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Curtis Duffy and Michael Muser Talk About Grace's Award-Filled First Year

Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.

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[Photos: Jason Little]

On paper, the over-two-year buildup for Grace was well worth it for Chicago diners. After earning two Michelin stars at Avenues, chef Curtis Duffy and wine director/GM Michael Muser set even loftier goals for Grace. Those goals started to become reality when Zagat named Grace one of the 10 hottest restaurants in the world less than a month after opening. Grace went on to become a James Beard finalist, was named the dining "best of the best" by Robb Report, sous chef Mitch Lienhard became an Eater Young Gun, they picked up a AAA Five Diamond Rating, were awarded two Michelin stars off the bat, scored three Eater awards (including national chef of the year), and picked up six Jean Banchet nominations.

Still, Duffy and Muser feel this is just the beginning for Grace. The duo talked about sacrifices, the first year, what's in store in the future, and how to build on their success in order to reach their "limitless" potential.

Is it hard to believe that it's been a year?
Curtis Duffy: It's been an amazing year for Grace in retrospect because we opened at the later part of last year, so we had the full year, which was great. We achieved a lot of great things that we wanted to and set out to achieve. Some things were really out of our reach to obtain and we've obtained them, which was a shock. We have an amazing team behind us so it made my goals and my job much easier than expected.

What were the things you achieved that you might not have expected or thought were out of reach?
Michael Muser: Some of the things came out of thin air like being named #1 in the world by Robb Report; that was insane. When we were named to Zagat's top ten hottest restaurants in the world, that came out of nowhere. These are things that you're literally in the middle of service and a Google alert pops on your phone, and Curtis pulls me over and says, "what is this?" You just freak out, you don't know they're coming and they just happen. And they're really special in that sense; it's shocking and humbling to say the least.

When that happens in the middle of service, do you take a minute to to even absorb it? A mini-celebration?
MM: Usually your phone starts going crazy because everyone else sees it too. Then you start getting text messages and Facebook alerts from all the other foodie people that we consider family of the restaurant. We usually wait until the next day; before service we can sit down and have a champagne toast and the whole nine. It's funny, we have had so many of those moments, when Grace turned one-year-old we just had a roundup with the team really quickly to just take in what we have done in the year and just be honored and appreciative.

What sacrifices did you make to open Grace?
CD: Anytime someone puts everything they have into a project, whether it be a restaurant or new business they are starting, obviously things suffer on the personal standpoint because you're 100 percent focused on everything you're doing professionally. To make Grace as great as we wanted it to be, everyone had to give 120 percent all of the time. Everything else sacrifices: the family sacrifices, kids sacrifice, your friends, everything is sacrificed.

Can you give me any examples?
MM: Well, I'm not married anymore. That's one of them.

CD: You look at the long history of chefs and their restaurants, you look at their personal lives, and it's challenging. To be great at something, something else has to be sacrificed to do so.

MM: Literally to build something, I know because I've never done anything from scratch like this, literally taking a factory and turning it into what it is today, is a battlefield.

CD: Obviously we want to continue on with other restaurants at some point. Now the second and third will be much easier to build because we can speak the language a little more.

MM: The other thing is we're running a business now. Your first year is filled with all kinds of learning curves. The administrative side of what we do is insanely challenging. We have fifty kids and fifty sets of boyfriends, girlfriends, sick grandparents, family issues, and their issues are our issues. We always wanted our restaurant to be the one that gave a shit.

What have you learned in the first year about that side of it?
MM: Speaking of reservations specifically, part of our job is making sure that everyone that wants to eat here, gets to eat here. The other part of our job, which may sound strange to some people, is making sure that the right people are having dinner at our restaurant. What I mean by that is, we got kind of popular, so some people just call in thinking it is just a really nice restaurant, they need to be made aware of the tasting menu format and that it's a 2-2.5 hour experience. And you want to make them very well aware of the price of what we do—it's a very expensive restaurant.

Do you feel like Grace has hit its sweet spot?
CD: No, not at all. We had an all-staff meeting towards the end of the year and that was one of the things that came up. We're so far away from hitting our stride—I think we're years away from that. It's all brand new, great, and sweet in the beginning, but everyone knows all that sweetness eventually runs out and it needs some work.

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What is the work you need to do to keep the relationship afloat and growing?
CD: For us, I think it's refinement. We have the materials, we have the tools to do the job, we built that. Now, let's refine and reuse those tools.

MM: In the first year we made a million different decisions. Next year for us is about looking at each one of those decisions, taking them apart, and rethinking it. The first year was really a battle to write the book and next year is about putting out a revised edition.

What do you feel is the ceiling for Grace? How high is possible for this restaurant?
CD: I think if you believe in something great, you can achieve it. What we do is special and unique and is different from everybody else. I think we if keep pushing forward, it's limitless on what we can do and achieve.

MM: From the culinary standpoint and definitely from the emotional standpoint, our goal is unrealistic. Our goal every night is to exceed the expectations of every guest in our house. I don't want to sound bigheaded, but our goal is to be the greatest restaurant in the world. I believe that my chef is capable of producing the best cuisine in the world. So from my end, it's about matching the food with a level of service that is unparalleled.

Were you disappointed with not getting three Michelin stars off the bat?
CD: No, we were definitely not disappointed. For us, three stars is certainly attainable. It's a tough topic. We are out of our skins honored to not even be a year old and get two. Did we build the restaurant to stop at two stars? No, we didn't. But Grace was built to run a business and to run an amazing restaurant. It was never built to obtain stars and all of these accolades. Without any of the ratings, I would still be cooking the same food regardless.

What do you feel your place is in the local, national, and worldwide restaurant communities?
MM: I think Dennis Ray Wheaton wrote about Curtis one time that Curtis was the bridge that connected Charlie Trotter and Grant (Achatz). I kind of believe that in a lot of ways. I do see my competitive set as locally as being Alinea, their customers are our customers in a way. I think what we do from a culinary standpoint is completely different and our experience is completely unique from the service standpoint.

CD: I think we're the best restaurant on the block of 652 W Randolph.

MM: When Chef Trotter closed, we had couples that were so sad and literally saying to us, "we're so sad that it's closed and we're looking for a new home." Where's our place in Chicago? I want to be that home.

What do you feel is the state and the future of fine dining?
CD: Fine dining is such a loosely-used term now. You could name a restaurant on the North Side where people say it's fine dining and really, it's not. What does it really mean? There's four or five restaurants here that really refine what they do and put the guest experience first and foremost, which is what we do. There's longevity in it, it's always going to be around.

MM: Do I see more fine dining restaurants opening up? Probably not. People are interested in making money and that's not the type of restaurant to open up. It takes so many employees. There's not a lot of money in what we do, it's all passion-driven.

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Is the kitchen table a possibility?
CD: I don't know, we have to get the city involved to see if it could work. We would have VIPs at that table and it would be an entirely different experience that's not for everybody. You're essentially in the huddle and hear every "f" bomb.

Are there any upcoming restaurant concepts you're thinking seriously about?
CD: We're never going to follow a trend, we're never going to open a ramen restaurant. When we start looking for a space and a location, when we feel it's time for us to grow, we're going to look at the neighborhood and let it speak to us for what we can do there.

MM: There's absolutely no plan for a second project, and if there is a second project, the planets really have to be aligned.

CD: We looked at Grace three times before we looked at each other and started negotiating a lease. We looked at over a hundred properties in the city; I always wanted a single-standing brownstone for Grace.

MM: It took us over a year to pick the location, it took us almost six months to pick a chair for the dining room, it took me almost two months to settle on silverware, it took me seven-to-eight months to pick the china, I mean that's how ginormous a pain in the ass we were about every little detail. A second project, sure, but it will definitely take awhile. To be honest, I don't see it happening.

You mentioned you want to make sure the right people to come. Who are the right people to eat at Grace?
MM: We do not have a dress code. If you want to wear shorts and sandals, rock on. When we say, "the right" people, we mean informed.

How far out are you booked?
MM: Two months out. We're open on OpenTable Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays but closed on OpenTable Fridays and Saturdays.

What's in store in the next year?
MM: I have set up some experiences where guests get to interact with friends of mine that make incredible wines in our private dining room and in the kitchen. More event-driven stuff. We're toying around with the idea of a guest chef thing. We want to do more charity events.

CD: Also teaming up with three chefs from the East Coast and three chefs from the West Coast and doing a collaborative dinner every other month, all for charity where the chef chooses it.

MM: I also want to have fun a little bit, we want to play, I want to do more collaborative stuff and find amazing ways to say thank you. 20-30 guests have already been to Grace over eight times this year.

What New Year's Eve plans do you have?
MM: We're doing an early bird 5:30 p.m. seating and then a 9 p.m. seating which is really special, it's an all-access pass to the entire restaurant. You can bring your glass of champagne into the kitchen and hang out with the culinary team, guests can sit wherever they please, if they want to get up and go say hi to Curtis in the kitchen and watch him plate, they can. There's no closing time. Last year, we celebrated and we had guests that left the restaurant at 4 a.m.

CD: We're super excited about the new year and to exceed our first year.
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Grace

652 W. Randolph Street, Chicago, IL 60661 (817) 877-3388

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