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Former Grace Chef Faces Legal Hurdles in Opening a Restaurant in Chicago

The restrictions reportedly last through mid-2019

Grace’s former GM Michael Muser and chef Curtis Duffy.
Jason Little
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

If former Grace chef Curtis Duffy and GM Michael Muser open another restaurant in the next 18 months, it may not be in Chicago or in the city’s neighboring suburbs. After Grace closed last week, the two appear legally bounded by a contract signed with Grace owner Michael Olszewski that could prevent them from investing or working in another restaurant in Chicago or elsewhere in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry, and Will counties. That revelation was part of a series of nuggets uncovered on Christmas Eve as travelers scurried to airports and took to the roads to celebrate the holiday.

Grace, one of the country’s most-luxurious restaurants — one of a select 14 that earned a full three stars from Michelin inspectors in 2017 in the U.S. — closed last week after Duffy quit. Duffy and Muser departed the restaurant after failed tries to buy the restaurant from Olszewski. The restaurant officially closed when staff walked off their jobs in support of the two.

Olszewski decided to share details about Duffy and Muser’s contracts with the Sun-Times. The two agreed to 10-year contacts with an initial $90,000 annual salary and saw their yearly pay bumped to $160,000 two and a half years ago. Olszewski also told the paper that he fired Muser on November 30 after several months of absenteeism and what Olszewski, in a lengthy termination letter, deemed as “continual failure” to perform responsibilities. Duffy and Muser had said they were having heated negotiations to buy the restaurant from Olszewski during this timeframe.

The Sun-Times and Olszewski also made a big deal over a June health inspection triggered by a customer complaint that claimed illness after eating at Grace. Grace, according to city records, actually passed that inspection with conditions, a routine result for many Chicago restaurants. City inspectors have used the “pass with conditions” designation 2,080 times in 2017, according to city records. These were details the Sun-Times neglected to include. This is the same paper that villainized Chicago’s food trucks with an expose over downtown parking restrictions.

Olszewski told the Sun-Times that he’s sunk $3 million into Grace over the restaurant’s five years in the West Loop. He also wants to open a new restaurant in the space. Many Chicago restaurants experts doubt that a new restaurant will have success. After the Sun-Times story hit, some of those experts have concluded the deal was a bad one for both parties.

Duffy and Muser, through a spokeswoman on Wednesday morning, declined comment about the Sun-Times story. It’s not a foregone conclusion that the contract will remain intact. The parties could negotiate a settlement allowing Duffy and Muser to open a Chicago restaurant, but lawyers will have to convene — if they’re not meeting already — before anything happens.


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