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Elite Traveler Speaks to Curtis Duffy

By Zahra Al-Kateb

IMG_7495Having already made a name for himself at Avenues and Alinea, Curtis Duffy’s own venture – a stylish restaurant in the heart of Chicago aptly named Grace – has seen him become one of the country’s most renowned chefs.

Congratulations on being the highest new entry in the Elite Traveler Top 100 Restaurants and being named the second Young Chef of the Year 2016. Our list is voted for by our jet setting readers (rather than food critics or industry insiders). How does it feel to be recognized by the public in this way?

It’s great to be recognized in this way because it shows that the readers are dining and seeing what’s there when they come to the restaurant. They’re able to get a true sense of what the restaurant is about as opposed to thinking what a great restaurant should be or could be. They’re not following suit with everyone else. We’re ecstatic for the awards because it really shows that we’re doing something great.

Since opening in 2012 you have gone on to win an unprecedented number of awards, including three Michelin stars in just two years. What does this mean to you?

It is amazing for a restaurant to garner those types of awards, especially when the restaurant is so young. It is a lifelong goal for us. To garner three Michelin stars in the second year that we were open…I still don’t even know how to process that. It is something we have always pushed for. When I was at Avenues we also got two Michelin stars and I thought that while building Grace we had one opportunity to create a great restaurant, so we put everything out there. We gave it everything we could.

We didn’t build the restaurant for awards; obviously first and foremost we have to be a sustainable business for the employees we are responsible for who are coming into work every day. That’s a huge risk and something I don’t take lightly. We want to be here in 15, 20 years. We want Grace to be around. It’s about building a successful restaurant in terms of laying the foundations so we can be here in 15 years.

IMG_0499 2I have been watching your documentary on Netflix (For Grace), the amount of work that goes into a restaurant is unbelievable.

It was never really supposed to be a documentary. Well, it was supposed to be a documentary but it was never supposed to do what it has done. When Kevin (Pang) approached me to do the show I said I wanted it to be very real and raw. I told him: “I want it to be real and raw because if somebody saw it I wanted them to walk away thinking no, it’s not easy to build a restaurant and no, all that stuff behind it, I had no idea”. I didn’t want someone to watch it and think I could build a restaurant tomorrow. No, that’s not the case because of the amount of detail and the amount of work. It just takes a tremendous amount to do. Just getting the restaurant open, and now that it is open it’s like “now what do we do!” This is just the beginning. I’ve got to keep this thing open and keep it moving and keep my employees happy.

Where did your love of cooking originate from?

I stepped into the kitchen for the first time when I was 14. I just fell in love with the idea of being in the kitchen. Having instant gratification from doing something, you see something, you process it and you can see the end result. You take time to paint a painting. With all these other things, you create and it takes a lot of time. But for cooking, it’s an instant thing. I guess I was intrigued by that and I loved that idea.

What do you think has influenced your cooking technique?

I think what influences the cooking technique is the chefs that you work for. I think I’m also influenced through travel, I do a great deal of travelling and I’ve been lucky enough to travel quite extensively, so eating experiences can change the way you cook something. From an intellectual standpoint, travelling changes the way things are mentally put together in your food palette in your brain. It dictates the way you think of things.

Where was the last place you visited? How did it inspire you?

Japan was my last trip I did internationally; I went a few years ago. That’s always influenced me because I love that style of food. I love Asian food but especially Japanese food. I don’t cook that way but the way I think about food, the cleanliness of food and pure products definitely comes from my love of Japanese food.

The Flora menu at Grace places a focus on vegetarian cuisine, an unusual take for a fine dining restaurant. Can you tell me more about this?

We do offer two menus at the restaurant, one is Flora and one is the Fauna. The Flora basically celebrates everything that is in season at the moment from a vegetable standpoint. Its not particularly vegetarian but it can be vegan if someone chooses to go vegan. It is really about celebrating the vegetables in the height of their season. I think vegetables are much greater than poultry, fish and meat.When you can get your hands on 50 different varieties of carrot, that’s pretty amazing. You start thinking the possibilities are endless when you pick up a carrot! We like to really think about food and using everything in its entirety. When we think of fennel, we know how many parts of the fennel can be used and how we can use them. We’re utilizing everything. With cauliflower, most people will throw away the stem and just keep the top florets; we try to utilize the stem.

You have said that your goal is to create the best restaurant in the world. What does “best” mean to you?

I think saying that in the past, for me it has kind of changed a little bit since the restaurant has opened. Now it’s maybe not so much about competing against everyone else, although being on certain lists are great. If we’re not a great restaurant in the four walls that we have built, then we don’t have anything to stand on. I think it is important for me to make sure we are doing the best we possibly can within these four walls. To me that is if we are doing something great every single day, and we are looking at the other restaurants in a way where we think “how do we change it and make it better than we did yesterday?” then I think internally we are the best restaurant in the country because we are taking steps to make sure that the 60 guests that walk into my dining room tonight are going to have the best experience that they could possibly have.

What are your plans for 2016? Would you consider opening a second restaurant?

We are always looking to broaden the brand. We definitely want to do another restaurant, but the timing has to be right, the location has to be right and the concept has to be there. We have a lot of ideas and different things floating around, but I would approach it in the same way I approached Grace. It’s about being patient and making sure everything is in line before we push the green “go” button.

We are working on a cook book now so that’s our goal for 2016. It won’t be out in 2016 but we’re in the process of working on that. It will probably be out next year at some point.  We’re continuing to lay the foundations of what we do at the restaurant. We are continuing to mentor young chefs, so when they leave here they go on and do good things for us and carry our name with them and teach and mentor…that’s what it’s about.

Is there a dish at Grace at the moment that really stands out for you?

There’s a particular dish that everybody knows called the King Crab dish. That has been on the menu probably since the second year since we opened. It was a dish that I did back at Avenues. When I left Avenues I said do you know what, when we develop a menu for Grace, we’re not going to reach towards the things that we are known for because I wanted it to be a new chapter, a new identity. So for the first year or two we didn’t, but the Alaskan King Crab dish was one of those moments where we just felt like it was such a great dish that we felt we had no choice to bring it back, and it has been on the menu ever since. It’s a fun and active dish and it is one of those dishes that everybody just loves. Some people had followed me from Avenues and they were hoping that the crab dish was on the menu and I was like “no, it’s not going to be on the menu”. They were like “oh my god can you bring it?” So what we did was we brought it back for some of our return guests who we had had it in the past, and it slowly made its way on to the menu full time.

Which restaurant do you think is the best in the world today?

To say a restaurant is the best restaurant in the world is very hard to do because that means they’re doing every single thing perfectly every single time. I don’t think that’s possible. It’s too hard to say, I guess it is someone’s personal opinion. I had an amazing meal in 2004 from Michel Roux. To me, there’s not been a restaurant that can even come close to the experience that I had there. So for me, I’d say that’s the best restaurant in the world, but that’s my opinion.

If and when you ever get any time off where do you like to eat?

I’m really chilled about eating; I like to eat a lot of Asian food. I like Japanese; I like Vietnamese and I like Thai. I go to a lot of the local spots here in Chicago. But even then I don’t have a lot of time off so when I do I’m usually with my daughters and cooking stuff for them. I eat very simple. Because I’m around this kind of food all day long, people must think “wow you must just love eating, you must eat like this at home!” I’m like no, sometimes I just like roasted chicken and broccoli!

Why the name Grace?

It initially comes from the idea of what we wanted to give back to our guests, which is a sense of gracefulness, elegance and refinement. We thought what can we give to our guests every single day? Grace was just one of those names that stood out. I’ve always loved the name Grace since I was a child and something about it just exudes warmth, comfort and genuine softness for me. That is what we wanted our guests to walk into our dining room and experience. We wanted them to feel very comfortable and at ease. It also kind of resembled the food that we were doing at the time. It was refined, it was elegant, and it had a sense of gracefulness to it.

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