the remaining 3/4 cup oil and continue to process until the mixture forms a fine paste. Transfer to a small bowl and stir in the cheese, salt, and pepper; taste the pesto and adjust the seasoning if you wish.
Make the croutons: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Toss the bread cubes with the oil, red pepper flakes salt, and pepper on a baking sheet (Ellen likes to spray the oil over the bread); spread evenly. Bake the croutons for 10 minutes; then stir. Continue to bake until toasted and crunchy—about 10 minutes more. Remove from the oven and cool on the baking sheet on a wire rack. Transfer the croutons to a large bowl and toss with 3/4 cup of the pesto. (Cover and refrigerate or freeze any leftover pesto.) When ready to serve, ladle the gazpacho into individual bowls and top with croutons, or pass the croutons at the table.
MR. MATT MCCLESKEYWelcome back. I'm Matt McCleskey host of "Morning Edition" here on WAMU 88.5 sitting in today for Kojo Nnamdi. He grew up in Virginia with his mother's embrace of the Chesapeake Bay cooking tradition. She grew up on her grandmother's roast chicken and her Aunt Lil's matzo ball soup here in the D.C. suburbs. When Todd Gray and Ellen Kassoff Gray got married, they each brought a different regional and religious tradition to the marriage and to the kitchen.
MR. MATT MCCLESKEYNow business partners and restaurateurs, the couple is best known for their D.C. restaurant Equinox and their newer restaurants, Watershed and Muse Café where they showcase their passion for farm-to-table fare. And in a new cookbook they return to a theme familiar with many families, the melding of food traditions in a marriage. "The New Jewish Table" gives us Todd Gray's contemporary seasonal approach to Ellen's traditional Jewish dishes. And here to talk about their culinary union and their growing restaurant business are Todd and Ellen Kassoff Gray. Thanks so much for being here.
MS. ELLEN KASSOFF GRAYThank you for having us.
MR. TODD GRAYThank you.
MCCLESKEYLet's start by talking about the food you grew up with. Todd, you start first.
GRAYWell, I grew up in Fredericksburg, Va. so my mom was a great cook. You know, a cook of what I remember in the early '70s, you know, was a woman that cooked out of great cans and box kind of type of dishes. But great casseroles and braised chickens and, you know, London Broil on the grill and lots of great marinades with bottled vinaigrettes, etcetera. But it was always fantastic.
MCCLESKEYAnd Ellen, you grew up in the Washington suburbs graduating from Bethesda Chevy Chase High School?
GRAYI did, yes.
MCCLESKEYOkay. And also the University of Maryland before moving to Israel to live on a kibbutz. Talk about the foods of your childhood.
GRAYMy childhood, a lot of it was spent on 95 going up the New Jersey Turnpike to visit my great Aunt Lil in the Bronx where she kept a kosher home. And I was, through my family, exposed to all the traditional Jewish foods of New York, and also my grandparents here in the D.C. area also. Very traditional bubbies, as you would say.
MCCLESKEYWell, how did the two of you meet?
GRAYWell, I was a sales rep for a large food distributor and Todd was a newly minted souse chef at a restaurant of great fame back in the '90s called Galileo. And he was one of my first sales calls and he was trying to pick me up. And I said, I don't date customers. And he said, well don't worry, I'm not buying anything from that company anyway. It was a match made in heaven.
MCCLESKEYWell, so you went on to marry. And then I understand that a honeymoon trip to California had some impact then on what you've done in subsequent years vis a vis your restaurants. Tell us about what you -- that California trip, Todd.
GRAYSure, sure. Well, you know, when we got married we were so inspired with our cooking and our love for the restaurant business. And we did, we honeymooned up in the Napa Valley in Sonoma Regions. And we just could not get enough restaurants. And of course we hit the mall and we came back and we said...
GRAYTell him how many in one day.
GRAYYeah, it was -- we had this mission we were going to do. We were going to hit three restaurants a day for eight or nine days. And I think we capped out at about 32 restaurants.
MCCLESKEYNow were you doing one per meal or are we talking multiple stops here?
GRAYNo. We sort of have a method of having an app and a glass of wine at a bar and moving on.
GRAYIt was all at the counters, if you will, but take an appetizer, get a menu and just keep moving and see as much as we could see. Oh, we can back and we were so inspired by Northern California. And that really is what led to our style of restaurant of Equinox. And that's the type of restaurant that we wanted and we did. And we opened and I think we still kind of adhere to those values today.
MCCLESKEYYou've been a champion of the farm-to-table movement, so talk a little bit about that. And did you learn about that in California or does that come from elsewhere?
GRAYI think that we probably had -- well, you know, I'd have to go back to, I think, 1994, '95, right before we got married when we were looking into trying to get a relationship going with some farmers in the Pennsylvania region and the Tuscarora Valley Region. And we chefs got together and we were looking at buying lots of local product. And then we coupled it with this trip going to Northern California.
GRAYI think Jean-Louis Pallidin was probably the greatest influence on chefs in the D.C. area as far as understanding more about our local farmers. And he was one of my customers when I was a sales rep. But he also influenced a lot of chefs in D.C. And I think Jean-Louis really started that awareness here.
GRAYHe was a master of sourcing.
GRAYAnd I think that's where we got the bug. And we kept -- we pushed and that's what has -- you know, it came on early and we've got some great farmers that are still, you know, involved with us. And they're wonderful people.
MCCLESKEYWhat are the benefits of sourcing locally, or as locally as you can?
GRAYWell, I think everybody would agree it's quality of product. There's obviously so many things. You've got quality of product. You have the people in establishing the relationships with farmers and helping businesses grow locally. And I think being able to give to your customer the best possible product that's sourced locally. And the delivery time is shorter. The flavors are always better and...
GRAYI think I might argue that it's not always better quality. Some might argue that a bigger farm in California is capable of producing a more consistent pea, if you will. And something locally might not be as consistent in sugar content or...
MCCLESKEYSo many strawberries come from Watsonville, Calif.
GRAYExactly. I think honestly that more of it is about the cycle of economics and keeping things closer to home. And I think honestly chefs feel good just supporting people and things that are growing in their own backyard. It comes down to a philosophy also.
GRAYI think it's a process too. I think that by getting to have that process of sourcing your product and calling or even going to the farms and choosing certain things, while they might not all be the same, they come in and I think, you know, it's contagious. And the staff gets excited. So it says a lot of great things about it.
MCCLESKEYAnd certainly farm-to-the-table has been a focus for you both. In your book you're also talking about mixing traditions, particularly within a marriage and in the kitchen, mixing different regional and religious traditions as they affect food. Talk about the challenges of a mixed-food marriage.
GRAYGetting him to understand what gefilte fish is maybe. That was challenging, pickled herring. When you grow up with food representing so much of the culture of your religion and then you become involved with and eventually marry someone who's never really been exposed to that, the challenge -- well, the big challenge was with the ew factor of, you know, what is that jellied gefilte fish in a jar and why do you like it?
GRAYBut then evolves the challenge of, you know what, I'm going to make that better. So he accepted the food challenge of it. At first there was this sort of shock and awe of, you know, some of the traditional borscht and herring and, you know, sardines and things like that that I don't think most people from Fredericksburg, Va. in the '60s were exposed to very much.
MCCLESKEYFrom what is it to how do I prepare it. Is that the shift?
GRAYWell, I think I got the inspiration -- I mean, her family was such a -- and still is a great inspiration to me. Her father, Ed, when we first got married, you know, was -- as I was learning more about, you know, her family and Aunt Lil and we started to sort of learn about the traditional dishes and as I started to play with matzo ball soup and started to play with chopped liver. And I started to realize that, you know, so many...
GRAY...yeah, and latkes, exactly. Latkes were on the menu early on. And, you know, I really took a fresh approach to it and said, well heck, you know, a great latke with a good fresh potato. And, okay, I guess I can learn how to work with matzo meal. And we started to work with these things and making our own gravlax. And so I think I went into it with a fresh approach and just a cooks approach.
GRAYBut we also say that it was sort of a culinary renaissance because my mother's generation did grow up with more convenience foods that did become jarred and canned. But their grandmothers and great-grandmothers were not using a canned or a jarred product. So I think what Todd did in this book is bring a lot of things, well, with sort of a newer twist. This is true. They weren't putting orange zest with their beets as we do. But I think that he sort of brought it back to the renaissance of traditional foods being made in the traditional ways without jars and preservatives.
MCCLESKEYWe're talking with chef Todd Gray and Ellen Kassoff Gray. They're the co-authors of "The New Jewish Table: Modern Seasonal Recipes for Traditional Dishes." And we'd love to hear from you. Our number, 800-433-8850, if you have a question. That's 800-433-8850. You can also email us at email@example.com. Now as the title says -- subtitle I should say -- "Modern Seasonal Recipes for Traditional Dishes." Your book does offer a contemporary approach to traditional dishes. Are there any general rules or guidelines for updating a traditional dish that's part of the heritage but perhaps doesn't necessarily meet today's health conscious approach to you?
GRAYThat's a double-edged sword. Health conscious, that can be defined in a lot of ways I think. It's a broad term, you know.
GRAYAnd vague, right. So I think it's all a personal interpretation of what's healthy. And then even when something's not healthy just get outside and exercise. But, you know, enjoy your food. And honestly, I think the point of this book is to show that culture is religions. People really do come together over the table. And we enjoy cooking together as a family, and to produce foods now for our son Harrison who's being raised in this sort of culinary religion now, that he understands and our children understand the traditions of the table. But also bring them into the next century of coming together.
GRAYOver great food.
MCCLESKEYAs you look at a traditional dish, Todd, what sort of things are you thinking about as you sample it, perhaps just a taste, or as you start thinking about how you can cook it to keep some things the same, perhaps change some other things. What's the thought process there?
GRAYWell, I think -- you know, I think a lot of -- I'm sure if there's any cooks or chefs listening out there, I think that we always approach our work as how we're going to evolve and how we're going to take traditional dishes and bring them into an evolutionary stage where it would become newer and maybe a touch -- I don't know if it's more refined but just a little bit maybe to date and with newer approaches and newer techniques.
GRAYSo where I was taking, you know, her matzo ball soup, it turned out to be a great chicken broth. And, you know, I was even making consommé with it and taking it to the next level and said, well, I don't want to do (word?) . Let's do (word?) or vegetables. And let's -- at one point, I was stuffing the matzo balls with foie gras, which Ellen at one point said, I think we might've gone a little far there.
MCCLESKEYGone too far?
GRAYRight, exactly. But, you know, again it was taking some traditional things and putting some really sort of more modern and more sort of a fresher approach on traditional.
MCCLESKEYWell, Ellen, I have to ask you. How does the matzo ball soup compare with Aunt Lil's?
MCCLESKEYI didn't mean to put you on the spot. I didn't mean to put you in the spot.
GRAYNo. I wouldn't say one is better than the other. It's all about the experience of where you in fact have it and enjoy it. But I'll put it this way, she did have his before she passed away in the restaurant. And she gave her (sic) a very serious thumbs-up and approval. So if she liked it, I'll say that it's right there.
MCCLESKEYGood. We'd like to ask our listeners, what's your favorite example of a new twist on a traditional food from your childhood? You can get in touch with us, 800-433-8850 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You mentioned that your aunt got a chance to sample the matzo ball soup in the restaurant. The cookbook, of course, I would imagine for people at home, but as you look to combine the two traditions, how has that affected what you're serving in your restaurants?
GRAYLatkes end up with ham sometimes, right?
GRAYWell, maybe not with ham but, you know, I think -- yeah, I mean, taking things like the -- I'll use the latke as an example, putting house cured gravlax on the top of them and putting a little salad garnish and using it as an appetizer. You know, the chopped liver, which, you know, things that might be associated with something maybe as stayed as a traditional dish. But, you know, chopped liver can be great, you know. A good chicken liver mousse. I mean, they're very similar in style but they are different but they are still the same.
GRAYNow they may be served on a French baguette, you know, or a cristini.
GRAYRight, exactly. Right. It's done a little differently in an Italian sort of way sometimes or a French way. But -- so I think you're always melding traditional and melding flavors. I think that using those different styles of different cultures is what makes -- and certainly in the United States, certainly makes our cuisine sort of unique. And it's a melting pot of really what we are here in this country.
MCCLESKEYI would imagine it's also a way to bring in a new audience or new diners to the restaurant to try something different.
GRAYI think diners today definitely expect different cultural and world influences on their food, much more so than ever before.
MCCLESKEYWell, let's go to the phones now. Ellen calling us from Hume, Va. Ellen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ELLENHi. I'm a Jewish woman married to (unintelligible) man and living in Hume. And he raised chickens and has written -- and other poultry and has written a book about it. And I discovered that goose fat makes the best matzo ball. And I don't know whether you'd ever tried that. It's fabulous. And the other thing is you just mentioned chopped liver. And growing up -- because I grew up in the '50s -- and I'm not sure what kind of fat my mother used for chopped liver but it was very good. But I must say, having access to freshly rendered chicken fat makes just plain old chopped liver fabulous.
MCCLESKEYAll right. Thanks for your call, Ellen. And, Todd, goose fat for matzo balls, have you heard of that?
GRAYYou know, I've done it with duck fat, you know. And I've done chicken fat and duck fat. I guess that I played around with the duck foie gras, so I'm sure goose foie gras and goose fat. They all sort of work well. I've not tried it and I -- but I'm going to.
MCCLESKEYAll right. Well, thanks again, Ellen, for your call. I'd like to ask you about the seasonal element of your book. It is "Modern Seasonal Recipes for Traditional Dishes." How is it laid out?
GRAYWell, I did the book with Ellen based on four seasons. And within each season we have a brunch category, we have a lunch, we have dinner, we have side dishes and desserts. And it's nice because I was sort of emphatic when we started doing the book because I wanted to do something seasonal. And I think Ellen agreed it would be -- it's a good read because it can kind of take you through the seasons. And I think what you're thinking about in the end of September is very different than what you're thinking about in March. So it sort of leads you through the changes of the season.
GRAYAnd, well, it's also true in that, you know, our grandmothers and great-grandmothers, they too were cooking with the seasons because there was no jets to, you know, bring you beets in the middle of the summer when it wasn't in season. So they were always cooking with what they had and rendering fats, as Ellen mentioned before, and cooking with the season. So it seemed like the natural thing to do.
MCCLESKEYAnd it certainly seems like you were given entry point into the book. If you pick it up and one wonder where to start looking, well, hey...
MCCLESKEYWhat time of year is it? And it is of course, "The New Jewish Table." Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is next week. What's going to be on the menu at Equinox for the holiday. Also, what will you be cooking at home?
GRAYWell, strangely enough, we're going to be doing our Rosh Hashanah in the book we've done some holiday menus and Rosh Hashanah being one of them. And we are going to be doing a butternut squash soup. We're going to be doing an interesting dish that I do with red snapper baked in a salt crust. It's a really great technique using salt and egg whites and spices. And we're going to...
GRAYIt kind of makes an igloo for the fish and bakes it in there.
GRAYIt does. It actually steams it. It's wonderful. If you have not tried it at home, you should. And we're doing some great vegetable sides, caramelized cauliflower and Brussels sprout petals and we're doing a little sort of apple strudel for dessert and we're also doing some little biscottis. I have a little Italian sort of nudge in some of these things. And so, it's going to be a great blend of flavors.
MCCLESKEYIt sounds great. Chef Todd Gray and Ellen Kassoff Gray, co-owners of the restaurants Equinox, also Watershed in the Muse Café at the Corcoran Gallery and co-authors of "The New Jewish Table: Modern Seasonal Recipes for Traditional Dishes." We're going to take a quick break now. If you're on the line, hang on. We'll get to more of your calls just on the other side. We do have a couple of lines open.
MCCLESKEYIf you'd like to join in the conversation, call 800-433-8850. You can also email email@example.com or send us a tweet at @kojoshow. I'm Matt McCleskey, sitting in today for Kojo Nnamdi. Stay with us.
MCCLESKEYWelcome back. I'm Matt McCleskey, local host of "Morning Edition" here on WAMU 88.5, sitting in today for Kojo Nnamdi. And we're talking with Chef Todd Gray and Ellen Kassoff Gray, co-owners of the restaurant Equinox, also Watershed at the Muse Café and co-authors of "The New Jewish Table: Modern Seasonal Recipes for Traditional Dishes." Let's go right to the phone lines. Julie in Gaithersburg, MD calling. Julie, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
JULIEHi. I was in the part of (unintelligible) near lots of interesting Asian stores and one day I noticed red bean paste. It's a little bit like peanut butter. So I started making red bean paste hamantashen. And now my kids think they are the most normal hamantashen and they all make them and all their friends love them.
MCCLESKEYWe're talking about you mixed traditions both regionally and around religions and foods. And certainly that sounds like we're mixing some regions there. How's that sound, Todd?
GRAYSounds delicious. I can't say I ever had red bean paste hamantashen. I just started to get to know hamantashen over the last 10 years myself. So I would love to try this one day.
GRAYAnd I also know the ethnic grocery stores that start from Rockville on up and I often go in and it's kind of a hobby and find really interesting things to work with. So those are a jewel for this area, all of our ethnic supermarkets.
JULIEThey're a great resource, absolutely.
MCCLESKEYThanks much for you -- oh, yes, Julie, you have something else to add?
JULIEYes. To give credit because they're very delicious, I always use Joe Nathan's dough recipe.
GRAYWe do too.
GRAYOur recipes are wonderful.
MCCLESKEYWell, Julie, thanks so much for your call. Of course, Equinox has been a restaurant and very well received over its time here in Washington. And to navigate the restaurant business in Washington is something that you both done over the last 15 years or so. What's like running a successful restaurant year in and year out in Washington?
GRAYIt's like having 25 teenagers perpetually. No. I can't tell you how much our customer base and honestly our employees are the backbone of everything we do. We would never be able to do this as long as we've been doing it without the amazing people we have working for us and the customers that have come back year after year after year. So I would say that we are, no pun intended, but sandwiched between great people on both sides.
MCCLESKEYAnd I would imagine continuity is a good thing. You have, though, had to change chefs at two of your restaurants in the past year, at Equinox and at Watershed. Why the switches? How are things going now?
GRAYWell, I'd say I'm going to give a big shout-out to one of the most amazing new talents in the Washington, DC area. Chef Colin McClimans, our new chef de cuisine at Equinox. And he is just doing an amazing job. It's really incredible to see young people come in to the workplace with a passion like he has. It is rare.
GRAYYou know, there's unfortunately a generation of cooks, this might be a little controversial, that have grown up watching certain television and feel that things will come quicker to them than actually putting in the hard work and the hard hours that, you know, I witnessed Todd do for the last 19 years. And we -- sometimes you have to change the formula to get the right one. And we as owners and Todd being the executive chef, we have to -- you don't stop until you find the right people. And we have it.
MCCLESKEYAnd he's a local talent, your new chef at Equinox.
GRAYHe is. He's a Murray graduate from Chevy Chase.
GRAYGreat guy, great guy. And I think, too, you're always looking for people to carry out your passion and you're looking for young chefs to do the type of work that you would do yourself and that had the same approach and sensibility to product and of course there's the management styles and working with people and being a leader and...
GRAYAnd looking to learn from Todd. I mean, obviously they need a mentor and they have to agree and want to carry out the cooking style that is his and not come in and want to do something totally different in more of an Asian realm or something that just wouldn't mesh with the character of the restaurant. So Colin is definitely one that is pursuing this philosophy of cooking that we also embrace.
MCCLESKEYWhat would you like to ask Chef Todd Gray about his restaurants or about his passion for farm fresh food. Also ask Todd Gray and Ellen Kassoff Gray about mixing traditions, call 800-433-8850. That's 800-433-8850. You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let's go now to Sonia calling us from Baltimore, MD. You're on the air. Go ahead please.
SONIAHello everyone. I just -- you were talking about -- heard you talking about seasonal ingredients and seasonal things. I just wanted to share what's been going on in my family with my mother. She grew a lot of different things this year in her garden, but what produced the most was zucchini. So we had a lot of it and she started making different traditional zucchini bread, if there are such things.
SONIAAnd then she made zucchini banana bread and then she made zucchini chocolate cake and then zucchini -- something like a zucchini fritter and she made a zucchini crab baked. And it's so funny when I told her she's got to write a book about all things zucchini, but...
GRAYIt is one of the most prevalent things that do grow in a garden in this area, there's no doubt.
SONIAYeah. So I just wanted to share that.
GRAYI've heard stories in Pennsylvania where people have to roll up their windows in the evening because the neighbors will come and bring so much zucchini and put it in their cars because they have so much of it and they don't know what to do. So it's great to hear there are so many recipes out there for zucchini. But I agree.
MCCLESKEYWe have not yet had zucchini, but in my neighborhood garden where we have a plot, certainly people will wander around if they have an overabundance of something, they're going to hand it out. We were giving away basil just a couple of weeks ago from our plot. It went wild.
GRAYBasil did do well this year.
MCCLESKEYLet's go back to the phones. Thank you, Sonia, for your call. Peter calling from Annapolis, MD. Peter, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
PETERYeah. I had a question regarding the autonomy that your chefs might have in implementing a menu that...
MCCLESKEYAutonomy was the word?
PETERYeah, autonomy. How does a -- you have a new chef and how does he work? Does he work within your menus or within your guidelines? How do you do that?
MCCLESKEYWhat's the relationship between the executive and the new chef, Todd?
GRAYWell, absolutely. I mean, I think it's a relationship that you are always constantly grooming and building. And I think for an executive chef, chef-owner like myself, I think Ellen and I are always looking for someone to step in the same direction that we are. And after 14 years of building a menu style that I've built, we always want that individual to be able to follow in that. And then you also are looking for their own personal touches. And they also want to spread their wings a little bit. So you can't, I think...
GRAYI think it's a collaboration, to answer that question.
GRAYYes, absolutely, it's collaboration. And I think taking ideas together and working together is critical in the success of a menu style.
MCCLESKEYDo you find that your chefs bring in their own traditions, whether it's regional or religious or their own culinary traditions to what they bring to the kitchen?
GRAYAbsolutely. You know, that's always a center in the kitchen for their traditions and their ideas. And sometimes we see them emerge on the menu, sometimes more often than not we see them in staff meals and great discussions.
GRAYThose are the best.
GRAYYes. That's where the real cooking happens.
MCCLESKEYHow do you try things out? How do you determine what finally makes it on the menu? I mean, do you have a big cook fest and everybody eats it and compares.
GRAYWell, actually, thanks to modern technology, we can take pictures of things now and send them back in.
GRAYWell, I think there, you know, I guess for us, you know, we are setting our menus through, honestly, through the available of product from our farmers. And we look at what's out there and we look at -- they've got small lambs or they've got chickens or there's new seafood coming available and we look at our vegetable list from all of our small farmers and we say, hey look, Brussels sprouts have already started. I can't believe apples have started.
GRAYAnd that's where it begins.
GRAYAnd that's where it all starts. And they say, you know what, how about if we do this with the apple aspect of the dish? And how about if we do this with the Brussels sprout and let's drive that protein in the center. And we really do massage the dish very thoroughly before we put it on the menu.
GRAYI witnessed them yesterday, they were like kids opening up a Hanukkah or a Christmas present. But a vendor had bestowed upon them a lot of some samples of everything from edible flowers to certain proteins from a company. And Colin and our souse chef Mark were just like little kids, pulling the stuff out of the packages and working out ways that they could use them on dishes. So I think what Todd, it's very true about what's available and what comes in the back doors is inevitably what goes out the front door.
MCCLESKEYEvidently zucchini is big this year.
GRAYZucchini is going to -- I'm going to get a zucchini bread recipe on there.
MCCLESKEYThanks for your call, Peter. Let's go now to Paula calling from Fairfax, VA. Paula, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
PAULAYes. I was wondering if any of your restaurants have a gluten free menu.
MCCLESKEYGluten free. How do you try to cater to people with particular dietary needs?
GRAYWe have requests for vegan, gluten free, calorie free, no. Everything. You just need to tell your server. It's hard to have -- we don't have enough real estate on the menu really to put just a gluten free menu. But if you -- all of our servers are managers, everyone is really adept at navigating the waters of different dietary needs. So you just have to mention to your server what you want and they will absolutely guide you in the right direction and we're very used to doing that.
MCCLESKEYAnd I understand that you're essentially a vegan. How did that…
GRAYI have my moments where I'm not, I have to admit.
MCCLESKEYWell, how did that come about? What does it mean for meals at home?
GRAYIt means that my son is definitely over tofu and will not eat tofu dogs anymore. It came about from my many years in the meat industry, and this is just a personal thing. I am not espousing my beliefs on anyone. I do a vegan brunch every Sunday at Muse at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and we sort of did it experimentally just to see how well it would be supported. And we are sold out every Sunday just about.
GRAYIt's been so, so popular. And I am -- I love to see how much support we got and, you know, it's just a personal choice. I just eat the way I feel like eating. I'm not making any big statements against or for anything. I think people just have to eat the way they feel is right for them. And so it works out at home that sometimes my son's favorite dish that I make is chicken potpie. I don't eat it, but I will make it for him.
GRAYFor a vegan, she makes the greatest chicken potpie.
MCCLESKEYVery good chicken potpie?
GRAYLet me tell you.
MCCLESKEYI want to ask, an email again from Elliott in New York. Must be listening via the internet. Thanks, Elliott, for listening. He asks: What kinds of similarities do you find already exist between Jewish cuisine and southern cuisine without even trying to blend them? So were there some natural similarities or points of connection there?
GRAYWell, I think probably I'd have to answer that by saying I think that these are two very family-style types of cuisine. I think that they're both family driven. I think great potato dishes, you know, that emulate from the South and the great potato dishes that come from Jewish cooking, I think some of the simmered dishes or the stews that we find in both...
GRAYLike a jambalaya.
GRAYYeah, right. Right, exactly. I mean, I think that we're, you know, grits or something like that from the South translates into something more in a stew type of dish that you find in Jewish cooking.
MCCLESKEYWell, you have the new book which is "The New Jewish Table." And also, of course, Equinox, Watershed and the Muse Café at the Corcoran Gallery. What's next on your agenda?
GRAYTomorrow, Todd will tell you what's happening as a matter of fact.
GRAYBig day tomorrow, big day. We open Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, VA. Sheila Johnson's dream of now knocking on 12 years and we open tomorrow at noon. And I act as the culinary director for the Salamander Hotels and Resorts. So we have an awful lot going on out there.
MCCLESKEYWhat's going to be the culinary focus at Salamander?
GRAYWell, we are doing a style of cooking that is going to be defined as the cuisine of the Virginia Piedmont where I'm taking the food where -- we'd bring in the tide water influences of the mid-Atlantic with the foothill influences of the Virginia Piedmont and my Piedmont training of all the years at Galileo and a lot of great product. Very local, very fresh and just very excited about that. We are headed into a very exciting weekend.
MCCLESKEYAnd we just have a few seconds left. But, Ellen, I understand you're also working on the concept for a new reality TV show about designing a restaurant. Will we see that on the air?
GRAYDesign and Dine. We hope so. We're shopping out the networks as we speak. There's a little teaser of it on my Facebook page. And it's all about designing restaurants and little makeovers and things like that. So we'll see how that goes.
MCCLESKEYTodd Gray and Ellen Kassoff Gray, he's a chef and they're co-owners of Equinox, Watershed and Muse Café at the Corcoran Gallery. Also the co-authors of "The New Jewish Table: Modern Seasonal Recipes for Traditional Dishes." That's written along with David Hagadorn of the Washington Post. I want to thank you both so much for coming in this hour and joining us here on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
GRAYThank you very much, Matt.
MCCLESKEYI'm Matt McCleskey, local host of "Morning Edition," sitting in today for Kojo Nnamdi. Thanks so much for joining us.
Most Recent Shows
From a new underground project in Dupont Circle to areas in Hyattsville and Rosslyn, we explore what it takes to create space for the arts.
We learn what high-resolution satellite images of our metro region at night are telling us about energy use, behavior patterns, and our changing urban landscape.
A fatal Metro incident. Maryland's new governor. Pro football's "deflate-gate." We talk about those and other headlines on your mind.