Ellen Kassoff Gray is a co-owner of Equinox restaurant and Harvest Moon Hospitality Group, as well as co-author of The New Jewish Table, with her husband, Todd Gray. A Jewish DC native and longtime vegetarian, Kassoff Gray infuses her cultural heritage and compassion for animals into her restaurants, and with a strictly vegan brunch menu and the company’s plant-based options touted on its websites and social media, it really shows.
Equinox is the first restaurant on the East Coast to offer Just Egg, a new vegan “egg” made of mung beans that is making lots of waves because it looks, tastes and scrambles like a real chicken egg. (Read my full review here.)
I recently paid a visit to Equinox, where I got to chat with Kassoff Gray about the egg, the restaurant business and her Jewish background.
Allie Friedman: Who is the coolest person or people to ever dine at Equinox?
Ellen Kassoff Gray: Easily former president Barack and first lady Michelle Obama—but many others, too!
AF: I can imagine that coming from a Jewish background has inspired your cooking and love for food. What is your favorite Jewish food to make?
EKG: Kugel—a savory one with herbs. I made the recipe up one year when I was a teenager and have been adapting ever since. It’s comfort food to the max!
AF: What is your favorite twist on a Jewish traditional dish?
EKG: Todd does an amazing latkes station with yummy sauces.
AF: I love your Sunday vegan brunch at Equinox and notice you have a ton of amazing options for vegans on your menu! Are you a vegan yourself?
EKG: I’m not totally vegan; I don’t like to label myself. However, I have not eaten meat in 24 years. This comes from my history of working in the meat industry before we opened Equinox. Let’s just say: gross.
AF: How did you become the first restaurant on the East Coast to get the vegan egg?
EKG: We have our ear to the ground all the time. I contacted [the vegan egg company, Just] at the right time. We talked, and I offered to launch it from Equinox. The rest is history.
AF: Your book The New Jewish Table explores how you and Todd melded your different backgrounds to create new, meaningful traditions. What are some of the favorite new traditions you have created?
EKG: I’d say doing a Passover seder at Equinox. We always have a vegan version of the menu, which sells out every year. We also do a community seder that my dad and I lead. My son has taken over my dad’s role lately!
AF: Equinox is one of my favorite restaurants in DC and has become such a landmark in the city. What is a dream you have for the future of Equinox?
EKG: To celebrate our 20th anniversary (this coming year), we are laying out our plan to become a zero-waste restaurant. We have a five-year plan we are about to enact. Another dream is to maybe start a zero-waste certification program for other restaurants.
AF: If someone went to Equinox only one time, what would you suggest they order?
EKG: Honestly, our humble risotto fritters. They’ve been on the menu since day one in 1999.
AF: Your new fast-casual restaurant Manna at the Museum of the Bible looks incredible! Did you get any backlash about your decision to open a restaurant here?
EKG: We are in food service. This is what we are here to do. So we put our head down and ignored it. It has all died down now, and it’s an amazing building. We couldn’t be happier with our choice. We work alongside some incredible people, and the guests at the museum are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met… [Some come from] a different world, for sure, but this museum (like our cuisine) brings all manners of life together under a very spiritual umbrella. We love that! The history isn’t too shabby either! To quote my son, people love to hype. Let ‘em hype. We are strong in our convictions.
AF: If you could eat only three foods (or dishes) for the rest of your life, what would they be?
EKG: Dates, nuts and vodka—oh, that’s not food, right! I have to say the third would be a tossup between peanut butter and potato chips.
AF: What are most excited about for the coming year?
EKG: We [Todd and I] are going to be in Israel in 2019 for a cool culinary tour with The Jewish Federation. We will be back with lots more ideas and inspirations. Also, we launched a kosher catering division this summer. We’ll have more on that coming soon.