Every day I think of Michael O’Grady and the creative ways he coached and mentored so many to new heights. In this new series, Lessons in Action, I’ll I share my insights, breakthroughs tools, and techniques that honor his legacy of helping others grow.
Chef Todd Gray of Equinox in Washington, D.C., has been lauded in Gourmet, Esquire, Bon Appétit, Condé Nast, and the Washington Post and nominated five times for the James Beard Best Chef Mid-Atlantic Award. Sitting in the wine room, “How did it all start?” I ask. “I graduated from the CIA in 1989 when all the rage was around French chef Daniel Boulud at Le Cirque,” Gray begins. “I spent four years in D.C. with Robert Greault at La Colline until moving across town to work with Italian master Roberto Donna at Galileo as chef de cuisine. It was pasta meets foie gras!” laughs Todd.
“But, I wanted my own place. When my wife Ellen and I opened Equinox in 1999, we set out to create a center of New American Cuisine where staff would play an essential part. Ellen’s vision was to develop a sales team that would educate while being funky and warm. They aren’t just out there taking orders,” says Todd.
“They’re enlightening. Any server can recite that we have Wild King Salmon. But a server who explains how a King Salmon builds its lean nutty flavor by swimming 1,200 miles up the California Coast and how we grill a fillet, glaze it with cola barbecue sauce, then serve it with sweet argent corn from the Maryland’s Eastern Shore, it gives the guest a different kind of experience.”
1. Source the best: “Our soft-shell crabs come from the Baxter family on the Eastern Shore,” says Todd. “I call the night before, and the Baxter boys are here at 6 a.m. with three-dozen gems straight from their shedding tanks off the Chesapeake. From Rappahannock River Oysters, we get sweet buttery gems. The Mennonites of Path Valley Farms in Pennsylvania’s Tuscarora Valley grow our beets, peppers, and greens.” Todd raises Angus cattle in Warrenton, Virginia. “We feed them on grass, then move to grain and corn. Gore’s Meats in Stephens City in the Shenandoah Valley does our slaughtering. So, one day when it’s snowing like hell, I drive our cook Phillip down to show him the process. ‘Notice how good that interior fat looks,’ I point out. He’s blown away.”
2. Be a product knowledge fanatic: “At 11:10 a.m. and 5:10 p.m., we go over everything from soup to nuts.” At the evening pre-shift, Todd fires out questions: “Edward, describe the rib rack of pork with pomegranate juice. How did it get from the farm to the plate? Okay, the butternut squash soup has been on the menu for five days. Let’s go over it again. This is celeriac. Chef Phillip, whack it open and pass it around. Simo, why do you like the smoky blue cheese? ‘It’s barnyard and perfumy,’ he replies. Cool, get out there and sell it. Use your own language. Keep driving it home,” Todd pushes. It’s the storytelling, verbal quizzing, and hands-on discussions that make Todd’s training unique. “We teach our waiters how to fillet a fish, roast a lamb saddle, and blanch asparagus. Anyone who works here for a while should know more about food than anybody in this city.”
3. Coach from the floor. “When the kitchen’s in good shape, I’m at the host stand. And, who’s at table 23 but my high school pal Jeff Flynn? I tell our nine-year veteran server Prashanti to offer him Prosecco. Then, I whisper, ‘Easy, easy, easy’ to another waiter clanging silverware while clearing a table. At 2:15, I overhear Erica, our new host, telling a guest we’re closed. ‘With four restaurants within two blocks, never let a guest leave without helping them.’”
4. Honor and respect: Todd includes the staff in making decisions. “I recently asked, ‘Can we pull off this new bread service?’ I check in with my kitchen team too. ‘How about putting ravioli with veal short ribs on the menu? How many steps? Can we make it happen? And, not a day goes by that I don’t walk into the kitchen and say ‘good morning’ to everyone. If I don’t say ‘goodbye’ at night, I feel like I’m walking out on them. A big part of showing respect is to challenge everyone to learn something new every day,” says Todd. “It’s no fluke we’ve had close to zero turnover since opening.”
5. “We are family.” After the shift, everyone regroups in the wine room to enjoy a meal. After Todd opens a bottle of Riesling, he leaves so I can chat with the crew. “What made you want to work here?” I ask server Edward. “I was so impressed with what Todd does with food,” he responds. “Todd’s eliminates friction between the cooks and us. No chef has ever done that for me,” Prashanti chimes in. “I worked with another superstar chef who never acknowledged me,” she continues. Bar Manager Simo tells of the Christmas parties Ellen and Todd host at their home. “It’s simple,” he adds. “We’re family.” Everyone leaves, and Todd returns. “Our wish has always been for all 35 of us stand arm in arm and say, ‘We rock!’ In the end, I hope each person takes away something bigger: an awareness of how vital food is in our lives. I hope we’ll be healthier, more conscious of our environment, and maybe drink a little less too.”