In 2015, the concept of vegan fine dining is no longer scoffed at in the foodie community. Restaurants such as Blossom, Millennium, and Crossroads Kitchen are thriving, which is helping transform the misguided beliefs that the word “vegan” equates with extreme dieting, granola hippies, or frail activists looking to recruit members into their “kill them with kindness” cults. There’s even a plethora of vegan junk food on the market to help dispel those boring old myths that all one can eat on a vegan diet is brown rice, tofu, and sprouts.
But veganism’s expansion doesn’t stop there. An exciting new venture into fine dining is the growing trend of vegan options popping up at mainstream eateries across the country. One such example is Washington, DC’s acclaimed Equinox restaurant, opened by chef Todd Gray and his wife Ellen Kassoff Gray 16 years ago. VegNews sat down with Ellen for an inside look into how her meat-serving business is incorporating vegan dishes on its menu—and having fun in the process.
Vegan Smackdown Challenge
In April, classically trained, non-vegan chef Todd Gray issued a Vegan Smackdown Challenge, calling upon his famous chef friends to submit signature recipes for him to veganize. The only rule: none of the recipes could already be vegan. Each month, he would challenge himself to remake these signature dishes and put the final vegan versions on his menu. Recipes pored in from famed chefs, and Equinox now serves veganized versions of Spike Mendelsohn’s Obama Burger (the “FLOTUS”, pictured above), Cat Cora’s Frittata, and Jose Andres’ Paella. The challenge began, Kassoff Gray says, because “mainstream chefs are recognized for their signature dishes, and vegans get left out of food in this aspect. As such, the Vegan Smackdown Challenge is a way for foodie favorite chefs to open their dishes up to innovation.” Since the replicated dishes are “inspired by fine dining, and are thought-through and composed,” a parallel is drawn between revered signature dishes and the just-as-good veganized versions, inserting them into the fine dining scene like never before.
The creative process
Introducing vegan ideas makes for a fun, innovative environment in which chefs interact to push boundaries, create camaraderie, and introduce each other to new ideas. This, Kassoff Gray says, is part of why Equinox created The Vegan Smackdown Challenge. The other is because chefs love to improvise and watch others manipulate their dishes. For example, Jamie Leeds, chef and owner of Hank’s Oyster Bar in Virginia and Washington, DC, dared Todd to replicate her signature BBQ’d oyster. Todd did so by creating barbecued oyster mushrooms with glazed oyster root and sriracha-cashew glaze served on an edible seaweed shell.
The dining room
Equinox draws an older, business clientele, and customers have recently become curious about vegan food due to an increased awareness regarding health and a desire to come in with children and grandchildren who eat plant-based diets. “Parents are excited when their kid gets to go out for brunch without special requests because fine dining can get combative,” Kassoff Gray says. “There’s a nice little ‘v’ on dishes throughout and they don’t have to make a big deal about it.” In addition to dishes created during the ongoing Smackdown and a vegan brunch menu, Equinox also serves an all-vegan tasting menu. The five courses are comprised of seasonal, frequently changing ingredients, and are served parallel to the regular tasting menu with wine pairings and complex, layered flavors. “You have to let chefs take control of your dinner,” Kassoff Gray says, “so when there’s a vegan option, everyone can have fun with the concept.”
Chefs are constantly engaged in food discussion, keeping their eyes on trends and other rumblings. An evolving, plant-based eater herself, Kassoff Gray wants “to amp up the volume on the dialogue,” adding that she hopes her restaurants will “move conversationally toward veganism.” Her husband “indulged her deep concern,” and Kassoff Gray’s ideas have trickled into the restaurant with vegan dishes thriving on various parts of the menu. Equinox’s continued success shows that Kassoff Gray’s innovative approach is working. When asked if she’d ever open a 100 percent vegan restaurant, Kassoff Gray, who jokingly calls herself the “spiritual director” of Equinox, says, “A girl can dream.”