The 2020 Jean Banchet Awards for Culinary Excellence, the Chicago restaurant industry’s “Oscars,” will be handed out at Venue SIX10 on Sunday, Jan. 19. And once again, the man at the helm, the host with the absolute most, will be Michael Muser. This award is often a barometer for bigger, national recognition. Many past nominees and winners have gone on to win James Beard Awards, Michelin stars, and general celebrity chefdom.
Muser himself is no stranger to the national stage. Muser and his business partner, chef Curtis Duffy, drew great acclaim and three Michelin stars at the now-shuttered Grace, which closed two years ago after a dispute with the main business partner. But when one door closes, another opens, and Muser and his wife, Jamie, welcomed their daughter around the same time. The joys of fatherhood and the thrill and challenge of creating a new restaurant out of whole cloth have occupied his days (and nights) since then. His newest baby, currently in gestation, has a delivery date of sorts. Ever, their hotly anticipated follow-up to Grace, is due to open later this spring in the bustling Fulton Market district.
In a recent interview, I had a chance to talk to Muser about the upcoming awards, his deep connection to the work of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (CFF), and his restaurant project with Duffy, excerpted here.
Better: Do you have any theater in your background? You’re a natural on stage. How has that shaped the Banchet Awards and the partnership with CFF?
Michael Muser: Unfortunately for me, I went to college for theater. Emceeing the Banchet Awards 1.0 [when it was part of the CFF Annual Fundraiser] was a huge challenge because it was a ballroom full of people having dinner. So I said to CFF, we can do better than this. Let’s do a stand-alone show. Our city is big enough to support it. We have a big enough restaurant culture. There’s so much happening that once a year we should have an opportunity to hit the pause button and look back at the previous year, poke a little fun at our little world, and most importantly, honor the hard work and ingenuity that goes into keeping Chicago one of the most dynamic restaurant scenes in the country. Let’s look back on ourselves. Let’s do an awards show but craft it from a restaurant/hospitality perspective. This is our Oscars. We were able to get CFF on board with that idea and now this is our fifth year [in this format] at Venue SIX10.
What’s special about the 2020 Banchet Awards? What keeps you involved?
We sold out two months in advance of the show this year. It gets bigger and bigger every year. It’s very much becoming it’s own entity. It’s always been a really great partnership with CFF, and so much is happening with CFF this year. It’s incredible. Meds have been approved that are going to cure symptoms of this horrible disease. What originally kept me involved when I was starting to burn out on the gig six years ago was they texted me a video of all these little kids saying thank you. And at the end of it was this little girl, Evie Murphy. And this little kid’s video to me was the key … no one with a soul could ever say no to Evie Murphy. I still have that video on my phone.
You have such a wonderful, effortless connection with the 11-year-old “Jean Banchet CFF Greater Illinois Ambassador” Evie Murphy. What a foil you have in that kid! She’s so sassy and adorable and smart.
You couldn’t design a better version of Evie Murphy. She is so pretty, so smart, and so witty. She knocks me off my feet. She’s a remarkable kid. You couple that with what you know about the disease, and what she has to deal with. It just bruised me in a way that fueled the fire and kept me in the game. I’ve known her now for six years, and to know that there is now a pill she can take so she doesn’t have to wear that mechanical vibrating vest to shake the mucus out of her lungs, or this handful of pills that she takes to assist with digestion of food … this is a monumental year for us. We get to be excited about this wonder medication that’s hit the market.
Chicago’s legendary Breakfast Queen, Ina Pinkney, will be awarded the 2020 Jean Banchet Culinary Achievement Award honoring her career and impact on our restaurant community. How is that award selected?
For that particular award, it’s not meant to be an end-of-career thing. But sometimes there are these people within our city and our industry where we think, how do we not recognize them for their contribution, not just for what they do, but what they contribute as a whole to the restaurant culture? We’ve wanted to give this award to Ina for many years. Where I really get involved in the process is once this person is chosen, I make sure they are honored in the most important way possible. I still own that speech. I want a standing ovation for Ina Pinkney when she walks out on that stage. Not that she needs it, but she deserves it. She’s getting this award because she epitomizes what it means to be a Chicago restaurateur, outside of her restaurant accomplishments. Does Ina know service? Oh, yeah. Does she know food? For sure. Does she know the business? Certainly. But try to find someone who knows Ina who hasn’t been affected by her love, her compassion, by who she is as a person. She’s who we all want to be, to have the dignity and respect she commands. Ina reminds me of what a jerk I am. I see her, how she is, and what an unbelievable positive effect she has on everyone she’s ever touched. And I think to myself, I‘ve got to be better. It’s a tough business, but she has found a way to be in this business for so long and get out the other side and just be surrounded by respect and love. That’s the greatest accomplishment. Everyone should be in awe of that.
I love the dichotomy of your measured, buttoned-up persona at the helm of a three-star Michelin restaurant, and then the image of you in your motorcycle leathers astride your bike. So, who is Michael Muser? Has fatherhood changed you?
You look at your kid and you look at your bike and you’ve got to go with the kid. It doesn’t make it any less painful. The onus is on you. I will always ride. But the five-day runs are likely a thing of the past. She’s almost two and a half. And now my wife is going to go back to work full-time and affording daycare is a reality that has entered my life like a dump truck. Chicagoans, unite! The pickups, the drop-offs. And making it all work is kind of the mush that I am in. But who am I, at the end of any day, no matter what project is going on? I’m chef Curtis Duffy’s right hand, every day of my life. I get up, and we make sure Curtis is good and he has what he needs. We’re building the most beautiful thing in the world together right now. But it’s tough. He’s the most extraordinary chef, and building these little boxes to enable to do what he needs to do, to have what he needs to get it done, it’s a colossal but necessary pain. Outside of that, there’s an army of things that I love to do. I have the responsibility to do things I know how to do. With the Banchet Awards, I saw a problem, I knew how to solve it, and I wanted to fix it. Will it take time out of my life, sure. But you have a responsibility to do the things you can do well.
Where are you now with the Ever buildout?
If I had to give it a number, I’d say we’re about 35 percent through it. The fun is in all the ugly details behind what we do. You realize when you build one of these things is how important the whole world is. Things come from all corners of the planet. It takes coordination, it takes time, it takes endless emails. The stove is coming from the South of France, the kitchen is being hand-built and custom fabricated in Quebec, Canada, the light fixture from Italy, everything is on its way, on a boat coming from somewhere else. Right now in Chicago, when I look at the restaurant, the HVAC is getting put in, the walls are framed, the plumbing … all the things we can do, we’re getting done. There’s the weird element of artists working on our stuff that is coming in from all over the world. We’re putting as much positive pressure on them that we can so we get all of the pieces we need to put this together.
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Ever will be in the Fulton Market, just a few blocks from the tasting menus of Smyth, Elske, and Next. High level Omakase seems to be the next big thing that everyone’s losing it over. Where will Ever fit into the West Loop/Chicago equation?
Ever is Curtis. Ever is chef. In my pitch mode, at the end of any one of these days, we line up behind him. We do believe that Duffy’s tasting menus are these radical albums. When music artists make albums, stories get told. There is a through-line all the way from the amuse to the mignardise. Do you know how hard it is to get seamless transition between savory and sweet? So that it just makes sense.
The line is so thin between what’s extra on a plate. The addition of a few too many elements on a plate and it resembles a Jackson Pollock painting. Curtis stays within the familiar. He doesn’t lose the guest. You’re along for the ride. When there are beets on the plate, it’s not a weird version of a beet. We’re in the realm. We’re not Cirque du Soleil; we’re more like ballet. Classical. He’s the bridge that connects Trotter and Achatz. And that’s where the beauty of what we do lies. You will see that inventive nature. We owe it to you to push things artistically. But we don’t do edible balloons.
Fine dining at your level is a team effort, isn’t it?
I can get super bragadocious about the support squad that sits around Curtis. Amy Cordell, my GM? There’s no one like her. She’s been with us for 12 years. People would kill for an Amy. You can’t get an Amy anymore. Someone who lives, eats, and breathes service. She’s a masterpiece, dude. So what separates us from these other amazing restaurants? We have a squad that can deliver. All that pretty food stuff? There’s a whole world that sits behind the chef in the way we pace and choreograph the experience for you. We cater the experience to the rhythm and the cadence of the client, not the restaurant. We watch and make sure so no matter what, it’s timed right. The whole restaurant responds to that moment. We are so blessed to have these people. What makes all of these three-star restaurants — Benu, Atelier Crenn, the Saisons of the world — so unique and incredible are the people that work there. They tell all the rest of their lives to take a hike so that they can be the best restaurant around. In those environments, to truly make it work, it takes a monstrous amount of focus, and enormous dedication to standards, and a team that insists that those standards be lived by every day they walk in the door. And these standards? They’re annoying. They aren’t for normal people. This is where service weirdos like to be. There has to be something in you that’s a little bit masochistic, because these environments are not normal. That’s why Ever will be special.
Julie Chernoff, Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz Scaggs, Rick Bayless, and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and counts Northlight Theatre and Les Dames d’Escoffier International as two of her favorite nonprofits. She currently serves on the national board of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, an advocacy group addressing hunger issues in the U.S. and Israel for the nearly 46 million people — veterans, children, seniors, tribal nations, and more — who go to bed hungry every night.