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Fine-dining chef a role model for children, healthy eating

Washington, D.C., chef and restaurateur Todd Gray made the news last year as a high-profile player in first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, which seeks to promote healthy eating and exercise among elementary school students. It was a natural progression for Gray and his wife and business partner, Ellen Kassoff Gray, who, in addition to running Equinox in Washington, D.C.,  have launched a program at Murch Elementary School in the District. They want to teach students where food comes from and how to grow, cook and enjoy their own foods. In 2009, the pair also launched the Capital Harvest on the Plaza Farmers Market to bring together area residents and local farmers and food producers.

The couple plans to open Watershed on April 22, their 16th wedding anniversary. The restaurant at the Hilton Hotel just behind Union Station in Washington, D.C., will include a state-of-the-art banquet space, raw bar, patio, dining room and lounge. “We like Watershed because it means a community of waterways —  that’s how we see it all — very fluid and very much a community,” the couple said.

I spoke with Todd Gray last week about the role nutrition and health issues play in his life and work.

Have health and nutrition issues always been a part of your work as a chef?

I think I have been conscious on a different level than to label it “health and nutrition.” There are a lot of things that fall under that umbrella, so as part of the big picture, the answer is yes. A good chef cooks from his heart (no pun) and instinctively cooks what he or she feels is right for the body to consume. I’ve also been very physically active all my life — food has to fit into that scenario.

What role do health and nutrition concerns play in menu development at your restaurant?

I don’t think about that when I create a menu. I create what I think is just good and well-sourced and cooked with great technique. Everything else falls into place from my foundation.

What results have you seen so far from the initiative you launched as part of the first lady’s Chefs Move to Schools program?

Well for one thing, a lot of schools have been begging us to come teach cooking classes. I have seen a huge national consciousness raising toward the plight of our nation’s food supply and where it comes from. I have seen chefs become the leaders of a movement that is long overdue — sort of like a “take back the night movement.” Our food chain would be a lot better if it was managed from a trained chef’s point of view.

What are some of the techniques you use to create healthier fare in the fine-dining arena?

I cook vegan for my wife and offer vegetarian and vegan tasting menus. My cuisine has not ever really been unhealthful — we believe in the simple moderation rule. You eat, you drink? Go work out!

Does your role as chef and restaurateur include a responsibility to educate consumers on nutrition and food-related health issues? Do you see yourself as a nutrition advocate?

I didn’t when I became a chef 30 years ago, but it’s beginning to be that way, so I am embracing this role and learning as much as I can. Hey, if kids are listening to chefs, then why not? What have we got to lose — other than a few pounds?

Stay tuned for a Restaurant SmartBrief Special Report later this month on fine dining and healthy eating.

Image credit: thelinke via iStockphoto

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