Yesterday evening, Tim Carman dropped the news that restaurateurs Todd Gray and Ellen Kassoff Gray have turned over daily operations management at their NoMA restaurant Watershed to a Dallas-based company named Culinaire. The idea was to free up the restaurateurs to devote more time to their other projects — which include their first restaurant Equinox, a book deal, a cafe at the Corcoran gallery and Todd Gray's job as culinary director of Salamander Hospitality and its resorts scattered across the county and, now, the Dominican Republic. So how will the move affect Watershed going forward? Eater caught Kassoff Gray by telephone to learn more about the shift in operations and what brought it all about.
What changes have been made: Chef de cuisine Godofredo Vaquerano parted ways with the restaurant on the day that this partnership came into effect, says Kassoff Gray, noting that he'd been a protege to Todd Gray for 13 years. But the rest of the staff stayed put, with some staff from Equinox, including Maitre D' Randy Cole, moving over to Watershed: "It wasn't like [Culinaire] came in, cleaned house and said, "OK, we're putting all our own people in now." They were anxious to work with the people that we trained because they know that we brought in a certain personality and a certain trademark."
On renovations that will be made under Culinaire: "They're going to make the bar better, more tables, because we have such a great happy hour scene there. They're going to make improvements in the dining room, so it doesn't look so hotel-ish. We realized when that place was done, it still needed to keep going in terms of decor and buildout, but we couldn't do that."
How the late 2009 kitchen fire at Equinox started the troubles: "Needless to say, the world was thrown into chaos because it's not anything you ever plan for. During that time we did a lot of stuff because Todd and I, never to be idle people, went out into the world. And that's where we really got in trouble. We're out unfettered, out there accepting invitations to galas and things we didn't have time for. ... So we threw a couple irons on the fire. One of those was NoMa for sure, one of them was the Corcoran, one of them was a book. ... And so the perfect storm brewed. We worked really hard and we went for it and we got everything that we went for. It was like two kids who stole their parents' car and went for a joyride and then it stalls out and you're like, 'Oh shit, how do we get it started again?'"
How Todd's involvement with Salamander Hospitality played into the decision: The Sheila Johnson-owned Salamander Hospitality group was quiet during the post-fire period, but suddenly ramped back up around when all these other projects came into play, with three new properties in Florida and one in the Dominican Republic. And Salamander, Kassoff Gray says, "is the true love of his life." He wanted more time for it.
On chef identity crises: "I think as a chef these days, at least from my husband and my business partner, you get faced with, 'Who am I? Am I a business mogul sitting on top of an empire, or am I a guy who likes to cook and create and write menus and teach?' ... I think sometimes they kind of lose themselves in the pressure to open multiple properties. Chefs think that's what they want to do."
On what they gain out of this: "What we wanted to gain out of this was our sanity and the ability to run the restaurant without losing our asses." Also: "The difference in purchasing power is so ridiculous. Our costs dropped 30 percent overnight because they have national contracts and they can get such better pricing on everything from kitchen degreaser to paper towels. It's just crazy. Odds are pretty stacked against indies of the world in that we don't have that kind of power."
On chef empires: "Now look, there's guys like Tom Colicchio who lord over 15 properties. I'm not saying all chefs can't do it. And I'm not saying we couldn't or don't want to do the whole empire thing. We just want to do it our way, which is less having to operate on it in that hands-on daily basis. ... I think what Robert [Wiedmaier] did is the smartest thing because he basically cloned himself, which he was fortunate enough to do with Brian McBride because Brian's awesome and understands the business and understands operations. That's what you need to do this. With Culinaire, they sort of came in and they're slowly assuming the operations, but we're all very much in partnership and keeping the concept and the entire life of what Watershed is completely intact and, if nothing else, improved on."
On making the decision: "We thought long and hard about it. We thought about which company would be best, what kind of profile we were looking for. This one was good. They don't have really much going on in DC. They're solely owned and operated themselves. They get it. They're hospitality people. They're not like accountants dressed up as hospitality people. They spoke our language. They understand the reason that we're in this business is a passion of serving and having a good time and throwing a party in the restaurant format."
On who will win in disagreements with Culinaire: Kassoff Gray says the most likely future points of contention will be food costs, adding, "I don't know how that's going to play out yet, but that's the kind of thing that's going to dictate how well this goes. It's new for us, too. It's a new model.
On how you're going to see both of them in their restaurants more often now: "That's exactly why we're doing what we're doing, because of a desire to just be in our space and just do that. Talk to people, hang out with people. We have a lot of friends in this city who come to eat his food and have a quick conversation with them. That's the heart and soul of hospitality and restaurants and that's what we don't want to lose."
On the future: "So it's going to be sort of an intersection of systems and character. The big question is how do you maintain character operating cost-effectively? I think it's a good formula and we're all going to learn something from it. I'm very curious. I won't lie to ya. It's going to be interesting, but we're psyched and we obviously made this decision because we think it's the best way to keep Watershed moving forward and in our emerging neighborhood of NoMa."