December’s Fire Has Stoked Some New Ideas at Equinox
Nothing has come easy for Todd and Ellen Gray since a fire gutted their kitchen at Equinox in December. The owners have been battling their insurance company, battling weather delays, and battling their own expectations on when they can get back to work.
The Grays figured they'd be back in business by March; they even took reservations from devoted Equinox fans eager to taste Todd Gray's cooking again. "It's looking like April now," says Ellen Kassoff Gray, co-owner and GM, "if we're lucky."
The major issue has been the insurance company, which has been fighting the restaurateurs over "everything," Kassoff Gray says. The owners still have not received a settlement check from the carrier, forcing them to secure a bank line of credit or even asking for favors to begin reconstruction. The Grays only recently got the insurance company to start covering the tips of their best servers, so the employees wouldn't flee (which many of them haven't, based solely on loyalty).
"The insurance has just been awful, awful, awful, awful," Kassoff Gray says.
Several people and practices have helped the Grays deal with the insurance company's "forensic adjusters," the GM says. For starters, Kassoff Gray credits Equinox's bookkeeper, who has kept meticulous records. The insurance company has demanded invoices for everything. "Every single bottle of wine, every single plate," Kassoff Gray notes.
She also acknowledges the work of public adjusters, Goodman-Gable-Gould, which has been advocating for Equinox on all claims. "Even with them, it's been frustrating," Kassoff Gray says. "But I can't even imagine life without them."
Because the damages to Equinox were extensive, the owners are taking the opportunity to renovate the entire restaurant, just two years or so after sinking a bunch of cash into a previous renovation. Not only will the kitchen get a makeover, but so will the bar, the private dining room, and the main dining rooms. Demolition crews, working on credit at this point, have already stripped the place down to the walls, Kassoff Gray says.
Chef Gray has taken the opportunity to do a little stripping down of his own. His menu will have some new streamlined touches when Equinox reopens in the spring.
The chef is looking to create a section of small shareable plates, perhaps featuring his seasonal specialties like risotto fritters or asparagus tempura. He's also flirting with the idea of making his own dried pasta, but Gray's most dramatic addition could be a simply grilled or simply pan-roasted section, in which he takes his pristinely sourced proteins and plates them with little adornment, other than a drizzle of oil or a sprinkling of spices.
He wants, in other words, to find ways to better show off the meats and fish that he works so hard to acquire. It sounds like the kind of approach that only a well-seasoned chef would take, someone who's no longer trying to dazzle diners with 25 ingredients on a plate. Or as Gray says, "I don't have anything to prove anymore."
But to create such a section, Gray has to take a leap that he has been loathe to take in the past: He has to source those spices and oils from foreign locales. The idea is to marry his superior local product with the best of the international spices and oils (while still maintaining, for lack of a better phrase, Equinox's greatest hits for diners still wanting those dishes).
It's really the only way to do such a simple approach, the chef says. Adds Kassoff-Gray: "Let's not pretend we can get amazing spices in Middleburg."