Chef Curtis Duffy has had a whirlwind 12 months. During a seven-day span last November, the chef/owner of Chicago fine-dining destination Grace was awarded two Michelin stars and crowned Eater's 2013 Chef of the Year. By March 2014, he landed two James Beard Award nominations (for Best Chef: Midwest and Outstanding Restaurant Design); six months later, the world premiere of a documentary following Duffy, called For Grace, made its debut. Eater critic Bill Addison loves the place, calling the tasting menu "a sumptuous 10 to 13-course meal that's remarkable in its sophistication." And last week, Duffy and co-owner/general manager Michael Muser received word that Grace earned a coveted top ranking from Michelin, joining Grant Achatz's Alinea as only the second three-starred restaurant in Chicago.
"It's amazing," Duffy told Eater two days after he got the Michelin call. "It's been kind of a whirlwind, and now it's finally starting to set in a little bit." In addition to Michelin madness, Duffy also discussed how cooking with emotion gives him instant gratification, the "surreal" feeling of being a documentary subject, and why it's perhaps best to throw out all your sketchbooks.
The Chicago Tribune was with you recording the moment you found out. How did that opportunity come up?
They did a documentary about me and they followed me for a few years. Kevin [Pang, Chicago Tribune writer] reached out to me a few days before the Michelin release and said, "Hey, you know, we didn't film anything last year" [when Michelin was announced], which was the first year we opened. He said, "We feel really bad, but we want to film this year and get some documentation of it." It was true, we didn't film anything, we didn't take any pictures last year. It was a big failure on our side. We said, "This year, let's make sure we document some stuff so we have it for the future." We hired a photographer and then Kevin came over with the film crew and then the outcome was three [stars], so it was great.
How did you and the team celebrate?
Originally, the plan was to take the phone call as a group, so the entire team came down to the restaurant at 8:30 that morning, and the idea was to put it on speaker phone and then we'd get the phone call together. At the last moment, I decided, "Let's just Michael and I take the phone call with my daughters in the private lounge area, and then we'd go back and celebrate with the team after we found out what we got." Then we waited all day, until 1:30p.m. We were all very anxious and then we went back to the kitchen, everybody gathered around, and I just mentioned "three stars." And everybody just went bananas.
You've said several times that one of your goals is to be the best restaurant in the country. How do you personally define the idea of the best? How does Michelin play into it?
Definitely Michelin plays a huge role in it, because they're the number-one guide. They have a benchmark in the industry of anything rated at that level. If you get one star, it's completely amazing. Then to get two and three, obviously it's... there are 115 restaurants in the world that have three Michelin stars. To be one of those restaurants of that caliber, that says something amazing about this restaurant, internationally. For us, yeah, that makes us one of the best restaurants in the world.
For you, what distinguishes a two-star restaurant from a three-star one?
I think it's overall attention to detail with everything that we do. We put ourselves under an enormous microscope every single day and analyze things on a daily basis: Is there a better way? I think that's what separates those restaurants. We push extremely hard. We surround ourselves with an amazing, dedicated team and staff that have the same goal and the same vision as me, and I think that's what it's about: Surround yourself with the right people that can follow through with your ideas, your visions, and attention to detail every day.
"There's very few businesses out there where you can receive instant gratification from something you create."
The day after Michelin came out Eater Chicago interviewed the director, and the word that he used most to describe your food was "emotion." How does emotion come through in your cooking?
It's not the first and foremost way I think about food, but I think if you eat something and you can remember it five years from now, it truly made an impact on that person... I had somebody tell me last night, "I had your beef dish at Avenues five years ago and I can tell you exactly what was on it." I said, "Okay, what was it?" Because I don't remember."... He was like, "Absolutely, I remember that dish because it was emotional for me, it was like one of those moments." Wow. That's powerful. It's extremely powerful to be able to [inspire] somebody to remember something, a dish, an idea, a thought and movement in the dining room they remember years down the road.
That's one of the reasons why I really enjoy cooking. For me as a chef, it's instant gratification. It's making something, serving it, watching the guests eat it, experience it, and see the happiness on their face or have them tell me about it. To me, that's a huge high, because there's very few businesses out there where you can receive that instant gratification from something that you create. Usually you create something and then it's a few years or months down the road before you can get that feedback. In the food and wine world, it's instantaneous.
How do you conceptualize a new dish?
It starts on paper first, with the ingredients: Talking with the farmers and the people that are growing the product and finding out what's coming in in a couple weeks, what's going to be ready to come out of the ground. Then it's about, OK, well, we've got fennel. It's coming out of the ground in three weeks, it's going to be a beautiful thing, what can we do with fennel this year? Then we start writing down ideas on paper: We're going to use fennel, we're going to pair it with these three other flavors, but how are we going to texturally change everything or make them interesting? I feel every single dish has to have a sense of familiarity to it.
"I feel that every single dish has to have a sense of familiarity to it."
From your standpoint, we could give you something that you may have never seen and change it so much that you don't make that connection. But if you can give the guests something that they're familiar with but also have a creative side to it, that's what makes the dish interesting. Whether it's a flavor combination that maybe you never thought of, heard of, saw or experienced, or if it's a textural thing that is interesting, every dish has to have that for me.
How do you know when a dish is "done"?
We're always changing and adjusting very little things. I think once we get a dish to a point where we're happy with it and you eat it and it makes you smile, then that's when you have to stop. You can sit there and change it all the time, and say to yourself, "Well, it always needs to be better or it always needs to be changed," then you'd lose that connection to it. I've only learned this over time, it didn't come to me overnight, but it's knowing when to stop putting things onto the dish. Sometimes we add more when we taste the dish, sometimes we take a lot away because it can get really confusing, but we really focus on two or three flavor profiles per dish. If we say we're going to go fennel, orange, black olive, and endive this year, just those four flavors come out. Well, what do we do with those four flavors this year? What do we do with the olives? How do we make them different? Do we turn them into something else? Do we leave them completely natural? That's the approach.
Where does plating strategy enter in the whole process?
That comes with working with the product in hand. When we're sitting there, a lot of times I'll sketch out a vision of what I think the dish should look like. It's a very, very rough sketch, it's nothing elaborate. But it's to keep shapes and maybe the texture the way I want it to look. Then again, once we start touching the product in the kitchen and changing it, the dish starts to evolve a little bit more every single time we start working with it.
Are you someone who likes keeping an archive? Do you save all of these sketches for future reference or just for the sake of having?
"If you're constantly looking back at things you wrote down, then you're never looking forward."I used to, but I read years ago that there was an artist, who, every three years would throw out all of the notebooks he ever had — to start over. It sets you in a place of continued creativity, with the mindset if you're constantly looking back at things that you wrote down, then you're never looking forward. I used to reach for ideas: I used to write down a lot of stuff and [go] let's see if we can work this dish into the menu this year. And you look back and you go, "What was I thinking?" You can never recapture that moment when you write those things down, but you want to keep those moments because eventually they will spark other ideas. I just don't reach back for them anymore.
So now that you have three Michelin stars, what are your specific goals moving forward?
We're still less than two years old. We made a lot of spontaneous choices in the beginning because we had to — that's what you do. With so much going on with opening of a restaurant, you have to make those decisions without thinking. You just go with your gut feeling in the moment. Those are the decisions now that we're looking back upon and making sure that we made the right decisions. And if we didn't, then how do we change to make them better? That for us is just about refining it. Are we answering the phones correctly? Are we walking the guests correctly to the chairs or the table? Can we do this better? Can we apply something else in the kitchen to better the guest experience? How do we exceed every guest's expectations that come in? Those are the questions that we're constantly asking ourselves as a restaurant to get better and to refine and to make sure that we're doing the best we can for the guests.
I also wanted to ask about the documentary. What has the reception been?
It was only shown one night. It was sold out at 1,300 people. The response was tremendous the night-of: We're working on film festivals and supposedly local television has picked it up for next year, a showing next year in 2015.
What is it like for you personally to watch yourself sort of unfold on screen in this sort of way?
It was weird at first — even though I lived the story — to watch it in general. I've seen it now three times. It's surreal. I'm very proud of it. They did an amazing job with the documentary. I don't know, I guess the biggest [thing] I can say is I'm proud of it. I never expected it to be what it was when I agreed upon them filming. I expected it to be, "Okay, they're going to document the process of [opening] a restaurant." I never in a million years thought it was going to unfold the way it has. It tells a really great story and [has] a fairy-tale ending, if you will, now with the three stars.
You had to put a lot of yourself out there.
"This is my story; I'm not ashamed of it."Going into this whole process I told Kevin, "Listen, I'm going to agree upon this, but there's only one stipulation, what you film has to be real." At the time when I agreed upon it, I thought it was just going to be about the restaurant. I had no idea it was going to go into my personal life. Kevin didn't either at the time. I wanted it to be really raw and real, because I wanted people to see this documentary and realize how much effort and sacrifice and time it takes away from everything that you do in your life. In this business, with all the TV shows and the Food Network and everything that paints this fake picture of what it means to be a chef or what it takes to be a chef, I wanted them to know that no, it's nothing like that. This is extremely hard to do and not everybody can do it. Then it just took a different turn, and of course I always said to myself that I want to make sure that this is who I am. I'm an open book at this point so this is my story; I'm not ashamed of it.
The outpouring has been amazing from chefs to complete strangers to teachers. It's been amazing, the e-mails and the people that stop by the restaurant just to say "thank you" and say how brave I was to allow myself to be put out there so vulnerably.
Any plans to do a second restaurant?
I always have a lot of ideas on that. I just don't know. The timing has to be right. The idea has to be right for what we want to do. I always say we're still learning how to run this restaurant and there's so many other things that we want to accomplish — and make sure that we're here in 20 years. I think if we go out and do a second restaurant immediately, then maybe we won't be able to spend the time. I think the focus is just this restaurant now and making sure we're doing the right thing. Eventually, yeah, a second restaurant — who wouldn't have another restaurant? — but maybe not of this caliber. Maybe something more accessible for everyone.