Written by Jana Soeldner Danger; interview by Robin Jay
The heart-wrenching, yet inspirational, story of how Curtis Duffy harnessed lessons from a childhood of turmoil and tragedy to become one of the most beloved and decorated chefs in Chicago and the United States today.
When Ernest Hemingway told The New Yorker in 1929, ‘Courage Is Grace Under Pressure,’ he was referring to the test of character that allows a person the strength to remain calm in times of chaos and fear, to think clearly and respond compassionately. Had Hemingway lived to see the 2015 film documentary “For Grace,” about the life of Chef Curtis Duffy, he’d no doubt agree the culinary visionary displayed extreme courage under pressure in his triumph to overcome childhood adversity and achieve greatness at his Chicago restaurant named, quite appropriately, Grace.
The Story Of Curtis Duffy
When unspeakable tragedy struck Curtis Duffy’s family when he was just 19 in Johnstown, Ohio, the young man took refuge in cooking. He escaped a difficult home life by finding comfort in the most unlikely of places – a middle school home economics class and the caring teacher who mentored him. His first restaurant job at age 14 was washing dishes in a tiny neighborhood diner, the first of many stepping-stones on a quest to become the best chef he could be and to make a lasting mark on the American culinary map.
Today, Chef Curtis Duffy is the co-founder and owner of Grace, a world-class Chicago restaurant that debuted in the winter of 2012. Remarkably, it has already earned three coveted Michelin stars. Many chefs would be grateful for just one of those stars, which designates a very good restaurant. Two stars denote excellent cooking well worth a detour. But attaining the rarely awarded three stars means the restaurant offers exceptional cooking worthy of a special journey. Michelin Guide inspectors say ‘the highest award is given for the superlative cooking of chefs at the peak of their profession. The ingredients are exemplary, the cooking is elevated to an art form and their dishes are often destined to become classics.’ Only 13 chefs in the United States have ever received three Michelin stars since that award-level’s inception in 1933. Curtis Duffy is one of them – and it’s a milestone he achieved against
“Curtis Duffy is undeniably one of the pillars of the Chicago culinary landscape, having worked with several of the city’s top chefs. His cuisine is elegant and refined, showing a mastery of technique and an extraordinary harmony in textures and flavors. With the award of the third Michelin star, Curtis Duffy confirms his position as a member of the culinary elite in the country,” said Michael Ellis, the Michelin Guide’s International Director.
This room, [Grace], is ‘as handsome as it is urbane and provides a supremely comfortable environment for those spending an evening discovering the culinary wizardry of Curtis Duffy,’ the Michelin Guide reads. ‘You’ll be presented with a choice between two seasonally changing menus: “Fauna” or, for vegetarians, “Flora.” Trying to keep track of the ingredients of each dish will nullify the benefit of the wine, so instead just marvel at the clever presentation and dig in – because taste is what this food is all about. This style of cooking is very labor-intensive and if you want to learn more, then take their postprandial kitchen tour.’
Four Pillars Of Success
What makes Grace so successful? “It’s not just about the food,” Curtis told International Opulence. “It has to be the entire package, and I’ve always preached that to my staff. The four pillars we built this restaurant on are the service, the wine, the ambiance and the food. All four of those have to be equally exceptional.”
It’s also about paying close attention to his guests. When a reservation comes in, staff will actually research the individual on social media to learn about him or her. “Everybody has to feel special,” Curtis said. “That’s what they’re coming here for, and we have a responsibility to deliver that. If we’re able to find something that’s unique about you on Facebook, then we’re going to try to use it within your dining experience. Say there was a picture of you throwing a baseball with your left hand. We’d say, ‘okay, maybe she’s left-handed, let’s pay attention to that.’ We change everything on the table so it’s easier for you as a left-handed diner.”
Chicago natives Kyle Kayson and Nicole DiGiacomo are doctors by day and foodies by night. They dined at Grace for the first time in February. “The level of customer care we received was unreal: The friendly staff greeted us by first name; at our table, they had placed a 2016 World Series Chicago Cubs baseball cap for me and a White Sox baseball cap for Nicole. We were blown away. It was like being at a dinner party with old friends.”
The Dining Differentials
At Grace, Curtis Duffy creates seasonal menus featuring the best ingredients available each week. “We look at it as if we have 52 seasons a year,” he said. “Ingredients go in and out of season so quickly. We have deep relationships with our farmers, our foragers, the fishmongers. They’ll tell me things like, ‘Listen, this is going to be the last week of fennel, or maybe we’ve got two weeks left of truffles’. They know their products will be turned into works of art and they get excited about that and make sure we receive the best produce.”
Examples of this master chef’s creativity: capturing something delicious – whether savory or sweet – such as in a flavored sleeve of ice. Or preserving fresh strawberries by dipping them in beeswax. “Beeswax melts at around 139 degrees,” Duffy explained. “So if we cook below that, the beeswax never melts. It encapsulates the strawberry inside and creates a little pouch of its own.”
One creative idea came to fruition when Curtis was working at Charlie Trotter’s. “On my day off, I rode my motorcycle to Lake Michigan and sat by the water to jot down ideas. I remember drawing this picture of an edible, see-through hollow tube that you could build something inside. I wanted it to be frozen, but I had no idea how to make a mold that would create a cylinder thin enough to freeze quickly in order to serve dozens of guests. So I tabled the idea.
“When I started planning the first menu at Grace in 2012, I revisited the notion of the ice cylinder. I asked a friend who worked at a silicone mold company to come up with a mold with an easy way to extract the ice cylinder without breaking it. I was thrilled when he unveiled the prototype,” Curtis said with a chuckle, “but when I learned the tool he used to make it was a condom, I said, ‘whoa!’ I can’t serve my guests a dish formed in a prophylactic! Fortunately, he came up with a way to fabricate a silicone mold.” Ever since, the hollow ice cylinder has been a hit with guests at Grace, having been on the menu in several forms – such as to hold a savory layered Thai fish and lime rice dish, as well as a sweet flavored-ice dessert.
Difficult Early Days
Curtis Duffy was born in Colorado Springs and lived there until he was 10, when his father, Robert “Bear” Duffy (the nickname given to the Vietnam veteran by his biker friends) suddenly uprooted the family and moved Curtis, his siblings “Tig” Robert Jr. and Trisha, and his mother Jan, to Johnstown, Ohio. In Colorado Springs, the family had lived in a spacious, five-bedroom house. Now, in Ohio, they crowded together in a cramped, two-bedroom apartment where Curtis slept on the closet floor.
“When we moved to Ohio, everything in our family structure changed and became dysfunctional,” Curtis said. “Even though I was very young, I sensed that I wanted more for my life.”
A Life-Changing Classroom
Feeling trapped and bored in Johnstown, with a population of a little more than 3,000, Curtis went looking for trouble and found plenty of it, regularly getting into fights and having at least one serious brush with the law. In school, he was a C student – until he entered a home economics class that was mandatory for all sixth graders. His teacher, Ruth Snider, would become a motivating force for the rest of his life. On the first day of the class, Ms. Snider announced they would be making pizza. It was an epiphany for Curtis. He and the class formed rounds of dough and topped them with tomato sauce, pepperoni and cheese. “I felt comfortable in the home-ec class and with Ruth,” he recalled. “Something about going into a kitchen was very comforting to me.”
Curtis took Snider’s class for two years after that, wanting to maintain his special connection. “In a sense, it was because family life at home was very tough,” Curtis said. “It wasn’t a very loving environment. I felt like Ruth cared about me more than anybody else. I felt happy when I was in her class.”
Snider, who had taught hundreds of kids during her career, saw something unique and special in Curtis and kept in touch with him as he struggled with the difficulties life brought to him. Years later, she would be guest of honor on the opening night at Grace.
When Curtis got his first restaurant job washing dishes at a neighborhood greasy spoon, he once again found comfort. “I wasn’t really cooking, but I was in the kitchen. It felt like home to me.”
Meanwhile, his family life went from bad to worse. Bear, who had once been a boxer, was physically abusive to Jan. Curtis found refuge in a series of restaurant jobs, including one at a prestigious country club with a golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus. There he began to see cooking as an art, a way of expressing himself and his own creativity. When for the first time he cooked dinner at home for his parents, a pasta dish with tomatoes, garlic, olives, and chilies that he’d seen prepared at the club, Jan and Bear stopped fighting long enough to enjoy the food and express their surprise and pleasure at their son’s talent.
Soon, fighting started again. Curtis moved out of his parents’ home and into an apartment. Jan filed for divorce and left with Trisha. Desperate to win back his wife, Bear lost weight and began working out, thinking it would make him more attractive to Jan. He also began taking an antidepressant, hoping to control his continuing rages, but he quit the medication cold turkey.
On the 18th anniversary of their wedding, Bear appeared at the door of his wife’s apartment carrying a rose and a card – his last attempt to reconcile their marriage. Jan remained adamant: She was going to continue with the divorce proceedings and she left for work at a supermarket. Shortly after noon, when Jan and a friend were walking to lunch, Bear pulled up in a car beside them, pointed a rifle at his wife and ordered her to get into the car. She did, while her friend escaped. Bear roared away, taking his wife to his home where he held her hostage. Police were called, but after several desperate hours of negotiation, Bear shot his wife and then himself.
Naturally, Curtis was devastated. The man who was supposed to protect his family had taken his own life and the life of the only mother Curtis had ever known. It brought back memories of when he was 5, when Jan told Curtis and his brother Tig that she wasn’t their birth mother. Their biological mother had abandoned the children when Curtis was 6 months old, but when Jan married Bear, she cared for and loved the boys like they were her own.
The Haunting Notebook
The day after the murder/suicide, Curtis went back to his father’s home, the tear-gas still lingering, where he found a blue notebook. In it were pages headed with the names of each family member. Apparently, he had intended to write each one a letter, but only Curtis’ page contained a message from his father. The letter warned Curtis not to make the same mistakes his father had, and expressed his belief that some day Curtis would be a great chef.
“I’ve thought about and wondered why my dad wrote a letter only to me,” Curtis said. “Maybe I stuck by his side more than everybody else. It wasn’t until recently that the words my dad wrote really meant anything to me, because I never thought I was going to be a great chef,” he said. “I had no idea, but somehow he did.”
As Curtis’ career continued and honors and accolades accrued, his father’s words began to haunt him. “I started to think, wow, how did he know all along?” he said. “It gives me chills thinking about it.”
An Ascending Career
After the deaths of his parents, Curtis tried to escape to Colorado to find where his father’s ashes had been scattered on Pike’s Peak mountain and to see where his mother was laid to rest. With limited clues, Curtis managed to find his father’s grave, marked only with a rustic Cross made of sticks. At the foot of the mountain, the 19-year-old grieving son happened into a small jewelry store, where he purchased a silver ring, which he wears in remembrance of his mother.
Curtis returned to Johnstown and went back to work at the country club. Ruth Snider was still there, and the two had long phone conversations. Mostly, he talked and she listened. She became a surrogate mother; he became her son.
Later, Curtis began a romance with a young woman at work named Kim Becker, and eventually they married. As his career blossomed, Kim became pregnant with their first child, a daughter they named Ava Leigh. A second daughter, Eden Grace, came three years later. Their childhoods, Curtis decided, would be better than his.
By age 24, Curtis was earning a large salary as a chef de cuisine at a restaurant in Ohio, but he wanted more. He was intrigued by the cookbook Charlie Trotter’s, which showcased ingredients, techniques and combinations way ahead of their time. Curtis packed up his family and headed to Chicago; he took a low-paying job at Charlie Trotter’s, where he worked grueling hours. “I was amazed to find that the beautiful food creations photographed in Charlie Trotter’s weren’t just for show in the book – he really made them daily for his restaurant guests.”
Curtis climbed the culinary ladder at other fine Chicago restaurants, too, including Trio, Alinea [which he opened with acclaimed chef Grant Achatz – the only other Chicago-based chef to receive three Michelin stars], the Peninsula and Avenues.
“I used them as stepping-stones to gain knowledge, learning their style and food and vision and thought,” Curtis said. “For instance, my takeaway from Charlie Trotter was his idea of using the best possible ingredients in the height of season. From Grant Achatz and Alinea, I learned to never say no to an unusual idea – he taught me always to look at things differently.”
What Goes Up Must Come Down
As Chef Duffy’s career was ascending, his marriage was crumbling, Curtis and Kim separated. Yet in spite of his long hours and difficult schedule, he managed — and still manages — to make time for his daughters. “There’s a saying that the life of a chef is like handling a set of fine knives – you have to find balance or risk getting cut. I’ve learned to take time for my health, attending martial arts classes in the morning and then bringing that discipline to the restaurant and to my family life to be the best chef, business leader and father that I possibly can.”
In 2011, Curtis and Michael Muser, the wine director at Avenues, decided it was time to open their own restaurant – a vision Curtis named ‘Grace.’ “The restaurant community in Chicago was affected by the recession; everybody got away from the idea of great service and great food. It became a city known for shared plates and communal dining, and service was a secondary thought. We wanted to give that back to the community, because I felt like it was missing, and I had a responsibility as a chef to bring fine dining back to where it should be,” Curtis said.
Curtis scouted properties on the back of his Harley Davidson. Eventually, he and two partners bought an old, dilapidated store and began to transform it into the restaurant of their dreams. The attention to detail was geared to perfection – from the state-of-the-art kitchen to the hand stitching of the thousand-dollar leather chairs. Finally, on a night in December 2012, the doors of Grace opened to the public. Among the guests was Ruth Snider, his former home-ec teacher. She sat at a table where she could watch Curtis plate her dishes himself. No one else was allowed to touch them. After dinner, the long hug that followed between the two left not a dry eye in the house.
A Definition Of Grace
On his arm, Curtis bears a tattoo that says, “Grace is the beauty of form under the influence of freedom.” He got the tattoo before he opened the restaurant, but earlier in his career, he told himself that if he ever owned a restaurant, it would be called Grace. “For me, the definition of grace is everything we want to give our guests in the restaurant,” he said. “It’s gracefulness, thoughtfulness, refinement and beauty. Grace is my baby and everything about me and my career that has led up to this point.”
Besides his three Michelins, Curtis’ impressive culinary achievements include such honors as the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Great Lakes award in 2016; five stars in the Forbes Travel Guide and five diamonds in the AAA guide. To watch the compelling film documentary “For Grace” about the life of Curtis Duffy, you can download it on Amazon.com, Netflix or Vimeo.com. For more information about Grace, go to www.grace-restaurant.com or, for reservations, call 312-234-9494.