Friday, March 04, 2011

Equinox Luncheon: First Ladies Dine Out In DC

Fave White House guest chef Todd Gray cooks a lovely organic lunch for Mrs. Obama and Mexico's Mrs. Margarita Zavala...
Perhaps Mexico's First Lady Margarita Zavala will never eat lunch in the White House. The last time she was in Washington with her husband, President Felipe Calderón, during an official State Visit in May of 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama took her on a school visit where they joined a gang of pre-schoolers for a family style lunch.  On Thursday, Mrs. Obama escorted Mrs. Zavala to DC's Equinox restaurant, where they had an hour-long luncheon, joined by two translators and another female guest. (Above: The two First Ladies)

There was a school visit on Thursday, too: The luncheon at Chef Todd Gray's chic downtown DC eatery came after Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Zavala visited Oyster-Adams Bilingual Elementary School, where they read aloud in English and Spanish to more than 200 excited kids.  Just a few blocks away, President Obama and President Calderón were having their own private luncheon in the Old Family Dining Room at the White House, following a morning of bilateral meetings.  (Above: The First Ladies with kids)

Gray, who sources his organic and sustainable ingredients locally, said he was thrilled to have the honor of cooking for the two First Ladies.

“It always makes you feel special when the president or the first lady or both come to see you because you feel like you were the chosen restaurant of the moment or of the day and that’s a real honor,” Gray told Washington Examiner's "Yeas & Nays" columnists.

He last cooked for Mrs. Obama when her husband escorted her to a Date Night Dinner at Equinox  in January of 2009.  The belated birthday dinner for Mrs. Obama came right before the President-elect was inaugurated, and was the Obamas' first evening meal as newly minted Washingtonians. 

For the luncheon, Gray said he prepared several of his signature dishes for Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Zavala, including pulled chicken salad with toasted cashews and frisee with arugula pesto, and chopped salad with quail egg and baby beets with sherry mustard vinaigrette. An order of Jerusalem Artichoke Gnocchi with Black Trumpet Mushrooms was shared by the First Ladies, and two sides of macaroni and cheese were ordered.   

For dessert, Gray served Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Zavala Lemon Ricotta Fritters and Caramel Hazelnut Truffles.

Gray said that he had just a short heads-up that he was going to be cooking lunch for the two First Ladies: He received a text message in the morning from his assistant, advising him that the East Wing was trying to contact him.  Gray has long experience, and is an award-winning chef, but he was still having kitchen jitters, he said.

"I thought to myself, I’m never nervous...but what if something goes wrong?" Gray said. 

"When you look around and see all of the Secret Service here and you always wonder what if a sprinkler head blows over the table, or the ladies bathroom overflows or a fire alarm goes off?”

After dining, Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Zavala chatted with Gray and his wife, Ellen, about the Let's Move! program Chefs Move to Schools--and soccer and lacrosse. Mrs. Zavala, like the First Lady, is also a mom to two kids, and the Grays are parents, too.

Gray is deeply acquainted with Mrs. Obama: He was a guest chef at the White House in October of 2009, and he's such an active participant in Chefs Move to Schools, and an early adopter of a DC school, that he was a featured speaker when Mrs. Obama launched the project in a huge ceremony on the South Lawn in June of 2010. (Above: Mrs. Obama listens as Gray addresses about 700 visiting chefs)

Info: Equinox is at 1818 Connecticut Avenue, Washington, DC, 20006. Phone: 202-331-8118. Check out Equinox's blog for this post about cooking with local students.

*Top two photos by Getty; Chefs Move photo by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama