Curtis Duffy | Saving grace

02 Oct 2016
6 min read
The fascinating tale of Chef Curtis Duffy and his restaurant Grace in Chicago, as told by Amelia Levin for FOUR Magazine.
“What will be your legacy?”

Sitting in the serene and spa-like dining room at Grace, Iasks Chef Curtis Duffy about those words inscribed on the wall of the glassed-in kitchen.

“It’s actually a glass board, like a dry erase board,” he explains. “The idea was to allow everyone to write down their ideas as they’re working. I myself always walk around with a notebook.” It’s easy to quickly forget ideas in a busy kitchen like at Grace, which sees 40 to 60 covers a night offering two 9- to 12-course tasting menus.

“For a long time the word on the wall was just ‘consistency’,” Duffy says. “I want our people to think about what they’re contributing to the restaurant on a daily basis. It could be something as simple as a new way of cleaning the kitchen. But we want everyone to walk away from here being remembered for something.”

In just the first year of opening in December 2012, the 64-seat Grace quickly earned accolades, including two Michelin stars, a 4-star review from the Chicago Tribune, an AAA-five-diamond rating and a 5-star rating from Forbes, among others. Last year, Grace earned a highly coveted three stars from Michelin, putting the innovative fine dining restaurant in the same category as Duffy’s former employer, Grant Achatz at Alinea.

And the name says it all. “When I say or hear the word ‘grace’ it makes me feel warm inside,” says Duffy. “For me it means gentle, elegant, refined. Those are the things we want to give back to our guests.”

Duffy’s gentle, almost childlike brown eyes give the look of someone who has clearly found his passion, is living it every day, and knows his cooking “voice”. But that’s certainly not the whole story.

The making of a chef

People knew very little about the mysterious Curtis Duffy before Chicago Tribune food journalist Kevin Pang and filmmaker Mark Helenowski detailed Duffy’s full childhood background and rise to stardom in a documentary that drew crowds during its showing in Chicago last year. In March, the film debuted nationally at the South By Southwest (SXSW) Festival in Austin, Texas, and is poised for national distribution.

“Curtis had a rough childhood,” Duffy’s high school home economics teacher and longtime friend and mentor explained in the film. Pang’s article supporting the documentary described the ordeal, which ended in a loss of Duffy’s parents due to domestic violence. It makes sense that the kitchen has become a sanctuary for Duffy – a place where he can be himself, usher in his creative side and pursue his dreams. Pang called Grace, Duffy’s “saving Grace”. He couldn’t have said it better.

Duffy’s love of cooking began in high school as a dishwasher for a local restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, where he was born and raised. A job to earn a few extra bucks soon turned into a clear career path when he had the opportunity to start prepping and cooking food.

During his junior year in high school the Duffy family moved to a different school district, which gave him the opportunity to take culinary classes at a vocational school. He spent weekends washing dishes and prepping food at the Muirfield Village Golf Club, getting closer to the realization that cooking was something he wanted to do. There, his greatest mentor, Executive Chef John Phillips Souza, taught him the ropes.

“He would never say no,” Duffy says about Souza, who allowed him to experiment with cooking at will. But Duffy wanted more. Chicago was the closest city – the late Charlie Trotter was one of the best chefs in the country. The decision to head there in 2000 made sense.

Proving himself right out of the gate, Duffy learned from the then chef de cuisine and Trotter’s right-hand-man Matt Merges, and sous chef David LeFevre. “I was taught to never get comfortable,” Duffy says. So he didn’t.

With a thirst from knowledge about baking and pastry, Duffy was given the pastry chef position at the former Trio under then head chef Grant Achatz. When Trio closed, a new opportunity opened up as Achatz’ right hand man at the now-famed Alinea. But, wanting to gain culinary independence, Duffy went for the executive chef job at Avenues.

From 2008 to 2011 Duffy catapulted his career to a larger audience and platform, earning for the restaurant and himself not only two-Michelin stars, but also James Beard nominations and rave reviews.

He pauses. “It was one of those nights at the end of service – things didn’t go well,” he says. That feeling had set in again. This time, he knew he was ready to open his own place.

For Grace

Watching the kitchen work at Grace is like watching a ballet or a symphony – everyone is in perfect sync. It’s quiet, meticulous, intense, and of course, graceful. The 1,500 square-foot rectangular space with cooking areas encircles a long table where chefs come together to plate and execute. One cook might be responsible for two or three of the tasting menu dishes. The idea is to keep the kitchen humming along without overloading different stations at different times and creating a bottleneck at pickup.

In the dining room, servers make casual conversation and suggest wines, while back servers dash around unnoticed, replenishing silverware and filling water glasses. The clean, minimalist décor–light wood walls, a few abstract paintings, white leather chairs–sets up the blank canvas for the artistry on the plates.

The two tasting menus–one vegetarian (flora), one meat and seafood (fauna)–change quarterly with weekly, seasonal tweaks, offering diners the opportunity to explore many different dishes without the boredom of a giant entrée.

Say, you choose the fauna flow. Starting things off, a wooden log arrives, pierced with toothpicks holding Iberico ham and artisan cheeses. A deep glass filled with pieces of sashimi-grade salmon, osetra caviar, lychee fruit and chives gets quick-cold-smoked with a smoking gun and sealed, releasing the scent of the sea when peeled back at the table. Lamb, slow-roasted for hours until buttery tender is paired with artichoke, smoky paprika and deep green microgreens like ribbons on a present. Pear juice spun into a lattice bowl is combined with brown butter and delicate, petit lemon balm leaves.

It’s 100 percent Curtis Duffy. Describing it as “Thoughtful Progressive” cuisine, “I’m not going to put anything on the menu that I don’t enjoy eating myself,” he says. That said there’s also very little fat in anything, reflective of the “clean” way Duffy eats. Instead, everything works in unison: savory, sour, sweet, crunchy, smooth, chewy.

“We put a lot of thought and energy into each dish,” says Curtis, noting that he draws much of his inspiration from his young daughters, Eden and Ava, and from simply being open to the beauty of all things, like they are. “We look at how one dish flows and how the entire menu tells a story. That’s the ‘thoughtful’ side. The ‘progressive’ side is about using techniques and modern technology that can push our food into an interesting realm without jeopardizing the integrity of the ingredients.”

Grace Now and Beyond

“We based our restaurant on four pillars: food, wine, service and ambiance,” says Duffy. “But all those things have to be in balance. The food can’t outshine the service; the service can’t outshine the ambiance. Otherwise we have failed.”

The nature of modern fine dining has changed. “We don’t have a dress code, we’re not too formal or stuffy,” says Duffy, adding he’s failed again if a customer feels intimidated. “Michael and I just wanted to build something graceful and elegant and be thankful for every single one of our gueststhat are in here. We know the restaurant industry is tough–there are 4,000 restaurants in the city–but our guests choose us. So let’s be grateful they’re here and blow them away.”

Michael Muser is Duffy’s friend, business partner and the restaurant’s general manager and sommelier who joined him after their days together at Avenues. “It’s easy to work together because we both have the same goals and we’re not fighting about the way things should be run,” Duffy says.

In fact, everyone at Grace–around 50 employees–are on the same page. Downstairs, Duffy and Muser converted 4,000 square feet of empty space into a lounge, complete with a couch and TV, computers, Wi-Fi, food and wine books, lockers, laundry and even a motorcycle, reflective of Duffy and Muser’s hobby. It’s a place where staff can decompress and start fresh the next day.

Just like his first steps into the culinary world Curtis explains, “We’re mentoring people to move on and do great things. “This goes back to the ‘what is your legacy’ message–we constantly ask our staff not only what they want to leave behind, but also what are they leaving to do.”

Earlier, I had asked Duffy his own question: “what do you want your legacy to be?”

“We’re all about creating moments and memories,” says Duffy. “I want people to talk about Grace and see it as a great restaurant that contributed to the food and wine world on an international level, not just in Chicago, and that it was an important restaurant in its time.”

After all, the writing’s on the wall.

Find out more about Chef Curtis Duffy