Editor’s Note: The following interview ran in our January/February 2018 issue. As we were going to press, Curtis Duffy and partner Michael Muser announced they have stepped away from Grace, after a reported disagreement with their major investor. (You can read our exclusive post-exit interview here.) This interview provides a window into what makes Duffy a great chef and an introspective and compassionate person. You’ll learn, as we did, that he is guided by an absolute passion for cooking, and we have no doubt that he will triumph once again.
When he’s not traveling the globe on motorcycle trips with Keanu Reeves or attending food festivals in Hawaii, Bangkok, and Hong Kong, chef Curtis Duffy is a master of routine. He wakes up every morning at 6:30, makes himself oatmeal, brings his two daughters (Ava, 12, Eden, 8) to school, and hits the gym. At 11 a.m., he arrives at Grace, the fine-dining restaurant he and business partner Michael Muser opened in the city’s West Loop in December 2012. It took more than 18 months to build the establishment, and if its walls could talk, they would have much to say about its five-year life span — one that includes a consistent Michelin three-star standing, a Best Chef Great Lakes award from the James Beard Foundation, and “For Grace,” a Netflix documentary by Kevin Pang and Mark Helenowski that chronicles the restaurant’s highly anticipated creation.
Still, getting there wasn’t always easy. Duffy’s Colorado and Ohio upbringing came with financial struggles and marital strife, and when he was just 18 years old, he lost both of his parents in a murder-suicide. What followed — a culinary calling and posts at top Chicago dining ventures like Charlie Trotter’s, Alinea, and Avenues at the Peninsula — was nothing short of awe-inspiring. Here, Duffy shares what it takes to overcome all odds, the only hard-and-fast rule under his roof, and why it pays to give back.
Make It Better: You’ve hit the ultimate restaurant goal — three Michelin stars — four years in a row now. What’s the next big target?
Curtis Duffy: We’re continuing to work on a cookbook, which is a huge goal for us this year, and we’d love to start a second project soon. We’ve built a foundation for ourselves with a solid team that has been with us for a number of years, so we’re now at a point where we can start to focus on other ambitions.
“For Grace” is a deeply personal and honest account of your journey to opening the restaurant — and so much more. How has participating in it shaped your own understanding of your story?
The interesting thing is, we never set out for it to be a Netflix documentary. It started as a way for us to capture the moment of opening the restaurant because we knew it was going to happen so quickly. But about eight months into filming, Kevin [Pang] came to my house and started asking me more personal questions about how I became a chef and why. That’s when more of my story came out — it was a really therapeutic process for me.
How do you find work-life balance these days?
I’m not any closer to having balance today than I was when I opened the restaurant, but I’m closer to the acceptance of not having balance. My love of food and wine is very personal to me, so I almost see it as a very beautiful marriage. There are choices you make, and you can either live with those choices or change them, and I choose to live with them because they make me very happy.
And yet, you have some scheduling boundaries. How do you ensure time together with your daughters on a weekly basis?
Regardless of the day, I pick them up and take them to school at 7:45 every morning. It’s an important part of my life because if I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t see them until my days off on Sunday and Monday.
What’s a typical day like with them?
This past weekend we spent three hours at Dave & Buster’s. They get wild and crazy with video games, and so do I. We also just talk. My daughter Ava is 12 now, and the conversations we’re having have been a little more intellectual than when she was younger. Before it was me always asking her questions, and now she has her own thoughts and questions for me, like “How was your trip, Dad? What’d you cook? How’d they respond to it?” Those conversations are now a two-way street.
What, above all else, do you hope to instill in them?
Honesty and humility. I also someday hope they understand that the dedication to my craft is ultimately for them, as well — so that they can go on to achieve great things in their lives. I want them to know that they can do anything, as long as they’re willing to put in the work for it. You have to outwork everyone around you — if someone is willing to work 18 hours, you have to be the one to put in the 19th. That’s what’s going to make you the best. I hope they see my work ethic as I did my parents’, and I hope it transfers to them.
Is that what your parents most instilled in you?
Yes. They both had to work two or three jobs throughout my life just to survive. They weren’t around a lot, but they were working to maintain a family life financially. It could have been very easy for them to not work and depend on government funding, but instead they chose to take on extremely long hours.
What does leadership look like for you?
Leading for me is leading by example. If there’s a piece of paper on the floor, I’m not going to point a finger and say, “Pick it up” — I want to be the first one to pick it up. I do all the things I expect any of my other team members to do, from sweeping the floors to doing the dishes — I don’t want to ask them to do something I wouldn’t do. There’s not a job in this restaurant that’s more important than the next. Whether it’s picking up that piece of paper, washing a pot, or serving a guest, they’re all the same — you have to do each one with the same amount of passion and detail.
What’s something you always say to your team?
That they have a responsibility to themselves for greatness — everybody does. And that you owe it to nobody else but yourself to go discover what that is and do it.
Are there any rules in your house?
We do have a very strict one — there are no lies and no secrets. It’s all out there, real and honest. I think we gain a lot by being able to have our opinions and voices heard.
What’s a recent proud father moment?
My daughter Ava is in sixth grade now, and she beats herself up about trying to get perfect grades — even though I tell her it’s OK to not be perfect and to make mistakes because that’s how we grow and improve. She came home the other day and was super excited because she got straight As this quarter. The smile on her face was pretty amazing. I’m very proud of her.
You and your team are dedicated to several causes, from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and PAWS, to Meals on Wheels and Share Our Strength. Why do you feel it’s important to give back?
Chefs are already giving, hospitable people, but I feel that as a restaurant, we have a responsibility to give back to the community. Everybody needs something at some point along the way — I personally have in the past, and I’m sure I will in the future. You pay it forward because there’s no reason you shouldn’t.
Get to know Chicago’s top chef in 12 fast and furious questions.
1. Favorite takeout?
Tiparos Thai. I’ve been getting takeout from here for 18 years now. It’s usually the chicken satay with peanut sauce, and I love their tom kha soup and any of their noodle dishes.
2. Best meal you’ve ever had?
It was at Michel Bras in Southern France in 2004. It was the meal of a lifetime for me — it always has been and always will be.
3. What three famous people would you invite to dinner?
Marilyn Manson, Jim Morrison, and Freddie Mercury.
4. If you could eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?
5. Deep dish or thin crust?
Thin crust from Pequod’s. I’ve never actually ordered deep dish. I tried it one time and I was just like, “I don’t get it — what’s the point of this?”
6. Sweet or salty?
Sweet. I’m the candy guy. I love Whoppers, Twizzlers, and Reese’s Pieces.
7. Cubs or Sox?
8. Favorite way to unwind?
In the summer, it’s a night ride on my motorcycle. It’s a 20-minute ride home, but if I feel like I need more time on the road, I’ll take a different route. It resets me and clears my head.
9. Favorite thing about Chicago?
The people are great, and the city is amazing when it’s warm out. I love the music scene, and there’s always something to do at any hour of the day.
10. Where would you live if you weren’t here?
Possibly Key West or Miami — somewhere warm where I could enjoy riding my motorcycle for more than four months out of the year.
11. What’s the last thing you splurged on?
A new bike — a BMW S 1000 RR. It’s crazy fast with amazing technology, and every detail is meticulous. I love the craftsmanship behind it.
12. Do you have names for your bikes?
My Harley is Black Beauty, and the BMW is Nosferatu, after the original Dracula.
On Jan. 14, Duffy’s business partner and former Grace general manager Michael Muser will host the 2018 Jean Banchet Awards for Culinary Excellence presented by the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, where Duffy will present an award. Make It Better is proud to be a media sponsor of the event.
More from Make It Better:
- 7 Resolutions You’ll Actually Keep
- 4 Perfect Punch Recipes From Top Chicago Chefs
- North Shore Dining Guide: The Best Restaurants on Chicago’s North Shore
Nicole Schnitzler is a freelance writer who covers food, drink, travel and lifestyle. When she is not planning her next adventure, she can be found commuting between bakeries, yoga classes, live music shows, and libraries in her hometown of Chicago. She is most comfortable with a pen in one hand and a fork in the other. Nicole is also the founder of Doors Open Dishes, an initiative committed to keeping the doors open to the group homes and workshops of individuals with special needs by partnering with chefs and restaurants across the city. Follow her on Twitter (@Write_To_Eat) or on Instagram (@WriteToEat).