Navigate to News section

The Chosen Ones: An Interview with Ellen Kassoff

The celebrated chef on a seder for vegans, cooking for Barack and Michelle, and whether or not she’ll serve a meal to President Trump

Periel Aschenbrand
November 09, 2017
Courtesy Ellen Kassoff
Courtesy Ellen Kassoff
Courtesy Ellen Kassoff
Courtesy Ellen Kassoff

Ellen Kassoff is the co-owner of Equinox Restaurant, which is famously located one block from the White House, and is the co-author of the cookbook The New Jewish Table, in which one can learn to make everything from Challah Chestnut Bread Pudding to Matzo-Stuffed Cornish Game Hens. Her partner in work and in life is her husband, five-time James Beard nominated chef Todd Gray. Additionally, and more formally, The two were instrumental in shaping the culinary world for the Obama White House, and worked side by side with First Lady Michelle Obama to spearhead, create, and launch the program which brought chefs to schools, aptly named Chefs Move to Schools.

A nice Jewish girl from Maryland, Kassoff has always had something of a rebellious streak, but, underneath it all, she is about family and tradition. She down with me at an Italian restaurant in New York City to tell me about how Jewish she is and why being a vegan isn’t as tedious as I thought.

Periel Aschenbrand: Do you cook?

Ellen Kassoff: Everything at home!

PA: No way!

EK: There is such a different mentality. Chefs are used to, well, for starters, having five people cleaning up after them…

PA: Ha! It’s so interesting that your book is called The New Jewish Table because the restaurant is not a Jewish restaurant.

EK: Basically we like to say it’s a story of love and loss.

PA: Like every good Jewish story.

EK: My parents were very opposed to me ever marrying outside of my faith. My parents met in a bar near Central Park and got married within seven days and are still married to this day.

PA: Are they crazy?

EK: Well, he was in the Navy and he was shipping out and leaving in seven days and he asked her to come with him to Hawaii and she was like, “I can’t do that, we’re not married, you don’t do that.” And he said, “Well, then let’s get married,” and they did. When they came back, he got a job at the Pentagon in D.C.

PA: What did your mom’s parents have to say about that?

EK: We all defied our parents in our marriages, didn’t we? They had to get down with it. Like mine did.

PA: Ha.

EK: But I was the only girl out of four siblings and they were not happy about me marrying someone not Jewish. I lived in Israel, I worked on a Kibbutz—though I left it to work near the Red Sea.

PA: What did you do?

EK: I worked on a scuba diving boat making fritters on a boat for day trippers.

PA: Amazing. So your parents figured you’d marry someone Israeli. Or at least Jewish?

EK: My dad grew up almost Orthodox, but we ended up more on the Reform side. I’m also on the board of the JCC in D.C. and I sponsored a lot of Israeli kids coming to my house. They come, they stay, then they go back and tell their friends, “Go stay with Ellen and Todd, you’ll eat really well.”

PA: I might come stay with you! How did you two meet?

EK: I worked for Sysco Foods and I tried to sell him something and he was like, “Let’s go out,” and I told him I don’t date customers and he said, “You have shitty products and I would never buy them anyway.”

PA: Ha!

EK: He’s a boutique chef, he’ll only buy from small farms. So we went out. And my parents were really torn, because what Jews don’t like to eat? They came down to the restaurant and he won them over.

PA: And you came from totally different worlds.

EK: He was raised with Wonderbread and ham and I was raised with like, hardcore gefilte fish and smoked herring. The first time he saw gefilte fish, he was like, “What the fuck is that?” But then he was like, “Oh, this is just paté.”

PA: That’s so interesting.

EK: So he started correlating. And my dad started to fall in love with him. They just bonded over Jewish deli. And I got their blessing.

PA: Jewish deli is a pretty powerful aphrodisiac.

EK: The Eastern European Jews were the most thrifty in the world—they used everything. They were making borscht out of seasonal ingredients. This is Renaissance what we’re having now. This farm to table shit. This is what our grandmothers were doing. They were thrifty because they had to be. They had to use every bit of the chicken.

PA: And the book?

EK: It was a blast. Seeing what a chef of Todd’s caliber does with gefilte fish… But now we’re doing vegan. We just did a vegan Rosh Hashanah at the restaurant.

PA: Jesus. What a nightmare. My best friend is a vegan and I rarely skip an opportunity to torment her about it.

EK: It sold out.

PA: I’m sure it did. You guys have this really beautiful, sophisticated restaurant that is pretty much an institution at this point.

EK: When Michelle and Barack went on their first date after they moved in, they came to Equinox and Twitter just exploded.

PA: Weren’t you instrumental in her healthy food movement?

EK: Yes. That’s how it started.

PA: Maybe the vegans aren’t so bad after all. Would you let Trump eat your restaurant?

EK: I can’t say a word. I work in hospitality. No comment.

PA: It’s hard to turn away business.

EK: If we turn away business based on our beliefs, we’re just as bad as the other side. It’s the same thing as not making a wedding cake for gay or lesbian couple.

PA: You think so?

EK: Yes. You’re turning away someone based on their beliefs.

PA: Yeah, but their beliefs are garbage.

EK: It’s the same. I can’t kick someone out because I disagree with them.

PA: Well, actually you can, because you’re the owner. But this is a very different conversation and probably not for this column, right now.

EK: Right.

PA: Where were we?

EK: Hmmm.

PA: Vegans! Vegan Jewish holidays.

EK: Yes! I do all the all the holidays vegan. Jewish and vegan. It was a risk. I didn’t know it would sell. Amazing response.

PA: Unreal.

EK: I do a vegan Passover seder at the restaurant.

PA: Isn’t it annoying to have a restaurant full of vegans?

EK: Noooo.

PA: The restaurant has changed and grown a lot huh?

EK: Oh, yes. Personally, I haven’t eaten meat in 28 years, so it really started from my husband making his wife happy. I know too much about the industry.

PA: I don’t eat meat either, actually. It’s an evil industry.

EK: It’s shameful. Mostly in America.

PA: I know. I know. What about Kosher meat? Is all the hullaballoo true or is it bullshit?

EK: It’s actually the most humane way of slaughter. They respect the soul of the animal and they don’t believe the animal should suffer. So kosher butchery is definitely better. They have to answer to a higher authority. Like they say in that old Hebrew National commercial from the 1970s.

PA: Like me. I have to answer to a higher authority with this column. Before I start interrogating you, what’s next?

EK: Right now, we’re working with the Museum of the Bible. We’re going to open three restaurants there: Manna, Milk and Honey Café, and private dining. It’s why I just went back to Israel.

PA: When does it open?

EK: November 17.

PA: Is that the place with the Hobby Lobby guy?

EK: Steve Green is the Chairman.

PA: This is really wild.

EK: My eyes have been really opened working on this. Not just because of the amazing people I’m working with, but the feeling they are evoking, when you walk through the doors. It’s not what people want to say it is, and it’s important that people understand that. This is a time of conversation and coming together. Everyone has a right to respect. We express ourselves through food, that’s what we do. We’re hospitality people, we’re here to serve, not judge and we just want people to be happy. And to have the opportunity to cook with biblical herbs, where fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls are downstairs, where Elvis Presley’s Bible is, where visiting scholars from Israel, South America, Italy, who all study the Bible come is so fucking cool. And I never thought I would say this when I was younger, when I was basically a communist living on a Kibbutz in Israel.

PA: Cheers to that. Speaking of which, What’s your favorite drink?

EK: Vodka soda splash of cranberry.

PA: What kind of vodka?

EK: Dr. Stoner’s. He was a stoner all his life and that really is his name. He makes an out of control herbal infused vodka.

PA: How do you eat your eggs?

EK: Scrambled with a number of hot sauces.

PA: How do you drink your coffee?

EK: Espresso with fake vanilla creamer. It’s my one totally pedestrian thing.

PA: What’s your favorite Jewish Holiday?

EK: Rosh Hashanah.

PA: Did you have a Bat Mitzvah?

EK: Yes. In a conservative temple. I had a dual one with my brother, even though we weren’t twins. My parents had matches made, they said Ernest and Ellen.

PA: I love that. Do your remember what you wore?

EK: This was 1976 and I had this brown corduroy suit, I rocked it.

PA: That’s so cool. What shampoo do you use?

EK: Herbal Essence.

PA: Gefilte fish or lox?

EK: Gefilte fish with red horseradish.

PA: Five things in your bag right now?

EK: My phone, unfortunately, a really good lip gloss, my debit card and a notebook.

PA: That’s only four but I’ll let it slide. Favorite pair of shoes?

EK: Sandals I got in Israel.

Periel Aschenbrand, a comedian at heart, is the author of On My Kneesand The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own.