A Quick Q&A with Karen Nicolas, New Executive Chef at Equinox

The restaurant's just-hired head toque talks DC diners, menu changes, and how she came to work for Todd Gray.

Equinox, where new executive chef Karen Nicolas is slowing putting her spin on the seasonally focused menu. Photo: Equinox

A few weeks back, WaPo’s Tom Sietsema took to Twitter to inform us that Karen Nicolas would be the first Equinox chef ever to have the prized “executive” descriptor affixed to her title. (Owner Todd Gray has hired chef de cuisines, but never a top toque.) And today came a press release from the restaurant with the official announcement. In it, Gray, who, until now, helmed the kitchen at his seasonally focused restaurant, explains that he will still be collaborating on the menu, but that Nicolas’s “culinary vision” would hereafter “be reflected in the menu.”

Best Bites caught up with Nicolas, an inveterate cook whose lofty resume includes stints under such boldface names as Tom Colicchio and Charlie Palmer, and asked her about the move, DC diners, and what will change and stay the same at Equinox.

What made you want to move to DC?
I was working at Simon Pearce. Do you know Simon Pearce? He’s a glassblower who has his own restaurant. But it’s right outside of Philly, which, for me . . . I wanted to be in Philadelphia and competing with the other chefs. So I was looking to get into Philly and/or DC. I wanted to be in a city, basically.

What do you think distinguishes DC diners from those in other cities where you’ve worked?
I’ve worked in New York and Philly and San Francisco and Chicago. I’ve kind of hit all the big cities. It’s just different everywhere you go. With Equinox and Todd, he has so many regulars and high-profile government people that have been coming here since he opened 12 years ago, and sometimes they just want you to cook for them. They don’t want what’s on the menu. There’s a lot of catering to that here, which, you know, I never really experienced in New York or Chicago. That’s a little different for me. But I’m still learning about the demographics of Washington, I have to admit. I might be able to better answer that in a few weeks.

When did you meet Todd Gray?
It was toward the end of September. He called me after he put out an ad. It was about a two-week process of talking before we made it official.

What happened during those talks that made you think you would work well together?
It was the ideal restaurant that I’ve always wanted to run—intimate, not too big, but not too small at the same time. And his food style is very similar to mine, so putting my take on [the menu] has been an easy transition. He does a lot of Italian influence, and that’s what I like to do. It’s sensible cooking with good, solid technique. A lot of people are doing that molecular thing, which I like to play with, but at the same time I just like to cook. That’s what he does, too. It’s about feeding the soul.

What have you already changed on the menu?
They had flounder with chorizo and white beans, but we’re going to change it today to monkfish with veal ragu and some braised greens and white beans and celery confit. I don’t want to change things too fast, though, and overwhelm everybody.

Fair enough. But what new menu items can we expect this fall?
I want to do a savory chestnut flan or custard with porcini mushrooms, coffee soil, and candied coriander seeds. And I’m thinking about a sous-vide guinea hen dish with some quinoa, preserved lemon, and—what else was I going to do with that?—oh, some roasted banana squash.