Chef Curtis Duffy is fond of the adjectives "luxurious" and "unique." At his new Chicago restaurant Grace, the chef — who worked at Trotter's and Trio, helped open Alinea, and earned two Michelin stars at Avenues — embraces fine dining and unabashedly tries to make those two words apply to every aspect of the dining experience. It's something Bonjwing Lee carefully documented for Eater leading up to the restaurant's debut. In the following interview, conducted the day his restaurant received the highest possible rating from the Chicago Tribune, Duffy talks about his goals for the Grace, how he carries himself in the kitchen, his thoughts on the casual restaurant boom, and the importance of going all-out.
Tell me about the decision to leave Avenues.
I always wanted to open a restaurant of mine, so I always strategically put myself in restaurants where I could learn. These were places that I wanted to emulate in some way.
Fast-forward to Avenues, and three years in it was perfect timing. There was a gentleman who kept coming in to the restaurant to eat. He wasn't part of the restaurant world. He was a wealthy man who one day got dragged to the restaurant by his wife — he was strictly a meat and potatoes guy — and he fell in love with it. He eventually set me up with my sole investor.
What's most important to you about having your own place versus working somewhere else?
I'll try to say this gently, without getting myself in trouble: there's a lot of people who make decisions in a corporate setting. It's not necessarily frustrating, but it's exhausting. If I wanted to buy a new piece of china, it would literally take three months to get it approved. That's exhausting as a chef. You have an idea and want to keep moving forward, but if it takes three months to do it you're not excited anymore. The china becomes insignificant.
Now, I have the freedom to make those decisions in the moment. That also gives us more creative freedom in the kitchen. In the larger sense, the small things take care of the big things.
What is the pitch on Grace? What's your goal here?
Grace, for us, is a sense of refinement. The economy has gone downhill in the last six or so years, and we've seen a huge trend of casual restaurants. For me, the idea of leaving Avenues and not pursuing my goal of a high-end restaurant — shame on me. It was very important for me to follow through, whether or not the economy was good.
People want casual and comfortable places, but they also want places where people take care of them and exceed their expectations. That's what we wanted to do at Grace. We wanted to make it the farthest away from casual.
But you'd say your place is comfortable, too, right?
It's very comfortable. We wanted the place to be very modern, very warm. That can be hard to do in a modern setting. I think the warmth mostly comes from the staff. We're really excited that people choose to dine here, and we want to express that. All the money we spend on the luxurious things in the dining room — it all makes sense. The colors are warm, the materials are warm, the chairs are luxurious to sit in.
You just referred to the boom in casual restaurants. Do you think it's not necessarily the most positive thing to have chefs with a high level of training opting to open cheaper, less fancy restaurants?
I always look at it like this: there's people that are going to take risks. Picture a tree: you have the middle of the tree, which is the heavy bark. You can be just fine eating from that, or you could reach higher, go out on a limb, and eat the sweeter fruit. I tell my cooks that a lot. If we aren't taking risks, how will we know how far we can go?
We're the third largest city in America. We have so many casual restaurants. This city had made so many leaps in gastronomy, and then in the last five years it sort of stalled.
Now that you mention risks, what risks are you taking with the food at Grace?
I don't think we're taking any risks with food. We're approaching food in a respectful and sensible way. I think the ways we present things are unique. In every one of my dishes, something has to be very comforting and familiar, but then there has to be an aspect of excitement and difference. We take normal ingredients, but we're taking them at the height of their season and then we're showcasing them in a unique fashion.
Can you give me an example?
There's a dish that's a marlin from Hawaii. The flavors are very classic Thai flavors: basil, pomelo, trout roe, basil, lime, and coconut. You can get that at any Thai restaurant, basically, but we present it in a ginger-flavored ice leaf that you break down until you get to the dish and then gets incorporated into it. You could go down the street and get it in salad form, too. But that's how we take that extra step.
How do you view the word "progressive" in cooking?
The way I view the word "progressive" is about the techniques. I think a lot about extremely high end ingredients, at their freshest, and then utilize the progressive techniques that are available to make the dishes exciting. That's how I'd describe it.
Maybe a better way to ask that question: are you trying to push the envelope?
I'm more interested in flavor and ingredients than technique. Technique is secondary to us. It's more about the seasons and how something tastes. Without those, you don't have a foundation to stand on. You can only manipulate something so much and make it seem like something it's not. You can play around with something to the point where you don't know what you're eating and that can be great, but that's not what we're doing.
Do you care about Michelin stars or the World's 50 Best List?
I'd be a fool if I said I didn't, but that's not the reason I opened the restaurant. I still want to be here in twenty years. I strive for that perfection. I want that third star, but I may never get it. But it's a great goal to have.
How would you describe your attitude as a chef? How are you in the kitchen?
I'm a very quiet chef. I think I'm well-respect in the restaurant world. I expect and demand a lot from every one of my chefs. There are maybe sixty people in my kitchen right now, and I bet you can't hear any of them over the phone. It's run like an army, with precision. Every movement has a purpose. We train them that way. I always refer to that brain muscle – you want that spatula in the same place every time, you want that salt container there every single day that you set up. It just makes you more of a machine, and it comes very naturally. I like the kitchen to be quiet. There's not a lot of talking in it. I don't like chit-chat during the day. It's what makes the restaurant move forward.
What happens when the shit hits the fan?
I take it play-by-play. If there's something bad, we look into it and figure out why and try to fix it. But if it's a mistake that keeps happening three or four times, I just send them home. I lose it. I don't deal with it. When you're ready to be here, you're focused and don't keep making those mistakes.
Now that you're six weeks in, can you point to some kinks that you've had to adjust since opening?
That's a good question. We spent such diligent time figuring out what we needed to give our staff and cooks. I physically stood in every station here to figure out what exactly someone would need to be there for eight hours a night without having to move around. What kind of tools do they need to be successful? I've been part of four or five openings in my career, and this has by far been the smoothest I've ever been a part of. I remember opening Alinea, which was smooth and organized, but this has just been great for us. There's not a lot that I would change.
Have people been coming in, despite the fact that you haven't been reviewed much and it's a pricey restaurant?
People say that the restaurant is expensive, but look at what you get. You can go to a small bites place, and by the time you're done ordering to get full, it ends up being more than $200. Our menu is $185 and look at what you're getting.
But are you happy with the response and business so far?
Yeah, we're happy with the clientele. We don't hit everybody's radar, but we make sure that the people that come in know that we are excited they are there.
Have you made changes to the menu?
I look at the seasons as fifty-two weeks. That's how I look at it. The menu will see a full, complete flip four times a year. But leading up to that, a bunch of dishes will change based on availability. We've already changed five or six in the six weeks we have been open.
How would you describe the flavors that interest you?
Very simple: they are clean. I use very little fats and dairies. The flavor profiles are bright. I always tell my guests that the most amount of fat that they will consume is in the bread.
And what differences might someone note between the flavors when you were at Avenues and those here?
Maybe more refined, mature. But I always say that this a personality cuisine. It's food that I like to eat and flavors that I enjoy pursuing. I don't compare it to anyone else's or try to emulate anyone else. I think it's my own voice. In the year and a half that we built this restaurant, I didn't look at trends or what was popular. I worked on my cooking.
Finally, do you think you've finally found your place?
I'm looking forward to hitting that sweet spot, which we haven't yet. We're moving in the right direction. I'm the first one here and the last one to leave. That's the way I like it to be.