Two months have passed since Grace, one of Chicago’s most-acclaimed and luxurious fine dining restaurants, suddenly closed and now its former chef and GM are suing their former boss. Chef Curtis Duffy and GM/sommelier Michael Muser want to open a new restaurant but can’t as an agreement between them and Grace owner Michael Olszewski contains a noncompete clause barring them from opening an eatery in Chicago and its surrounding suburbs and counties. A lawsuit filed Tuesday in Cook County court by Duffy and Muser seeks to void that clause which prevents them from opening a local restaurant until mid-2019.
Grace was one of two Chicago restaurants that earned a full three-star rating from Michelin — the other being Alinea in Lincoln Park. The restaurant’s tasting menu ranked as one of the world’s finest, propelling Duffy to celebrity status. Duffy and Muser tried to buy Grace from Olszewksi, a prominent real estate developer. When those efforts failed, the working relationship deteriorated and led to Duffy quitting in December with his staff walking off in a show of support. That led to Olszewski closing the restaurant and ending Grace’s five-year run in the West Loop.
The lawsuit argues that Muser and Duffy can’t seek new jobs and provide for their family in Chicago as Olszewski has threatened legal action. Olszewski had renegotiated Duffy and Muser’s contracts to allow profit sharing. The lawsuit claimed profit sharing was to start on December 1. Rather than paying Muser, the lawsuit alleges Olszewski fired him on that date. It also calls out Olszewski for leaking the contract to the Sun-Times as a method to hinder interest in prospective employers.
A spokeswoman for Olszewski denied the last claim and said profit sharing would have began in January. She called the lawsuit “frivolous” and “disappointing” and said that they signed the agreement in good faith. She noted that Olszewski invested $3 million into opening the restaurant. Olszewski continued to blame Duffy and Muser for Grace’s demise. The full statement follows.
“News of this frivolous suit is very disappointing given that Mr. Muser and Mr. Duffy were willing to take $3 million in Mr. Olszewski’s money to open Grace and now want to break the terms of that contract, which they signed in good faith. Mr. Olszewski was very generous to both of them, nearly doubling their salaries from the contractual $90,000 annual salary to $160,000, which he did as a gesture of good will. The truth is there are only two people to blame in this situation: Mr. Duffy, who walked out of the job on his own, while instructing his staff to do the same in the middle of the holidays with no guarantee of a job; and Mr. Muser, who was given over a year to address multiple and well-documented shortcomings in his role of GM, but did not do so. “
Though Grace is closed, Olszewski said he wants to open a new restaurant in the space with a new chef. His spokesperson has said chefs have shown interest. However, a few local industry experts are dubious of any efforts. Olszewski also plans on opening a second and more-casual restaurant in Rogers Park near Loyola University — his alma mater. He has visions of opening more and forming a restaurant group.
A message to a spokesperson representing Duffy and Muser wasn’t immediately returned. The Sun-Times first reported news of the lawsuit.
- Grace Officially Closes a Day After Kitchen Staff Walk Out [Eater Chicago]
- How Grace’s Shutter Sent Shockwaves Through Chicago [Eater Chicago]
- Former Grace Chef Faces Legal Hurdles in Opening a Restaurant in Chicago [Eater Chicago]
- Chef, manager sue owner of Grace restaurant [Sun-Times]