Todd and Ellen Gray, the gastronomic couple behind Washington, D.C. restaurants Equinox and Todd Gray’s Muse, will realize a dream with the opening of Salamander Resort & Spa. The chef and his business partner (who also happens to be his wife) designed the culinary program of the 340-acre resort, which is owned by hospitality entrepreneur and Forbes Travel Guide Tastemaker Sheila Johnson. Together, the Grays aim to provide a farm-to-table (and farm-to-spa) experience for guests at the Middleburg, Virginia, resort by sourcing ingredients for from a two-acre garden. After more than a decade of planning for the resort’s opening in Virginia’s equestrian country, the Grays are champing at the bit for the August 29 opening.
Back in D.C., though, the couple is as busy as ever. This year, Equinox celebrates its 14th anniversary, while Muse turns two. Since those venues are both across the street from the White House, the 50-minute trek to Salamander will pose new challenges for the pair. Forbes Travel Guide recently caught up with the Grays to discuss what’s cooking at Salamander and how that new opportunity will complement their portfolio of culinary projects.
With its focus on local food and wine, Salamander could be a D.C. foodie’s nirvana. It’s an enormous project. What excites you most about the culinary program?
TG: I designed Salamander’s menu specifically for its regional location in the Virginia Piedmont. This is where I grew up, and I’ve been cooking in the regional style for all these years, finessing the dishes at Equinox. My classical training is in the Italian Piedmont style [from the Alps to the Ligurian coast], and the region is similar in climate to ours, with a shared tradition of serving regional foods that complement each other. At Salamander, we have the added benefit of the tidewater region, with our incredible seafood. At the 50-seat Gold Cup Wine Bar, I’ll do Italian Piedmont-style appetizers, such as arrangements of cheese and salumi with roasted peppers and olives, roasted meats and Bolognese with pasta — dishes that are perfect for sipping with wine, cocktails and great American spirits.
EG: The property is just incredible, and Salamander is so supportive of culinary partnerships. We’re hosting the first American Farmland Trust Gala at Salamander on October 6, introducing even more area farmers to this magical property.
You’re already working with local producers to create your menu and wine list?
TG: I’ve been working with these farmers for years in my other restaurants, and they are in the gate and ready to go. I have a guy who raises certified black Scottish beef just for us, and we’ll serve that amazing product at Harrimans Virginia Piedmont Grill, Salamander’s signature restaurant. We’re working with Boxwood Winery and a handful of other wineries that are within several miles of Salamander, and we’ll do events with them.
What do you have in store for guests who want to really dive into Salamander’s culinary offerings?
TG: We’ll have interactive cooking classes that start with picking fresh produce in our garden and continue into our Cooking Studio, which opens into the main kitchen so people really feel like they’re part of the action. They’ll be live on the sidelines of the mainline. We’ll work with mixing cocktails, even pairing up with the spa manager to mix exfoliations and creams.
In great weather — which there’s a lot of in the Virginia Piedmont — we can seat 50 or 60 people in the culinary garden and do a cooking demo under the trellises. Our monthly guest chef series kicks off with the “Piedmont King” himself, chef Roberto Donna in September [Editor’s note: Gray cooked under Donna at the now-closed Galileo restaurant in D.C.].
While you’re busy with Salamander and Muse, your flagship restaurant, Equinox, is celebrating its 14th year. What’s new there?
TG: I’m on a local produce binge at Equinox right now. We have 85 or 90 different fruits and vegetables coming in from local farms. First lady Michelle Obama was in last month eating soft-shell crabs, one of the best summer offerings out of the Chesapeake. And I just hired a forager who is bringing in amazing country chanterelle mushrooms. It’s always a good time to be cooking, but I love summer.
EG: Through September 21 [the autumnal equinox], we’re offering four courses for $40 in celebration of our anniversary. So many of our customers are regulars, we wanted them to celebrate with us.
Your book The New Jewish Table: Modern Seasonal Recipes for Traditional Dishes was published in the spring. How has it been received?
TG: Finishing the book was monumental. The cool thing is, it’s broken up seasonally — we hadn’t seen a book in this genre, by a chef, arranged seasonally. We’re doing a dinner based on the book at the National Press Club’s Fourth Estate Restaurant on September 25.
Photo courtesy of Emily Clack