Chef Curtis Duffy on his three Michelin-starred restaurant, Grace, and achieving greatness
You might have shed a tear as you watched Chef Curtis Duffy's life story on Netflix film For Grace, or heard of his famed three Michelin-starred restaurant, Grace, in Chicago. The acclaimed chef is in Singapore this weekend, presenting 6-course dinner and 4-course lunch menus at the one Michelin-starred The Kitchen at Bacchanalia alongside Chef Luke Armstrong. Expect exquisite dishes such as a king crab with butternut squash and Vietnamese mint, as well as a gorgeous duck foie gras paired with Kyoho grapes, apples, and almonds. Before the madness begins, we had the opportunity to sit down with him and chat through his time in Singapore, what it was like filming For Grace, and his inspirations in and out of the kitchen.
We've all been touched by your Netflix film For Grace. Is there anything you would have done differently with this documentary?
It was never really meant to be a documentary. When the gentleman asked me if he could document the process of building the restaurant Grace, I agreed under one circumstance — which is not to edit it so much that it looks too glamourous. We felt that even though it may be a short film, we wanted it to be true to life — to let our audience see the real side instead of having them thinking that building a restaurant is an easy thing to do.
Initially, the film was supposed to be about the whole team building the restaurant together. However, about eight months into the filming, they started to drive into my life story. They talked about my childhood and why I wanted to become a chef. That is when the filmmakers decided that For Grace would be more than just a documentary on food and the restaurant, and evolve into my life story. I don't regret anything — we had a lot of great times, and I'm thankful that this documentary is out there for the world to see. Every scene was very natural and we didn't have to cut or reshoot anything. That is what I really love about it — it's all me, take it or leave it.
How would you describe your cooking style?
My food is thoughtful and progressive; progressive American if I was to be exact. The thoughtful side of my cuisine comes from taking a lot of time, research and effort into searching for the best possible ingredients that we can use within the season. The progressive side involves utilising new techniques, which were probably not available 10 or 15 years ago, and applying those to the foundation of my cooking style. This enables us to take something familiar (from a guest's perspective) and push it to make it more interesting than your everyday cuisine.
What are you most looking forward to when you're in Singapore?
It's my first time to Singapore! I'm looking forward to embracing the culture and trying out local food. Whenever you go to different parts of the world, the chefs are really excited to take you around and show you the things that they enjoy — I know they're going to take me to many hidden gems.
Are you adventurous when it comes to trying food?
Absolutely. I've tried eating bugs, scorpions, fish sperm and all kinds of crazy food. Maybe it is not so adventurous for the people over at this part of the world, but it is different for us.
What's a dish you can eat again and again and again?
Tom Kha Gai, also known as Thai chicken coconut soup. There is a wonderful Thai restaurant in Chicago called Tiparos, and I've been going there for 18 years now. I always order the coconut soup there and it is amazing. I did have a version of that soup on my menu years ago at Avenues, the last restaurant that I was working at. But honestly, I can be influenced by it and have my version of it, but it is not authentic.
"I believe that everyday has to be better than yesterday. It could be the smallest thing. It is something that we preach in the restaurant on a daily basis — that everybody has a responsibility for greatness."
Looking back on your journey, what was the main turning point to start up Grace?
As a young chef, I've always wanted to have my own restaurant and be my own boss. That entrepreneurial spirit and drive is something that burns deep inside of me. Did I know it was going to be Grace? No. Did I know that it was going to be at this level? No. As time passed through my career, the restaurant has slowly taken shape, and the gold gets refined a little bit more each time. As the years go on, you start to shape what you really want in life. And Grace, for me, is slowly taking shape throughout my career.
Do you have a particular inspiration?
I have two beautiful daughters who inspire me on a daily basis. In terms of professional chefs, I look up to Grant Achatz, Michel Bras, whose style of cuisine has always been a huge inspiration for me, and Charlie Trotter when he was alive. Otherwise, my staff inspire me on a daily basis. They're the ones who put in 18 to 19 hours a day, working beside me and driving me. I have almost 50 employees for a small restaurant, and they are all very passionate. It's very difficult to find a team like that, so when you find them, you have to keep all of them.
Is there anything you'd like to push yourself to do better?
Everything. I believe that everyday has to be better than yesterday. It could be the smallest thing. It is something that we preach in the restaurant on a daily basis — that everybody has a responsibility for greatness.
What's a quote you live by?
I've mentioned this earlier, but it is again that everyone has a responsibility for greatness, and not just through the world of cooking. If you choose to be a photographer, be the best at what you do. I say this to my chefs daily: "I set the standards here at Grace, but they're my standards, and you as a chef and one of my employees, you should be setting your own standards here. You should be trying to exceed my expectations every single day. You owe it to yourself to be great at something."
The Four Hands Weekend featuring Chef Luke Armstrong of The Kitchen at Bacchanalia and Chef Curtis Duffy of Grace will be available on 30th June and 1st July for dinner at S$298++, and on 2nd July for lunch at S$150++, by reservations only