Chefs aren’t known for being modest. But defying the norm is something Christian Gray, the chef de cuisine at The Townsend Hotel’s Rugby Grille, has gotten pretty good at. Just ask him about the ’50s suburban ranch he transformed into a modern-day, photo-worthy home with his own hands. The house, which stands out for the corrugated metal incorporated into the exterior, is a tribute to understatement that reflects his style as a chef. Known for clean flavors and simple presentation, he has never been one for frivolity — at home or in the professional kitchen.
“I knew I was handy,” says Chris, who moved to Beverly Hills with his wife, Jen Todd Gray, a vice president of marketing and creative services at ePrize, six years ago to be closer to family. As luck would have it, they moved months before the beginning of the recession and gigs for top chefs with impressive résumés weren’t easy to come by. (Christian got his start in Seattle and sharpened his blade at some of the best restaurants in Chicago — Aubriot, Naha, and Spiaggia, among them.)
While he waited for the right job, he put his hands to use at home, learning by trial and error how to renovate a house. “Sure, we didn’t have a kitchen for five months,” says Jen, admitting that was a special kind of torture for the wife of a chef. “But it’s so gratifying to do it yourself.”
While the couple improvised dinners with a toaster oven sitting on top of the clothes dryer, they set to work ripping up wall-to-wall carpet and laying bamboo floor. They reconfigured the main living space, eliminating living room and kitchen walls to create an open plan.
“It’s just like putting a dish together; you have all the ingredients out and you have to figure out how to put the finished product together,” says Chris, who turned to the Internet for tips on how to hang a door and relied on a contractor buddy, who helped after work and on off days.
Along the way, Chris developed a talent for furniture design. Armed with self-taught woodworking skills and a do-it-yourself mindset, he outfitted nearly every room with at least one piece of his own creation. It started with a fireplace mantel that he cut and sanded from a section of parallam beam — a grainy, organic-looking antidote to the slate-colored porcelain tiles in the fireplace surround. He then decided to build a dining table from the same pressed particle wood. The result was a striking, textured piece that rivals DWR catalog offerings. Other personal creations include a wood-and-concrete coffee table, a wood-slat side table, and a changing table-cum-credenza for their 1-year-old son, Emmett.
Like his free-form creativity in the kitchen, Chris employs the same figure-it-out-as-you-go approach to designing furniture. It was a natural progression of talents. Both cooking and furniture design require respect for process and craft and a willingness to experiment. The two pursuits share a frugality, as well.
“He reuses everything,” Jen says. “He takes the scraps of wood from a project and turns it into something beautiful.”
Blame it on the waste-not, want-not philosophy Chris learned while working for independent restaurant owners: Anything you’re throwing in the garbage is money already spent.
“Scraps of carrots, tomatoes — it all gets repurposed as stock or soup or garnish for a dish,” Chris says. “Everything should be useful.”
Local market: Papa Joe’s Gourmet Market, Birmingham and Rochester; and Royal Oak Farmers Market
Source for chicken: Farm-fresh, whole chicken from Royal Oak Farmers Market
Hardware store: Public Lumber, Detroit
Specialty market: Noble Fish, Clawson
Knives: Any Japanese knives; korin.com.
Local products: American Spoon, Petoskey (Jen’s hometown); anything from Zingerman’s; McClure’s pickles and Bloody Mary mix