Hometown: Columbus, Ohio
Occupation: Former Chef, Grace
Years worked as a chef: 25
Years lived in Chicago: 15
Awards: Best Chef: Great Lakes, James Beard Foundation (2016)
3 Michelin stars for Grace (2015–2017)
Restaurant of the Year and Chef of the Year, Jean Banchet Awards (2013)
Best New Restaurant nominee, James Beard Foundation (2013)
Best New Restaurant, Chicago magazine (2013)
4 stars, Chicago Tribune (2013)
What do you love best about Chicago’s food scene?
I think a lot of it boils down to the guest. It’s such a major city, large city, that the guests actually support a lot of these restaurants, so it keeps them opening, keeps them vibrant, keeps them moving forward. That’s what makes Chicago such a great food city, is the support of our guests. It’s the willingness to allow us to do what we want to do as chefs. I think just the diversity of everything, the neighborhoods – you can go into different neighborhoods and get a lot of the local cuisine because it is so separate. You can go to Chinatown, you can go to the Indian market up on Devon and get ethnic food, probably really close to what it would be if you traveled to those countries.
If you had to name one personal favorite dish from Grace, which would it be and why?
Probably would be the crab dish because that’s really the only dish that we’ve kept on the menu through time. We’ve always said to ourselves, “We’re not going to repeat a dish, we’re not gonna do a dish over and over, and when it’s over, it’s over.” But this is a dish that’s stayed on the menu because it’s such a popular item from a guest’s standpoint.
Grace is obviously one of Chicago’s top destinations for fine dining, but what other high-end establishments have impressed you?
It’s been awhile since I’ve been out to a fine-dining restaurant. Probably back to Alinea; it’s always exciting to go back there. Boka’s doing some interesting things. Lee Wolen’s doing a pretty amazing job over there so his food’s very tasty.
Name the top restaurants that you think every visitor to Chicago should try.
I always find myself going back to a place called Tiparos which is just north of downtown. It’s a small Thai restaurant but it has probably the best tom kha soup in the city. I’ve been going there for 15 years now, so I just enjoy their soup a lot, actually.
There’s a restaurant called Juno which is a sushi restaurant in the city. Just to sit down and have the omakase is pretty amazing. Anything that that chef does – his name is B.K. – anything that he does from the omakase, if you sit down and just let him cook for you, it’s pretty brilliant. I could sit there every single night and be happy.
Describe your perfect “dining out day” in Chicago.
I’m not a big breakfast person. I love making my own breakfast at home, but I don’t like to go out for breakfast. Probably start somewhere light with like a lighter sandwich from Ba Le. Ba Le has really great Vietnamese sandwiches. Maybe go to Xoco and grab another sandwich, something on the lighter side. Or Cemitas Puebla, they have great sandwiches, as well. Then I’d probably end up with some place having sushi at night, maybe Juno again for sushi and have B.K. just do a big omakase dinner for us. That’d be pretty amazing. And I don’t know about dessert, I don’t know where I’d end up with for dessert. That’s a tough one for me.
What’s your favorite neighborhood to dine out at?
That’d probably be Argyle Street. Lot of Vietnamese restaurants, Thai restaurants. Those are some of the favorite restaurants of mine because that’s just the style of food that I like to eat.
What other cuisines do you enjoy eating or cooking?
At least for me—I can’t speak for everybody—but for me, chefs tend to cook what they enjoy eating, so my menu heavily reflects what I enjoy eating, which is those flavor profiles, whether it’s Southeast Asian, Japanese cuisine, those are the things I enjoy eating. Those are the flavor profiles that seem to make their way onto the menu. And it’s not in any way meant to be like a fusion restaurant, and it’s not. I’m not trying to say it’s a fusion of American cuisine and Japanese and all these things. It’s just very subtle flavors that kind of make their way onto a menu or an ingredient throughout the menu that heavily sit in the Southeast Asia world. A lot of yuzu, a lot of kaffir lime and ginger and galangal and those things that I enjoy.
Where do you like going for budget eats in Chicago?
I like Superdawg. That’s always fun to go out there, but I like to do that in the summertime because I can ride my motorcycle out there. It’s a little bit further out of the city. My business partner really loves that place, so it’s always a good ride to go up there. It’s fun. It’s a pretty good hot dog.
Any great watering holes you like to visit often?
I went out last Saturday to Aviary and it was always great, but that’s always on everybody’s radar every time they come to the city. They gotta go to Aviary. I used to like this place called Tiny Lounge. They have pretty decent cocktails there. Violet Hour is another amazing spot for cocktails.
We have to ask: what’s your favorite Chicago deep dish?
I don’t like deep dish (laughs). I like Pequod’s Pizza. They do pretty awesome pizza, but I like their thin crust. I’m not a big fan of deep dish in Chicago. I just don’t eat it ‘cause I like to enjoy multiple pieces. Some people hate thin crust and some people just can’t get enough of deep dish, so I’m completely the opposite.
Since Eats Abroad is geared toward travelers, are there any restaurants or bars at Chicago’s airports or hotels you would recommend?
At the airport there’s always Tortas Frontera which is great. Their sandwiches are always great there. I think Sixteen has an amazing view [of the city] if you can sit up there and have a drink in the summertime. You can have a beverage out on their balcony or patio. I would definitely recommend that one for sure.
What’s your guilty pleasure and where in Chicago do you go to get it?
I would probably say Portillo’s. I love their cheese fries. I try to stay away from there (laughs). The staff likes to bring it in quite a bit and I’m like, “Get that away from me!”
What’s one dish that blew you away and left you wishing you came up with the recipe yourself?
Years ago, when I first arrived in Chicago, I ate at a restaurant called Arun’s, They’re still open. It’s the higher end of Thai cuisine, if you will. At one point, they received 4 stars from the Chicago Tribune, so I had to go there. This was probably 2001 maybe, so it’s been awhile since I’ve been back. But there was a dessert there that just always sticks in my head when I think of those flavors. It was a slow-poached sweet potato with tapioca, coconut milk and corn, and it was one of those things that’s just like, “This is brilliant, this is amazing.” It was so simple, elegant and just really, really good. I wish I could have that dish again, like today. I wish I could have that. It’s pretty damned expensive for a Thai restaurant, but it’s pretty amazing.
Are there any foods native to Chicago that you particularly like and that visitors should try to find?
I know people go crazy over Garrett’s Popcorn. There’s always lines for that. I can’t say that I’d stand in line for that, but I love their popcorn. I don’t stand in line for anything, especially if it becomes food-related … no, that’s not gonna be me.
Finally, what would you say is the one thing any visitor must see or do before leaving Chicago?
If it’s the summertime, try to get to the beaches. Beaches are always fun ‘cause you can walk to the beach from downtown, and then five minutes later, you’re back in the city. Roaming around downtown is always fun, too.
There’s great venues here for music, the blues. Of course Kingston Mines, they have a great venue and they play a lot of local blues. That’s always fun to go to, and it’s a 4:30, 5 o’clock-in-the-morning bar, so get your blues fix while you’re here.
Chef Duffy’s Shortlist:
Grace, 652 W. Randolph Street (West Loop); progressive American, dinner only Tuesday-Saturday, closed Sunday-Monday.
Alinea, 1723 N. Halsted Street (Lincoln Park); molecular gastronomy, dinner only Wednesday-Sunday, closed Monday-Tuesday (tickets must be purchased in advance).
Boka, 1729 N. Halsted Street (Lincoln Park); contemporary American, dinner only daily.
Tiparos Thai Cuisine & Sushi Bar, 1540 N. Clark Street (Lincoln Park); Thai and sushi, lunch and dinner daily.
Juno Sushi, 2638 N. Lincoln Avenue (Lincoln Park); sushi, dinner only Tuesday-Sunday, closed Monday.
Ba Le Banh’wich Shop, 5014 N. Broadway Street (Uptown); Vietnamese, breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
Second location: 166 W. Washington Street (The Loop); lunch only Monday-Friday, closed Saturday-Sunday.
Xoco, 449 N. Clark Street (River North); Mexican, breakfast, lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday, closed Sunday-Monday.
Second location: 1471 N. Milwaukee Avenue (Wicker Park); breakfast Saturday-Sunday, lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday, closed Monday.
Cemitas Puebla, 817 W. Fulton Market (West Loop); Mexican, lunch and dinner daily.
Second location: 3619 W. North Avenue (Humboldt Park); lunch and dinner daily.
Superdawg, 6363 N. Milwaukee Avenue (Norwood Park); American, lunch, dinner and late night daily.
Second location: 333 S. Milwaukee Avenue, Wheeling, IL; lunch and dinner daily.
The Aviary, 955 W. Fulton Market (West Loop); cocktail bar, open Wednesday-Sunday evenings only, closed Monday-Tuesday.
Tiny Lounge, 4352 N. Leavitt Street (North Center); cocktail bar, open daily.
The Violet Hour, 1520 N. Damen Avenue (Wicker Park); cocktail bar, open daily.
Pequod’s Pizza, 2207 N. Clybourn Avenue (Lincoln Park); deep dish pizza, lunch, dinner and late night daily.
Tortas Frontera, Terminals 1, 3 and 5 at Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD); Mexican, breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
Sixteen, 401 N. Wabash Avenue (River North); contemporary American, breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
Portillo’s, 100 W. Ontario Street (River North); American, lunch and dinner daily, late night Friday-Sunday.
Arun’s, 4156 N. Kedzie Avenue (Albany Park); Thai, dinner only Tuesday-Sunday, closed Monday.
Garrett Popcorn Shops, multiple locations; specialty popcorn.
Everest, 440 S. LaSalle Street, 40th floor (The Loop); French, dinner only Tuesday-Saturday, closed Sunday-Monday.
360 Chicago (formerly known as John Hancock Observatory), 875 N. Michigan Avenue, 94th floor (Gold Coast); open daily.
Kingston Mines, 2548 N. Halsted Street (Lincoln Park); blues music venue, open daily.
About the Chef: As a young cook traveling through Europe, Chef Curtis Duffy ate at some of the finest restaurants. At the time, the Michelin Guide was not awarding stars to restaurants in the U.S., so the most he could do was try to emulate these 3-star chefs. But in 2005, Michelin crossed the pond and published its first American guide, and for Duffy, that meant the reality of actually working towards attaining one of the restaurant world’s highest honors.
“I just felt like I wanted to have a specific voice in the food and wine world, and I felt like the only way to get there is to put yourself with great chefs and train under great chefs … if you want to be the best, you gotta surround yourself with the best.”
And that he did. He moved to Chicago in 2000 and worked with some of the city’s most acclaimed chefs of past (the late Charlie Trotter) and present (Grant Achatz of Alinea). In 2008, Duffy took on the head chef role at Avenues, where his dishes won him rave reviews, the AAA Five Diamond Award, and two Michelin stars. With all of this professional experience, he took the culinary helm of Grace in 2012, treating guests to micro-seasonal tasting menus that focused either on vegetables or seafood and protein. Grace opened to critical acclaim, and in its first year, it was awarded two Michelin stars. A year later, Duffy’s lifelong dream came true when Grace was upgraded to three Michelin stars, becoming just one of two restaurants in Chicago in 2015 to have earned that recognition. Duffy says the reality of it hasn’t really set in yet, but that it’s certainly one of his proudest moments of his career.