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By Shelby Livingston | October 15, 2015 | People
Culinary mastermind Curtis Duffy shares why the new documentary based on his career didn't turn out exactly as planned.
Curtis Duffy winds through the rooms of his highly acclaimed, three-Michelin star restaurant Grace on Chicago’s Randolph Street. He shows off the black ash wood paneling sourced from Iowa and the muted colors of the dining area, where the wait staff sits silently at dining tables taking a test on the menu and wine pairings.
Behind a glass wall at the back of the dining room, the kitchen staff prepares the ingredients for tonight’s menu at spotless, white counter tops chosen in lieu of stainless steel to avoid a laboratory-feel, Duffy explains. Multi-colored balloons filled with a liquid nitrogen and kaffir lime concoction wait to be frozen into edible dessert bowls.
The inventiveness of his dishes and the attention to detail in the design of the space are why Duffy’s Grace, which opened in late 2012, has reached critical acclaim—and why reservations are as coveted as they are elusive.
In For Grace, a feature-length documentary directed by Chicago Tribune reporter Kevin Pang and Chicago-based filmmaker Mark Helenowski, viewers get an up-close look at the pressure-filled process of creating a world-renowned restaurant, as well as Chef Duffy’s personal struggles on his way to the top.
Ahead of For Grace’s showing at the Chicago International Film Festival, we spoke with Duffy about using food to overcome childhood tragedy and why sacrificing a personal life for professional success is worth it.
Congrats on the documentary!
CURTIS DUFFY: Thank you. It isn’t exactly what I expected it to be.
What did you expect?
CD: When Kevin [Pang] approached me, the film was about documenting the process of doing what we set out to be—this great restaurant. He wanted to see the process from start to finish of what we do and how we develop this restaurant. But we looked at each other and we said this is only going to be...on the Tribune website. We might put it on PBS, but it's only going to be a really short clip. But I thought at the time it would be great to have somebody document everything, because building a restaurant, all the things that go into it is just mind-boggling.
I was surprised by a lot of it. Every little detail takes a long time to get right. That's why you decided to take your time with opening Grace?
CD: Like I said in the film, we have one opportunity to make one great restaurant. And if it takes longer than it's supposed to, then let it be. I'm not going to open the doors until it's ready.
How is the final version of the film different than what you originally thought it was going to be?
CD: It was never meant to go as far as it has. It was really just about documenting the process. Then as we started to film eight months later with the same things day in and day out—the very mundane getting up, coming down to the restaurant, the guys following me, doing the same thing, we started diving into my childhood and why I decided to become a chef.
That makes a better story.
CD: Yeah, but that was never their intention. It was just, ‘Hey, let's talk about your childhood.’ At that point, I kind of told my story to them. My childhood upbringing. The film obviously took a different spin.
Pig tail, endive, cauliflower, and oxalis.
Was it difficult to tell the story of your family tragedy? (Duffy’s parents died in a tragic murder-suicide).
CD: It wasn't hard to tell the story. Obviously, it's not easy to talk about it. It's not something you bring up in conversation. But I think I've been comfortable with it for many years, talking about it. It's just not something you bring up. You know? But if people start asking and probing, eventually they're going to want to know about your parents. Then you have to tell them that they're no longer alive. Then it's like, 'Oh, well what happened?' Nobody ever expects to hear that. They expect to hear a car accident, cancer, something (like) natural causes.
How did cooking help you through it? Was it an escape for you?
CD: For me, home was always in the kitchen. Home was always cooking. Home was the people you surround yourself with, and being in this business, you're surrounded by people who you see every day, five to seven days a week for 15 hours a day. These people start to become closer to you than your actual family members, so that was like my comfort, and for me, I needed that comfort when I was at that age and going through that tragedy. But I loved cooking long before that happened.
Because you learned in your middle school home economics class, correct?
CD: Not really home ec. I didn't really learn how to cook [there]. When I was in high school, I was cooking at a diner and just seeing the people’s faces and that instant gratification about cooking. Seeing something that you tangibly do every single day and there's a result from it. And there's an immediate result, either good or bad. I liked that. I don't know what it was, but I liked it.
You've sacrificed a lot. You and your wife divorced and you don't see your kids as often.
CD: I was already 99 percent the way through my divorce before building this restaurant was even starting to take place. Building this was not the result of me getting divorced. Can I contribute my divorce to this industry? I think it's fair to say some of it, yes, of course. We put in 15, 16, 18 hours a day. You're never home. You’re never with that person that you should be having a relationship with, so that's challenging. That makes it hard. In any relationship it's going to be difficult if you're here and committed to something. For me, I had to either choose my profession or a family. With my upbringing, I didn't really have a strong family sense, so it was probably easier for me to lean toward the professional side.
Is the trade-off worth it?
CD: I don't live life through regret. Are there moments where I wish I had more time with my daughters? Absolutely. I think about them all the time. I would love to spend more time with them. But I think I see them more now since I'm divorced than I did when I was married. It forces me to take the time. I think it's a good trade off.
In For Grace, you said you respect your mentor Charlie Trotter professionally but not personally. You refer to him as a "monster." Is it important to you that your cooks respect you both professionally and personally?
CD: If you ask anyone on my staff, I would be shocked if anybody said anything negative about the way I run my business, and the way I manage and mentor and lead my cooks.
Is it important to you to be a mentor?
CD: Yeah, I think one of the greatest things we can do as a chef is to mentor young cooks to go on and do great things. I don't want them to leave and take this name with them and not do amazing things. Everybody has their own path, of course. Everybody is not meant to do amazing, great things. But at least when they leave here, they have been in a culture that's not of the old-school thinking. The old-school thinking was screaming and yelling and treating your employees awfully. If you go downstairs, we have an entire employee lounge. There’s not a single freestanding restaurant in the country that has that. We have a library down there, we have TV, we have PlayStation, and we have darts and an air hockey table. We give to the staff because if they're happy, then they are going to remain here happy and they're going to do great things for our guests.
Rhubarb, brioche, Buddha's hand, and lemon balm.
Grace got its third Michelin star in 2014. Is there anything different about how you approach working toward three stars and maintaining them?
CD: I look at the restaurant every day, and if we're not achieving something better today than we did yesterday, we fail. And I instill that in everybody that works for me. If you're not trying to push yourself harder every day, what are you doing here? Because that's my mentality. And hopefully I lead by example to do better things than I did yesterday, even if it’s the smallest thing. To achieve the third Michelin star and to now maintain it, what were we doing to get us there? We were doing something right. Do we have to look at and analyze what we were doing? A little bit. But let's also keep in mind that what we were doing got us there. We just have to maintain constancy in our product, the creativeness about the food, our service, the wine program—everything that we were doing.
How do you conceptualize a dish?
CD: It starts with the ingredients, really. My cuisine is 100 percent about the ingredients. It's not so much about the technique behind it. It's about finding and sourcing the best product we can in the height of the season. We'll take, for instance, beets, and we'll figure out what we want to do. The process starts with ideas on paper and then we take those ideas into the kitchen. That'll take about a week to work things out on paper, and at that point we eat it and we start tweaking it. I have to touch and feel and work with the product to get it to the point where I'm happy with it.
You've said your goal is to have the best restaurant in the nation. Do you think you're there yet?
CD: No. Not at all.
What do you think you have to do to get there?
CD: I don't know. It's constant. It's something that doesn't happen overnight. We just continue to push and work hard and think outside the box. What does that mean to be the best in the nation? That's just somebody telling you that you are. That’s just a publication saying, 'Oh, you're the greatest restaurant in the world.' Well, what does that mean? There’s a million great restaurants.
Another of your goals was to find balance between the professional and the personal aspects of your life. Have you found it?
CD: I think it's much more balanced now than it ever has been, because I surrounded myself with great and talented people. I think when you do that you can learn to let go a little bit and let them drive a little bit and you can now focus on other things.
What's next for you?
CD: Eventually another restaurant. We are currently working on a book that'll be out by next year.
Lastly, do you keep in touch with your home ec. teacher, Ruth Snider?
CD: All the time. On a weekly basis actually.
Were you more nervous about her tasting your food at Grace than anyone else?
CD: No. I think for me the greatest thing I can give back to people who have done great things for me in my life is to be able to cook for them. For me it's giving them what I do and what I love to do. The ability to be able to cook for Ruth, and the ability to be able to cook for Kathy (Zay, his high school cooking teacher) and give them just a touch of what I do...is the most amazing thing. When I first cooked for Ruth, I was so nervous. Not because of, ‘Is she going to like it?’ Finally I have a moment to give something back to her because she has given me so much.
The 2015 Chicago International Film Festival will show For Grace on October 18 at 8:15 pm; October 22 at 3:30 pm; and October 26 at 5:30 pm. Find tickets here.
Photography by Jim Luning (Duffy)
January 9, 2018