Curtis Duffy has earned three Michelin stars two years running at Grace in Chicago. A new documentary showcases his work and the restaurant. (Photo: Huge Galdones.)
I feel a sense of déjà vu when I walk into Grace, the Michelin-starred restaurant from chef Curtis Duffy that sits on the eastern side of Chicago’s restaurant row. I hadn’t been to the West Loop restaurant before (you can bet it’s on the bucket list), but it felt strangely familiar after seeing For Grace, a documentary out this week that charts the chef’s upbringing and the exhaustive steps that went into the opening of his first restaurant. There’s the unassuming, concealed front window, the paned-off but highly visible kitchen, and, of course, the chairs — the ones that ran upward of $1,000 each, a sum large enough for their very own scene in the film.
That investment has paid off. Since it opened in December 2012, the restaurant has already garnered three Michelin stars in two consecutive years — a jump from the two stars it acquired upon opening. While such an accomplishment in that time period is almost unthinkable, it’s not a total shocker: Duffy cut his teeth at the likes of Charlie Trotter’s, Trio and Alinea before moving on to open Avenues at Chicago’s Peninsula Hotel, where he quickly earned two stars from the Michelin team.
Couple that impressive background with a “100 percent or nothing” drive and an almost obsessive focus on ingredients, with technique closely behind, and it’s easy to see why the restaurant is setting the fine-dining bar in Chicago and beyond. Duffy’s style is one he calls a “personality cuisine” — i.e., cooking the way he wants to eat. “I think that can represent a chef the best,” he says. “You’re never going to see shrimp on my menu because I’m allergic to it and don’t eat it, and the same goes for green peppers.” What you will see are two nine-course tasting menus of clean, vibrant compositions that meticulously mirror the given season. Tonight, that translates to squab with sunflower seeds and beets, a trumpet royale with plums and smoked paprika, and a Meyer lemon ice cream cone intermezzo.
Here, Duffy shares why refinement is everything, the dish that will not define him and why “no” is becoming his new, albeit rarely used, favorite word.
The film is incredibly honest, which seems to be partly a result of the filmmakers and you developing some quality trust [including a scene at Duffy’s home in which he recounts the murder-suicide of his parents]. How did you work up to this comfort level with the crew?It just took time and being around these guys for months and months. They were there so much that soon enough, you didn’t even realize they were there — they were flies on a wall. When we went back to my house and talked about my family, it was a natural feeling. I never felt threatened to not tell them the story. It just happened to come out. We were lucky enough that they asked about my family. If they didn’t, it would’ve never turned into a story. It would’ve just been about us opening a restaurant. Everybody can relate to something like this, because everyone has something they went through.
What’s a dish for you that is really personal?When I left Avenues, I decided that any dish I created there I would leave there. About one and a half years after Grace opened, I brought back one item: the crab dish. It’s Alaskan king crab poached in citrus broth, served with kalamanzi puree, floral puree, cucumber juice, pickled cucumbers and trout roe in a stemless martini glass with a sugar tuile on top that acts like a windowpane. We never create a dish that makes it to the menu that day, but the crab was different. I had these ingredients, I put everything together, and it went on the menu that day. There have been a lot of changes to it since then. If you saw pictures from where it started to where it is now, it’s like, “Really?”
Are there other dishes you revisit?None, with the exception of the crab. I never wanted to be a chef known for a specific dish. I want to be known as someone who is always evolving and pushing forward in what I do. If we’re always stuck on doing one or two things, then people know us for those things, like a one-hit wonder type of restaurant, and I’m not interested in that.
Alaskan crab salad from GraceYou’re no stranger to Michelin stars. You garnered two of them at Avenues. What does it feel like to acquire them at your own venture?There’s a big difference because we built this from the ground up, so it’s more personal. But I always treated Avenues and every one of my jobs as if it was my restaurant. That’s something I always tell my own cooks, that you have to act as if this is your restaurant. It’s never a light switch for a chef, in my opinion: You’re either a chef or you’re not. It’s a mental game. If you have that approach, you no longer work for someone else. You’re constantly working for yourself and always pushing yourself to be better.
Walk us through your reaction to getting three Michelin stars two years in a row.More than anything, it solidified a lot of things for us because it happened so fast. It’s a lifelong goal for a chef to get one star, let alone three. It feels not natural. We worked extremely hard to get to this point, and we continue to work to maintain it, of course. When we first got the third Michelin star, everyone started to be all like [he looks at the napkin in front of him and measures the middle of it to where it should align on the next setting over, and moves a wine glass four times until it sits above the napkin just so]. You can drive yourself crazy like that. We had to remind the team, “Look, what we were doing was right, so let’s maintain that every day, refine it and get better.”
“Don’t cook because you want to be rich. Cook because you love to make people happy and it’s a passion of yours.”
What do you strive for now?All of last year, I struggled with that very heavily. We didn’t expect for it to happen in less than three years. And I thought to myself for a long time, “What’s the next challenge?” For us, it’s been about refining — refine, refine, refine. Everything that we do, we do it better than we did yesterday, and we build a foundation so that Grace can be here in 15 years. There are a lot of opportunities out there, but it’s about waiting for the right ones and knowing when to do them. And then it’s about mentoring, about making sure our staff, when they choose to leave, are going on to better the food and wine world.
You and your business partner, Michael Muser, go back a ways. What’s the key to such a successful tag team?More than anything, it was a friendship before it was a business partnership. We have a lot in common, but we’re also very yin and yang. He’s super-flamboyant, out there, obnoxious, and an overall that guy. I’m more reserved and think about things before I vomit them out. He doesn’t. We keep each other in check. It makes for a good team.
You mentioned in the film that it’s difficult to find balance in this industry. Do you still believe that?I think it is still hard to find balance. It just is. I don’t know if I’ll ever find balance, even when I retire. I still have to dedicate myself 100 percent to what I’m doing, because if I didn’t, things would start slipping, mistakes would happen and lead to bigger problems and everything becomes unraveled. I’ve learned to step back a decent amount, though. I’m not working 80 hours a week like I used to, and I’m forcing myself to do the things I enjoy personally. Because if I didn’t, I would just come to work.
What are those things?When the weather is still warm, I ride my motorcycles. I enjoy working out and make myself do that at least five days in the gym or at least an hour of outdoor activity. I love going to concerts. I’m open to doing anything, but it has to be presented in the right way because my time is so limited. I think that’s one of my biggest lessons this year, is how to say no to a lot of things.
Ditto.Right. I’m a yes guy. We’re in the hospitality business, so we’re hospitable. We want to do things for other people; we want to make them happy; we want to create memories for them. That involves us saying yes to everything: charity involvements, travel for projects and so on. I have six trips lined up in the next month and a half to go do things like that. I could’ve easily said no to every one of them, but I didn’t. So I’m learning to say no. It’s not easy to do, especially if they’re things you want to do.
What advice do you give to those in the industry?Don’t cook because you want to be rich. Cook because you love to make people happy and it’s a passion of yours. I think that with anything you do in life, if you’re doing it out of a passion for it, the money will come. I always say, “If you’re taking the next job because it pays $2 per hour more, shame on you.” In my entire career, I never asked for a raise, ever. I went three and a half years at Charlie Trotter’s never getting a pay raise and never asking. Same with the Peninsula — I never asked. Some people will say, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get,” but it was never about the money for me, even though I grew up very poor. It wasn’t what could’ve satisfied me intellectually. Put your head down, work extremely hard at what you do, you’ll become great at it and it’ll pay off — the money will come.
For Grace is now available on iTunes, Google Play and Amazon Instant Video.