- The Washington Times - Friday, August 11, 2000

Todd Gray, the top dog in the kitchen at Equinox restaurant, does not always act like a chef.

On this typical weekday morning, Equinox, the upscale restaurant on Connecticut Avenue that Mr. Gray runs with his wife, Ellen, looks like a well-lit and elegantly cluttered office without desks. Cabinets are open, tables are bare, napkins are unfolded, chairs are scattered haphazardly.

Mrs. Gray, a partner in the Equinox venture and the eatery's general manager peruses catalogs of place settings at the bar with one of the restaurant's vendors. The Grays' son, 11-month-old Harrison, hangs from Mrs. Gray's arm.

Mr. Gray hustles out of his office, buttoning up the uniform that says "chef" on it. Ten other persons are making the kitchen hum. Mr. Gray, though trained in the culinary arts, will spend the next few hours jumping from task to task, most of which require more than the touch of a good cook.

He is the harried but happy chef/ owner of Equinox, an upscale eatery that serves nouvelle American cuisine that sometimes evokes his classical French and Italian training.

"You have to fill all the roles at various times of the day," Mr. Gray says.

"One minute I'm shaking salt on the soft-shell crab," he says. "Another minute I'm greeting guests. Then there's the business of overseeing the employees, making sure we're not wasting any bread."

Mr. Gray, 36, is a veteran Washington chef, having worked at Galileo restaurant for seven years before opening Equinox in May, 1999, within spitting distance of the White House. The Fredericksburg, Va., native attended the Culinary Institute of America, and has worked in restaurants in the United States and Italy. But running his own shop is his latest and greatest challenge.

Mr. Gray is thankful for the experience gained under Roberto Donna, Galileo's accomplished chef, and for his partnership with Mrs. Gray. But none of these advantages can obviate the central challenge of each day: balancing the roles of chef, host and businessman.

"It's easy to be a good chef. It's hard to be a good cook and businessman at the same time," he says.

The tough decisions for the chef/ businessman who, as he puts it, "fell in love" with cooking at the age of 20, came even before Equinox opened its doors. Mr. Gray wrestled with what to put on the menu.

With just 30 employees, and both the rent and a start-up loan hanging over his head, Mr. Gray knows he needs dishes that the kitchen can prepare in a cost-efficient manner. Although the thought of placing a labor-intensive masterpiece on every guest's place at lunch is appealing, few new restaurants could afford enough employees to do so.

"That's artistry taking over a proper business decision," he says.

But Mr. Gray's dual roles also become apparent each day. Besides the lunch and dinner rushes, there are meetings with a pastry chef, interviews with prospective employees, and phone calls to business associates.

When midday arrives, Mr. Gray shifts into chef mode. Customers trickle in as the kitchen a small space for a lot of activity begins to resemble a beehive.

"It's the still before the storm," he said. "But it's going to get wild."

Mrs. Gray, meanwhile, is feeding Harrison breakfast cereal and mash potatoes, getting ready to take him to an upstairs office during the lunch rush.

"We weren't into day care," she says. "But the restaurant is one big playground."

Finally in the kitchen, Mr. Gray flexes his culinary muscle, making a series of boss-style snap decisions. One of his assistants, Brendan Cox, reports that the restaurant has a fresh basil surplus.

"OK, let's make pesto tonight," Mr. Gray says.

By 12:45 the cooking is in full swing, with servers darting in and out of the kitchen, and Equinox is full. Mr. Gray surveys the employees who slice vegetables, grill meat, garnish the dishes, and wash dishes. As he pulls together a chilled yellow tomato soup, Mr. Gray becomes the leader of a kitchen pep rally.

"Looking good, guys, looking good," he shouts.

But, a few minutes later, eyeing the angel hair entree, he remembers to be a teacher as well.

"A little more moisture on that pasta, guys," he calls out. "It's a little dry."

Between dishes, Mr. Gray hustles in and out of the dining room, keeping tabs on how full the restaurant is, and greeting people he appears to know well. "A friend of a friend of a friend," he says after one handshake.

He also asks the dining room manager, Kathleen Gough, to keep an eye out for one valued customer in particular, a White House lawyer who frequents Equinox. When the lawyer arrives, Mr. Gray whips up a canape out of crab meat, avocado and grapefruit, a sort of pre-appetizer that Ms. Gough takes to the lawyer.

Later, Todd Gray, host-in-chief, swings by the lawyer's table to fly the flag.

"I just wanted to say hello," he says.

By 1:30 p.m. the lunch crowd begins to thin out. The kitchen staff is preparing desserts. Mr. Gray and the employees have time for a bit of idle chitchat. The kitchen closes for lunch at 2 p.m., having served 110 lunches over the last two hours.

But Mr. Gray's workday has just begun. Dinner and other work await, and the day will end for him at 11 p.m.

As Equinox has grown, Mr. Gray and his wife began to exploit new business opportunities. They are partners in a new venture at the Ritz-Carlton hotel near Georgetown.

Mr. Gray will not work in the kitchen there, but does not think this project is a harbinger of things to come. Mr. Gray doubts he would ever be content working exclusively in the front office.

"I don't know about that," he said pensively. "I think I'll always be cooking. It's what got me where I am."

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