As we were going to press this week with our January/February issue of Make It Better, Curtis Duffy and business partner Michael Muser announced that they have stepped away from the three-star Michelin restaurant Grace after a reported disagreement with their major investor. This is huge news for Chicago — and beyond, as yesterday the New York Times broke the story of the messy break-up. It sent shock waves through the industry. The restaurant is now closed, as the entire staff walked out in solidarity with the creative team’s departure. For Make It Better, the news was a particular surprise, as Duffy is featured on our January/February cover, with a far-ranging interview running in the issue. We learned in that interview that Duffy is an introspective and compassionate person as well as a superstar chef. He is guided by an absolute passion for cooking and perfection, and clearly that figured heavily in his difficult decision to leave Grace. Although Duffy had yet to comment on the situation, Editor in Chief Brooke McDonald, who had built a rapport with him during the cover shoot, was able to speak with him this morning and he was quite forthcoming. We thank him for his honesty.
I’m sure it’s really sad to part ways suddenly with a team that’s obviously become like family. So many chefs have talked about the pressure to maintain their Michelin stars even exceeding the desire to acquire them. Does it feel freeing to be released from that right now and able to start a new venture?
You know, I don’t know about that… we are always pushing and I think there’s always been the drive behind what I do and the way I grow the restaurant is everyday we have to get better in some way. And I think with that mentality you’re not really thinking about trying to maintain. You’re just doing what you know what to do best. And I think what I mentioned to you before was we must have been doing something great to get the stars so we’re not going to change it too much. We’re just going to continue to refine, refine, refine. So I never really felt — and I guess I don’t feel right now — relieved that I don’t have to do that right now.
Right now my focus is that we’re going to build another restaurant that makes Grace look amateurish. You know, because it was our first restaurant, we know we can build a bigger and better and even greater restaurant.
I think everyone will be really excited to hear and experience that. I read that you and Michael are definitely still in this together, so will it be the same partnership going forward?
It will be. Michael and I are going to form our own restaurant group and we’re going to continue to go down that path. We’re going to build some restaurants that Chicago can be proud of and continue building great restaurants. That’s what we know, that’s what we do. No change in that philosophy.
So will you still be reaching for those three Michelin stars, creating another fine-dining, tasting-menu restaurant?
That’s what we know best. Chicago deserves another great restaurant. We lost [this] one, now it’s time to give one back to them in a bigger and better way.
I know everyone who is following this story really closely will be thrilled to hear that.
We’re excited, and I think everyone will be excited about it. It’s a shame, but we have to do the things we have to do. I want to control my own destiny and I don’t want somebody else to do that for me.
The timing is right in that everyone gets to spend some extra time with their families over the holidays.
We’re going to spend some time with our families and loved ones. We’ve already started planning for the next chapter in our lives. It’s been a long time coming for this to happen yesterday. I’m the type of person that doesn’t quit. I’m a fighter. I fight for everything I can fight for, and I will fight ’til the very end until I feel like there’s no other option but to let go, and that’s where we were at. We fought and fought and fought and fought to try to keep what we had built, and at the end of the day it didn’t work out. I had to let it go. I was tired of being in that position for so long — of not having any security — so time to move on.
It sounds like you’re headed for bigger and better things. Any hints on what that might look like?
I’ve been instructed by my lawyers not to say too much. [As for what happened at Grace] the story will get told, I promise you that.
The main thing people want to have confirmed is that we’re not losing you and Michael, so this is terrific news.
We’re not going anywhere. We want to build another great restaurant in Chicago. I can’t wait until the next time I open those doors and I’m able to feed everyone that I fed at Grace with open arms. I can’t wait for that day. It will be exciting.
We’re not going anywhere. Just going to take a little time off and be back at it.
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