A Star Chef Champions His Team
Celebrity chef Todd Gray of Equinox in Washington, D.C., is draped with numerous awards. He’s been lauded in Gourmet, Esquire, Bon Appétit, Condé Nast Traveler, and the Washington Post and was nominated five times for the James Beard Best Chef Mid-Atlantic award. But, unlike many celebrity chefs, Todd is cut from a different cloth.
On a bright February morning, I sit in the wine room with Chef Todd. “How did it all start?” I ask. “Well, I graduated from the CIA in 1989 when all the rage was around French chef Daniel Boulud at Le Cirque in New York. I spent four years here in D.C. with Robert Greault at the legendary La Colline. Then I moved across town to work with Italian master Roberto Donna at Galileo as the chef de cuisine. It was pasta meets foie gras!” laughs Todd. “But, naturally, I wanted my own place.
“When my wife and partner Ellen and I opened Equinox in 1999, we set out to create not only a center of new American cuisine but a restaurant where our staff would be an essential part of the landscape. Ellen’s vision was to build a sales team that would educate while still being both funky and warm.
“They aren’t just out there taking orders,” says Todd. “They’re enlightening guests. Any server can recite that they have Wild King Salmon. But, when one of our servers explains how a King Salmon builds its lean nutty flavor by swimming 1,200 miles along the coast of California and how we grill a fresh fillet, glaze it with cola barbecue sauce, and serve it with super-sweet ardent corn from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, then, wow, that customer has a different kind of experience.”1 MICRO-SOURCING
A lot of time is devoted to discussing partnerships with local farmers, ranchers, and fishermen. “We get our soft-shell crabs from the Baxter family, the oldest soft-shelling folks on the Eastern Shore. I call the night before, and the Baxter boys are at our back door at 6 a.m. with three dozen gems straight from their shedding tanks off the Chesapeake. From the Rappahannock River Oysters company, founded in 1899, we get sweet, buttery oysters with a clean, crisp finish from our man Ryan Croxton. We receive beets, sweet peppers, and greens from the Mennonites of Path Valley Farms from the Tuscarora Valley in Pennsylvania.”
Todd even raises his own Angus cattle in Warrenton, Virginia. “We feed them on grass, then move them to grain and corn. When they’ve grown to 700 pounds, we take them down to Gore’s Meats in Stephens City in the Shenandoah Valley for slaughtering,” says Todd. “So, one day when it’s snowing like hell, I drive Phillip, one of our cooks, in my Chevy Equinox station wagon down to show him the process. ‘Notice how good that interior fat looks,’ I point out. He’s blown away.”2 QUIZZING & COOKING
“Every day at 11:10 a.m. and 5:10 p.m., we sit in this wine room and go over everything from soup to nuts.” At the evening pre-shift, Todd sparks discussion and rapidly fires questions: “Edward, how’re you going to describe the local 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. Bring out another one. Let’s go over it again. This is celeriac. Chef Phillip, whack it open and pass it around. This is how it should smell. Simo, why do you like the smoky blue cheese? What would you say about it? ‘It’s barnyard and perfumey,’ he replies. Cool, get out there and sell it. Use your own language. Let’s keep driving it home,” Todd pushes.
It’s the everyday storytelling, verbal quizzing, and hands-on discussions that make Todd’s training unique. “We even teach our waiters how to fillet a fish, roast a lamb saddle, and blanch asparagus. I guarantee that anyone who works here for any length of time knows more about food than anybody in this city.”3 COACHING FROM THE FLOOR
“When everything’s in good shape in the kitchen, boom—I’m out at the host stand. And, who’s at table 23 but my high school pal Jeff Flynn? I ask our nine-year veteran server Prashanti to offer him a glass of Prosecco. Then, I whisper, ‘Easy, easy, easy’ to another waiter who is clanging silverware while clearing a table. Somebody comes in at 2:15, and I overhear Erica, our new host, telling the guest we’re closed. There are four restaurants within two blocks. Never let a guest leave without helping them.’”4 HONORING & RESPECTING
Todd rarely makes decisions without consulting the staff. “Whether it’s uniforms, silver, or linen, they choose. I recently asked, ‘Can we pull off this new bread service?’ I check in with my kitchen staff too. ‘How about we put open ravioli with veal short ribs on the menu? How many steps are involved? Can we make it happen?’
“And, not a day goes by when I don’t walk into the kitchen, find every person who’s on the clock, and say ‘good morning.’ And, if I don’t say ‘goodbye’ to everyone 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 that there’s been close to zero turnover since the opening.”
At the end of the shift, everyone regroups back in the wine room to enjoy a special meal. After Todd opens a bottle of Riesling, he leaves the room for me to chat with the crew. “What made you want to work here?” I ask server Edward. “Because I was so impressed with what Todd does with food,” he responds. “Todd’s also great with eliminating friction between the cooks and us. No chef has ever done that for me,” Prashanti chimes in. “I used to work with another celebrity chef, and he never acknowledged me once the entire time I worked for him,” she continues. Simo, the bar manager, tells of the great parties Ellen and Todd host at their home every Christmas. “It’s simple,” he adds. “We’re family.”
After everyone leaves, Todd returns. “Ellen’s and my wish always was to have all 35 of us stand arm in arm and be able to 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 will be a little healthier, more conscious of our environment, and maybe drink a little less too,” Todd laughs.
Now I understand what sets Todd apart. He’s not only a rare culinary talent, but a hospitality Renaissance man who educates, mentors, and champions his staff.Bob Brown, president of Bob Brown Service Solutions, www.bobbrownss.com, pioneered Marriott's Service Excellence Program and has worked with clients such as Disney, Hilton, Morton's of Chicago, Olive Garden, and Red Lobster. He has appeared on the Food Network and Hospitality Television and is author of The Little Brown Book of Restaurant Success and The Big Brown Book of Manager's Success.© Bob Brown Service Solutions 2008.