« February 2014 Table of Contents
Networking: Todd Gray
Chef, co-owner — Equinox Restaurant, Muse Café, Watershed, Washington, D.C.
By James Wright
February 01, 2014
As the seasons change, so do Todd Gray’s menus. One of the most celebrated chefs in Washington, D.C., has been known to mix his lineups according to the calendar in order to accommodate what each month has to offer. When I tracked him down in early January, he was getting psyched for skrei, the ultra-seasonal Norwegian cod that’s harvested in only the first four months of the year. Gray, who was named to the Norwegian Seafood Council’s U.S. Culinary Board last year, thinks skrei (pronounced “skray”) has the chance to really catch on with top chefs stateside.
Gray, 49, is a Virginia native who calls our nation’s capital home. His flagship property, Equinox Restaurant, situated about a block away from the White House, has been garnering acclaim since it opened in 1999 — he’s a five-time nominee for the James Beard Award for best chef, Mid-Atlantic. He and his wife and business partner Ellen Kassoff Gray are the ones setting the city’s culinary trends with Muse Café and the versatile Watershed, located in the Hilton Garden Inn, also in their stable.
Of the three seafood entrées at Equinox right now, one is farmed salmon from Norway.
I’ve used Norwegian salmon for years, since the ‘90s. I always thought the big Norwegian salmon was beautiful. I used to cut a case a day at a French restaurant I used to work for. As I got to Equinox, there was the whole farmed-vs.-wild debate and what’s right to use. I did a lot of wild salmon but I was trying to find, as it became common to say, a farmed salmon raised in a wild environment.
And you found that in Norway? You visited there recently?
Yes, we got to see the environment, where the fish are raised, and, in a lot of ways, how humanely the fish are raised. We got to feed the fish, to see how the fish is processed and packaged with the utmost care. I learned a lot, including that farmed fish is [done differently] in different places. And I’ve always been a big supporter of wild, all-natural products.
What are your impressions of skrei?
I remember it’s a little sturdier than typical Atlantic cod. Because of that, it’s more durable for pan searing and more aggressive types of preparations other than just baking and poaching.
Does skrei have major potential?
With skrei, the season is short so you have to be like, “Let’s get on this.” It’s like the Nantucket Bay scallop season. It’s short, like six weeks. [Skrei] can position itself to be one of those products to get excited about.
How do you change your entire menu by season, like at Watershed?
It’s always what we’ve done. We’re in a distinct seasonal-change region, in that we really get all four seasons, we celebrate all four and they’re all pretty spot on in terms of when they start and end. In a sense our staff, our spirit — everything — represents the season. The décor doesn’t change as often, but the menu does. We want people to read it and say, “Wow!”
Do you encounter any pescetarians, or vegetarians who enjoy seafood?
Of course. I think it’s funny, a lot of vegetarians say, “But I can eat a little salmon.” Or, “I’m a vegan but I eat eggs [laughs]!” You’re either in or you’re out, but I don’t think telling people how to eat is our business. I see tons of gluten-free vegans with nut and squash allergies and our job is to accommodate them too. I’m on day six of going vegan, as an experiment, but I’m developing a Cuban sandwich with Virginia ham as we speak … and I’ll have to eat it! I’ll never stop eating meat and fish because it’s what I do.