This is a story of chance meets opportunity, of how I went to a cooking demonstration thinking that I would just be a number in the crowd but in an amazing bit of luck got a three hour private cooking lesson with a famous DC chef! And it all happened this past Saturday in my own neighborhood.
Around the end of September, we received an advertising flier in the mail from Van Metre Homes announcing a big open house day on October 20 to promote their new home designs in several communities around Northern Virginia. What caught my eye was the announcement that the pros of DC’s famous Equinox Restaurant would be doing cooking demonstrations at the various sites, and Executive Chef/Co-Owner Todd Gray would be in my neighborhood only a few blocks away! Immediately I wrote the date on my calendar and made plans to attend.
I must confess that Michael and I have never been to Equinox, but it’s because DC is a little far away for us to go for an evening out, and well…there’s the boys. We take them everywhere we go because we think it’s important, and even though we have taken them to restaurants since they were only days old, the kids are still too young for a place as quietly elegant and genteel as Equinox. I can see it all in my mind…the baby dropping food on the floor, because gravity experiments are his favorite thing to do now; the 3-year-old standing up in his chair so that he can see something interesting across the room, or diving under the table to retrieve his spoon or fork for the fiftieth time; and my oldest, who is almost 5, loudly and proudly announcing that he pooped on the potty as he comes back to the table. Yeah, I’m sure the other diners would be thrilled with us! So for now we have to stick with restaurants that have a minimal noise level of around 90 decibels (equal to the noise produced by a lawn mower), but someday Michael and I are going to get a sitter and have ourselves a lovely, quiet time at Equinox.
Since I had not been to the restaurant but wanted to be prepared for the demonstration, I spent time on their website trying to learn about the Grays, the menu, cooking philosophy, history of the restaurant, and anything else I could pick up on. I read about all of their awards and Chef Gray’s five James Beard nominations, as well as their focus on fresh, local, organic produce, sustainably fished seafood, and certified humane meats. After all my reading, I felt that I would be able to fully enjoy the presentation and even ask a question or two if the opportunity presented itself. On Saturday morning I got ready and left early to get a good seat, because I felt certain that foodies from all over Northern Virginia would descend upon the place, but when I arrived I realized I had left my camera at home and had to run back. When I returned a few minutes later, Chef Gray and his wife Ellen were just arriving. They were very pleasant and greeted me as they came into the model home and started setting up in the kitchen. So far I was the only person in attendance other than the Van Metre sales and marketing people and the photographer.
A menu and recipe handout was sitting on a ledge, so I spent a few minutes reading and trying to prepare any questions I might have about the menu. It appeared that the plan was to serve a tasting of fall comfort foods throughout the afternoon. The menu included:
- Butternut Squash Risotto with Cippoline Onions and Sauteed Spinach,
- Tournedos of all Natural Beef with Madeira Peppercorn Jus and Potato Mousseline, and
- Warm Apple Cake with Ginger Ice Cream and Rum Caramel.
Chef Gray and Ellen introduced themselves and her parents (who had come along for the day) and shook my hand, and I did respond in kind, but I suddenly found myself all shy and tongue tied! I cannot believe how nervous I was! In a bit of bad luck, I’ve also had laryngitis since Wednesday and could barely talk, but I managed. The Grays finished setting up and then had a couple minutes to chat before the appointed starting time. Chef Gray asked me questions about my cooking blog and by then I was starting to relax. I asked if I could take photos, and he said of course.
Now it was eleven o’clock and time to start, but I was still the only person in the audience. I was shocked that no one else was there. Chef invited me to come up with him and get a lesson on how he would make the butternut squash risotto. I wanted to jump out of my seat and run to the cooktop, but I tried to look composed and casual, as if famous chefs offer to share cooking techniques with me every day of the week. I think I pulled it off.
He demonstrated how to saute the arborio rice for a few minutes in olive oil and onion, deglaze with white wine, and then add a clear vegetable stock and let the rice cook until the stock was absorbed. He added the vegetable stock two more times, stirring as he went. While the risotto was cooking, he sauteed some baby spinach in olive oil and shallots. He had brought along some cippoline onions to add to the spinach, but at the last minute decided to skip that. Lovely aromas were starting to drift and as visitors came through the house, he would turn around and tell his audience what he was doing. As the last round of vegetable stock was added to the pot, Chef added diced butternut squash and squash that had been pureed with heavy cream. He stirred that all in and let it cook until heated through. For the final touch, he stirred in butter, Parmesan, and salt and pepper, then plated it with the sauteed spinach on top and a sprinkling of Parmesan.
The risotto was wonderfully rich and creamy with a hint of sweetness, and the sauteed spinach provided a nice earthy contrast with some salty Parmesan sprinkled on top. Chef kept the pot warm on the stove throughout the afternoon and would occasionally add some more stock to keep the risotto creamy and prepare warm plates for visitors as they came to visit the house.
The whole time he was cooking, Chef was very congenial and kept up the conversation asking about cooking blogs and how they are different from restaurant blogs, and also sharing information about a
food blog multimedia magazine that a friend of his recently started (Cork & Knife).
The next course was the beef medallions, and I got another cooking lesson. He seasoned the medallions with salt and pepper and seared them in the pan for about 4 minutes per side. The sauce had been prepared offsite, a simple pan sauce made with shallots sauteed in butter with Madeira added, then reduced. Cream, veal stock, drained green peppercorns, and salt and pepper are stirred in and the sauce is warmed. The potatoes were pureed with butter, milk, heavy cream, and then seasoned with salt and pepper. It was all plated with the potatoes as the base, a slice of tender beef on top, and topped with the peppercorn sauce, then a few crystals of dark smoked sea salt was sprinkled on. The flavors were simple and comforting, great for a fall afternoon, and the smoky sea salt added a nice touch.
The final course was dessert, and all of the components had been prepped offsite, which turned out to be a good thing because the ovens wouldn’t heat up. Not unusual because many model homes do not make the cooking appliances functional until after the model is sold, but for the demonstration it would have been helpful to warm up the cake as Chef had planned. He took it all in stride and plated the dessert with the sauce drizzled over the top, a scoop of ginger ice cream on the side, and a sprinkling of crushed pistachios. The apple sheet cake was moist and tasty, but I think that the sauces and the ginger ice cream really made the dish. The ginger flavor was subtle and not overpowering, tamed somewhat by the sweetness of the milk and sugar.
I had such a fantastic time, and although I had a million questions I could have asked, I was still suffering from my attack of shyness. I did manage to ask questions about the restaurant and his upcoming venture, the Salamander Resort & Spa that’s being built in Middleburg, VA. He even asked me questions about my cooking blog and seemed quite pleased that I share my love of good food and cooking with my boys.
At the end of the demonstrations, I thanked Chef for the opportunity and expressed how enjoyable the experience was. He thanked me for staying throughout the afternoon and asked for my contact information and said that he wanted to check out my cooking blog (although he really doesn’t need any cooking tips from me!), then he presented me with a delicious gift: two beef medallions and some of the risotto. Guess what’s on the menu at the Meyers house tonight?
Chef Todd Gray’s Restaurants
Equinox Restaurant, Washington D.C.
Market Salamander, Middleburg, VA and Palm Springs, FL
Salamander Resort & Spa, Middleburg, VA (coming 2009)