Chef Todd Gray, Ellen Kassoff-Gray and son Harrison
in the family room of their DC row house, designed by
architect Harry Wardman almost a century ago.
It is the day before Thanksgiving and chef Todd Gray and his wife, Ellen Kassoff-Gray, are planning a menu: grilled Rappahannock oysters with lemon butter, assorted cheeses and chilled champagne. This first course isn’t for Equinox, the popular DC restaurant they own together, but for the progressive Thanksgiving feast they share each year with their seven-year-old son, Harrison, and 30 friends and neighbors.
Today the house is buzzing with activity. A neighbor pops in to discuss Thanksgiving wine pairings, a delivery truck pulls up with rental chairs, and a photo shoot is underway. Kassoff-Gray is late for a meeting and can’t find her car keys. She has to be home in time to take Harrison to Cirque de Soleil while Todd heads for dinner service at Equinox.
Action-packed days are par for the course for the Grays, who have been called “Dining’s First Couple” in Washington. Focused on running the restaurant (Todd is the executive chef and Ellen the general manager), the Grays have made their home—a Wardman-designed row house in DC’s Crestwood neighborhood—warm, inviting and unpretentious. “Our goal at this stage, with a young child, is to have a comfortable house where I would not freak out if Harrison was running through the living room with a light saber,” says Kassoff-Gray.
When the Grays first saw the home in 2001, they knew that it was perfect for them. “Something drew Todd and me to this house,” recalls Kassoff-Gray. “We stood right here in the foyer and said, ‘This is it.’”
The Grays were only the third owners of the house since it was built almost a century ago. The bad news was that it needed major work. “It had hardly been touched in 35 years,” says Kassoff-Gray. “Every inch of the house needed something.” They repaired the plaster walls, the plumbing and the electrical system and created a new front entry. In the backyard, they added on a terraced patio and planted a garden that supplies Equinox with a seasonal bounty of fresh herbs.
Kassoff-Gray has created a warm, earthy atmosphere on the home’s main level. The foyer shows off Wardman’s original moldings and stair rail and leads to the living room and the former dining room, which the Grays converted into a family room with crimson-colored walls. It’s a better use of space since most of their home entertaining is casual and spur of the moment. “Our whole life is dining, so it’s a holiday to get away from it,” says Kassoff-Gray. “I’m more of a canapé and glasses of wine on the front porch kind of entertainer.” An eclectic mix blends antiques with funkier modern furnishings. Todd Gray’s parents are collectors who have given the couple a number of pieces, from the vitrine in their foyer to the dining table in their breakfast room. “My parents love detailed furniture and wood. I grew up having an appreciation for good molding and good furniture and the classic lines of a home, something that has a history and a story,” says Gray. “We have a little mix of ‘realness’ and those ideal pieces that represent tradition and family history.”
Paradoxically, the one room they haven’t had a chance to upgrade is the kitchen. But what their kitchen lacks in square footage and professional-grade appliances it makes up for in utility. Every knife, cookbook, food processor and spice jar has its place on the shelves and stainless-steel racks. It’s clearly a space that is used often, mostly by Kassoff-Gray. “I am the home chef,” she says, since her husband’s evenings are usually spent at Equinox. “When we eat [dinner] together as a family, we have to go see Dad.” She and Harrison often meet Gray at the restaurant for a meal before the main dinner rush, attend a game or a concert and then return to Equinox for dessert. “Harrison knows where the chocolate truffles are for the ride home,” she laughs.
The Grays are planning a kitchen upgrade at home after they complete a soft remodeling at Equinox by early spring. Aside from running the restaurant with a staff of 40, they are both involved in other ventures. Todd Gray is the executive chef of billionaire businesswoman Sheila Johnson’s Salamander Hospitality. The company is developing the Salamander Inn & Spa in Middleburg, Virginia, and currently runs the gourmet emporium Market Salamander, with locations in Middleburg and Palm Beach, Florida. Gray is now working on the launch of a third Market Salamander in DC, hopefully located in close proximity to Equinox.
Kassoff-Gray volunteers for Harrison’s school and other organizations around town. She is busy planning the fifth annual Sugar & Champagne, a fundraiser she created to support the Washington Humane Society. The affair features 15 of the city’s top pastry chefs serving their creations along with sparkling wines. (This year’s event will be held on January 23 at DC’s new Hotel Palomar; dogs are welcome).
On the occasion that he is home for dinner, chef Gray cooks family fare, perhaps a Sunday-night risotto or lamp chops grilled out back with Harrison. “Harrison enjoys the spirit that cooking at home brings to a family,” says Todd. “Some of the best conversations happen over family and food.”
Photographer Bob Narod is based in Sterling, Virginia.