While studying art history at the University of Richmond, Todd Gray realized he’d developed a passion for a different art form: Food. The Fredericksburg, Virginia, native was a server at The Tobacco Company, an upscale steakhouse with regional seafood. “I was completely wowed and turned on by the buzz of the restaurant,” he recalls.
Managers suggested a transfer to Cornell University’s hotel and restaurant program. Gray, however, wanted to open a restaurant. “Then you need to be a chef,” the executive chef told him. So, Gray transferred to the Culinary Institute of America, from which he graduated with honors.
The young professional steadily worked toward his dream, and in 1999, he and his wife, Ellen Kassoff, opened Equinox a few blocks from the White House in Washington, D.C. In 2021, they opened Federal Fritter, now The Federal, in Rehoboth Beach.
In terms of size, The Federal is a small fish in a big pond. Located in Modern Mix’s old space, the Delaware eatery is so slender that seats only fit on the room’s one side.
But this little bistro offers big flavors that few can rival.
In the 1980s, when Gray applied to the Culinary Institute, applicants needed a year of kitchen experience, but Gray had only worked as a waiter. His parents contacted a friend, chef Christian Renault, owner of La Petite Auberge in Fredericksburg, who agreed to let Gray work in the kitchen during the day—for free—and wait tables for money at night.
“We’re going to teach you to clean beef and the foundations of cooking, and then you will go home, take a shower and be on the floor at 4 p.m.,” the French chef told him. Many American kitchens considered the French way the right way. Gray interned at L’Orangerie in Los Angeles and spent four years with Robert Greault at La Colline in D.C. Then he learned about chef Robert Donna at Galileo.
“He was doing open ravioli of lobster and squab with foie gras on polenta, and people were going, ‘What??’” he recalls. “I needed to see what it was all about. I thought I would stay a year or two. I ended up staying eight.”
Gray rose through the ranks, becoming the only American running one of the top five Italian kitchens in the United States. The Italian way of cooking reflected his style, including the appreciation for fine, local ingredients and a unfussy approach. Today, he is an advocate for sustainable farming.
Ellen Kassoff grew up in the D.C. area, where she got a job at Baskin-Robbins at age 13. But hospitality wasn’t her college career path. She received an economics degree from the University of Maryland and studied at the University of London. The animal lover then headed to a kibbutz.
“I was a very idealistic college student,” she recalls. “I thought the idea of a kibbutz was amazing, and I wanted to experience life on a farm.” Back in the States, she worked for Sysco, a food wholesaler, which is how she met Gray.
The fact that he was a client presented a conflict of interest, but it wasn’t the only issue. Kassoff is Jewish, and Gray was raised Episcopalian. Food helped save the day. “My dad and Todd bonded over Jewish deli” food, she says. And Gray won the family over with his latkes. The couple, who wed in 1995, have since coauthored The New Jewish Table, a cookbook drawing on Eastern European traditions and Gray’s French and Italian techniques.
Gray and Kassoff’s many projects have included Salamander Resort and Spa in Middleburg, Virginia, and Muse in the Corcoran Gallery. Currently, they have Equinox, The Federal, and catering and event planning companies. While Kassoff promises “no more,” this is a couple with ideas aplenty.
The Federal started as a D.C. food truck selling Equinox’s most popular shareable starters: fritters with various sauces. Kassoff, an empty-nester, envisioned travel to major music festivals. But when COVID-19 changed their expansion plans, they considered the Rehoboth space. They weren’t strangers to Delmarva’s coast. They had a condo in Lewes—they’ve since moved close to Rehoboth—and Kassoff’s family had been coming to Ocean Pines since 1968.
As their first season unfolded, Gray gradually added to the menu, and the selections reflect time spent in Italian and French kitchens. Consider house-made egg yolk pappardelle with lamb and pork ragu or velvety parsnip and celery root chowder, poured over a plump oyster and topped with addictive Federal crackers.
Gray says the small venue lends itself to tasting menus. On a recent visit, courses included a curled prawn atop a nest of squid ink orzo and rosy slices of beef topped with pickled ramps. “I love interacting with people in the dining room and hearing them say, ‘Hey, cook for us.’
I think people appreciate that type of experience,” he says.
Indeed, Gray doesn’t have a whiff of pretension, although the James Beard Foundation has nominated Gray for Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic, five times, and his D.C. restaurant continually receives accolades. The Virginian possesses Southern charm in spades, and Kassoff is quick to laugh.
She spends a lot of time in Rehoboth, where she can fill in behind the bar or at the host stand. Gray goes back and forth. When he’s in D.C., the kitchen is in the capable hands of Andrew Guffey, who’s worked at Nage, a(MUSE.) and The Blue Hen.
This season, Gray will add more options to the menu, including lunch selections. Cooking classes might start this month. “Todd is a great teacher,” his wife says. “We do a lot of classes in D.C.”
Count on Gray and Kassoff to keep things fresh. “You have to evolve—just like we did at Equinox,” Gray concludes. “You have to continue to take things up a notch as each year goes by.”