The truth is… Todd Gray married into Jewish food.
When he and Ellen Kassoff tied the knot in 1995, Todd got not only Ellen with her passion for food, but also her special attachment to Jewish food and her family’s as well.
Ellen remembers that as a girl of 13, the first thing she cooked all by herself was stuffed cabbage. “I was obsessed,” says the DC-area native. “I wanted to replicate the way my grandmother’s tasted.” After the University of Maryland, Ellen spent a year on a kibbutz in Israel and then started getting various jobs in the food industry.
Todd, on the other hand, grew up mostly in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with an almost non-existent Jewish community, went to an Episcopalian boarding school and eventually the Culinary Institute of America. Working his way through a couple of the area’s best kitchens (La Petite Auberge, Galileo), he developed a passionate focus on mid-Atlantic regional and seasonal foods.
Today, Ellen and Todd have successfully “married” their culinary palettes into a truly collaborative relationship, serving innovative, delicious dishes inspired by both at their highly regarded downtown DC restaurant, Equinox. There are special menus for Passover and Hanukkah as well as dishes Todd describes as “Jewish inspired” on their daily menu. Just to name a few…Beet and Red Cabbage Borscht, Yukon Gold and Sweet Potato Latkes, Todd’s Modern Day Brisket and his own take on Ellen’s family chicken soup recipe, Not Exactly Aunt Lil’s Matzah Ball Soup.
And now, the couple has gathered these and many more of their favorite recipes into a new cookbook, written with David Hagedorn, with a title that truly reflects their goal of elevating the culinary associations with Jewish holiday food. Called The New Jewish Table—Modern Seasonal Recipes for Traditional Dishes, the book features a full range of recipes by each season plus holiday menus for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah and Passover. What really makes this book special is the stories, starting with the couple’s revealing and fascinating introduction and moving into each section intro, each recipe and special side boxes highlighting an ingredients, a dish, a chef or a memory. (You have to read about the Kassoff Deli Experience on page 228-29!) Both give credit for inspiration and guidance to cookbook author and friend Joan Nathan, who wrote the foreword. “Her cookbooks were a road map for us,” Todd says, “and the book wouldn’t have happened without her.”
Todd also points out that he thinks “the best Jewish cooking in DC is happening in Jewish homes.” A good cook, he continues, is a good cook “if you learn the foundation, the guidelines,such as respecting Passover, which isn’t nearly as restrictive as people think, and then learn enough about the ingredients to make unique, interesting and creative food.”
So, who cooks in their home? While Ellen does most of the daily cooking in what she calls “my kitchen”—and Todd often eats leftovers at 10 pm when he finally gets home from the restaurant—they both cherish cooking together as a family with their teenage son Harrison. For family meals, they all plan the menu and then each completes different parts together in their kitchen that also lends itself to gatherings of extended family and friends. But, Ellen explains, “because of our business, breakfast is really the family meal in our house,” And then she confesses that for breakfast recently, “I taught Harrison one of my childhood favorites—challah toasted with chunky peanut butter and sour cream.” Now there’s another new twist!