Podcast Episode 12

Michelin Star Chef Curtis Duffy On His Journey to the Top of the Culinary World

Curtis Duffy | 26 Minutes | August 24, 2021

In this episode, we speak with Chef Curtis Duffy, Executive Chef and owner of Ever, his latest two-Michelin star restaurant in Chicago.

Chef Curtis has built several world-renowned restaurants. His previous restaurant, “Avenues at The Peninsula Hotel Chicago”, earned two Michelin stars, and “Grace” received two Michelin stars in its first year and three Michelin stars the next four years in a row.

He won the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef, Great Lakes Award in 2016, as well as numerous accolades including the Forbes Travel Guide’s Five-Star rating and AAA’s Five-Diamond rating. At Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, a $25,000 scholarship in Chef Curtis’s name is awarded.

Listen as we chat with Chef Curtis about his philosophy on cooking, running a Michelin star restaurant, charity, and his journey to the top of the culinary industry.

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Notes & Transcript


Kirk Bachmann: Hi, everyone. My name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to the Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode, we’re speaking with esteemed chef Curtis Duffy, executive chef and owner of Ever, his latest two-Michelin star restaurant in Chicago. Curtis is no stranger when it comes to building world-renowned restaurants. His previous restaurants include Avenues at the Peninsula Hotel in Chicago, which earned two Michelin stars; and Grace, which received two Michelin stars in its first year, and three Michelin stars in the next four years in a row.

Chef Curtis has also won numerous accolades, including the Forbes Travel Guide’s five-star rating, AAA’s Five Diamond rating. He also won the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Great Lakes Award in 2016.

Join us today as we chat with Curtis on his philosophy on cooking, building a brand, charity and his journey to the top of the culinary industry. Chef, welcome! Thank you so much for chatting today. How are you?

Curtis Duffy: I’m doing fantastic. I’m really enjoying the nice sunny weather here in Chicago. It’s blistering hot, which is nice, because we only get that for a short period of time in the city. It’s been really nice to enjoy that.

Kirk Bachmann: Are you getting outside a little bit and enjoying it, or are you behind the stove all day?

Curtis Duffy: I’m enjoying it on my way to work, and on my home from work.

Kirk Bachmann: There you go! That’s a chef’s answer.

Curtis Duffy: It’s appreciated.

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I love it. I’m flying to Chicago this afternoon actually. I have a meeting with the team in Chicago. I haven’t been there since this crazy thing called a pandemic, so I’m very, very much looking forward to it.

Curtis Duffy: If you have some free time, come see us.

Kirk Bachmann: I’d love that. Believe me, I’m going to try to get it on the agenda. I have to say, I’m so excited to see you. It’s been too long, and your success just keeps coming. I’m super honored that you joined us here today. The whole school knows that we’re chatting. They’re all going to leave my office alone. Curtis! I’m talking to Curtis!

Before we dive into food and you and anything else, I’ve got to go the motorcycle route. Here we are again on the Ultimate Dish talking to a great chef who is in love with motorcycles. What is it? It’s either music, motorcycles, and food, or all of the above. You’re a big fan of the motorcycle, right? What kind of bikes do you ride?

Curtis Duffy: I’m actually a fan of the music and motorcycles.

Kirk Bachmann: Perfect.

Curtis Duffy: For me, I love the cruising motorcycles and the speed, BMW, best of both worlds.

Kirk Bachmann: Best of both worlds. Nice.

Curtis Duffy: Miami is incredible to ride a motorcycle in. The city is really beautiful.

Kirk Bachmann: Why is that? Is it just super welcoming? The weather?

Curtis Duffy: It’s the weather. It’s well-maintained streets.

Kirk Bachmann: I’ve got a BMW 650 GS which is basically a sewing machine on wheels, but I enjoy it. A little bit of wind is all I need and just a tiny bit of speed. I absolutely love it.

Origins of Cooking Passion

There’s not many who don’t know the name Curtis Duffy today, but before you became a household name, a famous chef, and everybody wants a minute of your time. Tell our students and our listening audience: who is Curtis Duffy, where is Curtis from, and where did that love for cooking really stem from? I know a little of the story, but I’m super excited to hear your take.

Curtis Duffy: I grew up my first thirteen years in Colorado Springs, outside of Columbus, Ohio. I really stepped into a kitchen at the age of fourteen, washing dishes, doing those minuscule tasks that a dishwasher would do when they’re not washing dishes. Peeling vegetables, cleaning fish, those type of things. Really fell in love with the environment, and the instant gratification for me was seeing something that was transformed from a raw state into something that was serve-able, and something that a guest would actually enjoy. That was always really exciting for me.

I went on to other restaurants and still had that feeling, that passion, and something just clicked in me one day that this is really what I wanted to do as a living. This was my passion. I was really passionate about being in the kitchen and couldn’t wait for the next day to get back into the kitchen. It was just a constant learning curve for me, and I just felt like a sponge. I was just absorbing everything around me: the environments, the people, the techniques, the food. It was a brand new world for me, something I had never experienced. That’s where I got started in this whole crazy world.

Kirk Bachmann: It is a great story for students and young culinarians who sometimes stand there in the kitchen wondering, “Oh my gosh, is this going to get better? Am I going to get better?” The passion piece, the thing that keeps pulling you back in. Were there some early mentors or tormentors who kept you coming back day after day after day?

I know there were stops with Charlie and others, but how do you go from just learning the craft – I’m trying to capture this passion, I’ve got people around me who support me – and then all of a sudden to get to that level? (And we’ll talk about what it means to be one star, two star, three star.) There is no higher level than the three Michelin stars that are tattooed on your hand.

Getting Michelin Stars

Curtis Duffy: Exactly.

Kirk Bachmann: Did you read about it? Did you hear about it? Did you know at some point that that was the plateau, that’s where you had to go? Did it come from some of these other wonderful people that you worked with over the years?

Curtis Duffy: For me, my mindset is that you’re always learning, and you go as far as you want to go. When I started at Avenues, even Michelin wasn’t around. When I started as a young cook, I didn’t start cooking because I wanted to garner awards and trophies or accolades, or whatever. That was never my driving force. I think the accolades and awards, it’s a great thing. It’s recognizing that it’s something great in the field. But I think if you’re driven from that, then you’re coming from the wrong place. I think you have to be driven from within.

It was never around as I was growing up through the culinary world until my first year at Avenues, when they announced that they were coming to the city of Chicago. It’s been ingrained in my head how excited everyone around me was that now we had this opportunity as a young chef. When I started at Avenues, they announced that, and I was really excited about where I stood in that whole world of cuisine. I was just getting my voice in the world. The first year it came out in Chicago, we were able to receive two Michelin stars, and that was an incredible feat. It just solidified that I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.

Kirk Bachmann: It was very, very well received. For the audience, you’ve got one Michelin star, two stars, three stars. It has been said different ways. One Michelin star is worth turning off the road and going to that restaurant. Two stars, boy, you’re probably going to plan to go to that restaurant. Three stars means that people wrap their vacation and they mortgage their second homes to travel to that restaurant.

Curtis Duffy: That’s true. That’s absolutely true.

Kirk Bachmann: What’s that pressure like? There’s tons of books and you read those stories about the chef that heard a rumor that, perhaps, they weren’t going to get that next star or be renewed the star. It overwhelms them. Can you speak a little bit about the pressure and how you’ve been able to handle that so well over the years?

Curtis Duffy: Everybody was playing their part. Everybody was doing what they were supposed to do, and with the utmost refinement. I said to them, “If we start changing things and really start nitpicking things, that’s going to far. We have to stay on track and maintain the quality and consistency of what we were doing to get where we are.” To continue with that drive and that vision, and not sit back and really try to nitpick everything.

We were talking about putting a piece of china and making sure that it was perfectly an inch from the edge of the table, going to extreme lengths. I think that could break somebody. As long as we’re doing things with passion and love, and everybody has the right goal, it’s inevitable that you’re going to continue down that path.

Kirk Bachmann: It comes together.

Curtis Duffy: It does come together, so as much as I think about maintaining, I also equally think about what we’re doing is right what we’re supposed to be doing. I don’t put a lot of thought into it. Obviously, consistency is my biggest pet peeve, and making sure that everything we’re doing every day is consistently as good as it was yesterday, and even better.

Creative Inspiration

Kirk Bachmann: I’ve had the honor of dining, back in the day, at Grace a couple of times. What stood out for me was how special it made me feel, and my wife and the team I had with me one time. The feel, just when we walked into the door, it was stylish, but comfortable. It felt, in a weird sort of way, familiar, like I was supposed to be there. From the greeting at the door, to a comfortable seat while I had a beautiful glass of cucumber water, or whatever it was. I felt so prepared to then sit down in the theater, if you will, because of the glass windows on the kitchen and the beauty. It was just really, really something.

You and I have talked a little bit about that over the years. The things you thought about, like the compressors being in a different building so that you wouldn’t have that noise in the kitchen. Can you speak a little bit about where that comes from? Where does that inspiration come from? Is that waking up in the middle of the night and writing notes to yourself, or texting yourself? “What if we had a kitchen with no noise, just the beauty of beautiful work coming together?” Where does that come from, Chef?

Curtis Duffy: That comes from many, many years in the business. Every job that I’ve taken, I’ve always tried to take the good and the bad from it. There’s always going to be good and bad in every restaurant. If you take all the good, and you take the things that you would change, and put yourself in that restaurant’s position, what would you change about it? I played that game a lot throughout my career. I try to teach my young cooks the same thing. You need to play these games in your head to then ultimately get, in the end, what you want, which is your ultimate goal that makes everyone successful.

That comes from being in kitchens long enough and knowing what you want, and finding ways to execute it. If you’re talking about the noise of the compressors, of the cooler, and the hood fan, those are very loud noises in the kitchen that force everyone to speak higher than normal. All of a sudden, this becomes a very loud kitchen. It’s exhausting on the brain. It’s exhausting by the end of the day, mentally.

Kirk Bachmann: You can’t focus on the food.

Curtis Duffy: How do we take those things away from the kitchen so it creates an environment that is more – not comfortable, because I don’t like the word comfortable – but it is more of a quiet, at ease situation than this loud noise. It’s just this white noise in your ear all day long. You don’t really realize it until you leave the kitchen at night and you go, “God, that kitchen is loud!” Everywhere I travel, it’s the same thing. I think, “It’s so loud in here!” Because you can literally hear a pin drop at Ever because the hoods that we’ve installed are part of a green system, so the fans we are able to control. All the compressors for all the refrigeration are outside in an area. All that noise is gone. You don’t hear the fans, you don’t hear the compressors kick on and blow the air. It’s just very quiet.

Kirk Bachmann: It’s just the food. it’s just the food.

Curtis Duffy: it’s just very important to me because it just gives the cooks the utmost focus. They have no excuses. It’s just all focus on the food and the task at hand.

Kirk Bachmann: Is that all? It’s not just about what plates we’re going to use, what type of glassware are we going to use? There’s so much involved and it is clearly part your personality, part your philosophy. it’s your name on the line every single day.

Curtis Duffy: Every day.

Philosophy on Food

Kirk Bachmann: You’ve talked a little bit about where it came from, where it originated. Talk a little bit about your overall philosophy around food, and how that manifests itself on every plate that you serve to your guests. How do they get a piece of Chef Curtis Duffy every time something’s put in front of them? Tough question, I’m sorry.

Curtis Duffy: No, not at all. That’s actually a really easy question because that’s my world. I start with ingredient. My cuisine is ingredient-driven. My cuisine is a personality cuisine, like you said. These are the things I enjoy eating in the season. These are things I enjoy cooking in the season. it’s very easy to compose a dish with something that you enjoy eating. Now, I’m allergic to shrimp, so you’ll never see shrimp on the restaurant’s menu. You’ll never see me eating shrimp unless someone does it on purpose. For the most part, those are the things I enjoy eating, so it is very easy for me to cook.

The base of the menu starts with the ingredient. If we’re talking ingredient focus, to conceptualize a dish really quickly, we would pick one ingredient. That’s the main element of the dish. Find two to three supporting elements in terms of flavor profile, that’s really about it. Then we try to take all of those elements and explore them to the maximum we possibly can, whether it’s technique and ways of getting the flavor onto the dish itself. That’s where it starts to take shape. We’re always tweaking. We’ll tweak it, and once we get it to a place where we’re happy with it, that’s when it will go on the menu.

Kirk Bachmann: My takeaways there, you said a few very poignant things, especially for our students that will listen to the chat. You mention technique. You mentioned in the season. That cannot be understated, right? Cooking within the season. I love that.

In summary, it is to start with what you know. I think it’s super, super interesting that you’re building menus around what you’re comfortable with, what you know, what you love, and then sharing that with your guests. That’s a wonderful way to approach building your menu.

Advice for Aspiring Culinarians

When you think about all the young culinarians that work in your kitchens and those that will listen to this podcast, and those that will go to school five years from now, what advice do you have about our industry – not only about young people today coming out of a pandemic, but also for those entrepreneur-minded folks like yourself who may want to run or own a restaurant of their own someday? Any high-level words of advice there?

Curtis Duffy: I have lots of them, actually. Hire a lawyer, first and foremost. Make sure you’re surrounded with a great team, obviously.

With anything in life, I’ve always said that you have a great responsibility to do something great. It is only your responsibility, and you have to hold yourself to it. No one else is going to hold you to do something great in life, whether that’s photography, food sculpture, painting, art. If it’s cuisine, then you owe it to yourself to study and be passionate about it and have that ultimate love that you would die for. Really. It has to be that strong to really be successful in this business, or in any business. To be great at something, it takes that level of dedication. The work ethic has got to be relentless. You have to be willing to give 110 percent if you expect to get 110 percent out of something. It’s always that saying: you get what you give. If you give 100 percent, you’re going to get 100 percent.

It’s got to be that fire within every single day. You have to wake up with that burning desire to do something great. Really, that’s what it boils down to.

Friendship with Farmer Lee Jones

Kirk Bachmann: That’s great advice. That’s strong advice. It’s stern advice. But good advice.

I’m going to take you back a few years, and I think you’ll smile. You didn’t know I was going to ask you this. Farmer Lee Jones, who’s become very, very close to a Escoffier over the years, just a delightful individual. I know that you started engaging with Farmer Lee years ago. You were taking your team down to the farm in Ohio. You were bringing in these unbelievable specialty vegetables.

Where I’m going with that: any comments on your friendship with Farmer Lee? And then let’s talk vegetables for a moment, too. You’ve probably seen that Daniel’s gone 100 percent vegan there in New York with his restaurant. First of all, any thoughts on Farmer? Is that relationship still there? Are you still chatting now and again, still using some of his stuff?

Curtis Duffy: Absolutely. I started buying from Farmer in ‘92, somewhere around ‘91, ‘92.

Kirk Bachmann: Wow.

Curtis Duffy: I quickly learned in that moment, buying from Farmer – he used to drive down from Cleveland down to Columbus, and that’s about an hour-and-a-half to two-hour drive. He would come down there two times a week, maybe it was one time a week, but he would bring this amazing product into the restaurant. As I was developing a relationship with him through that time, I realized that the importance of having that relationship with your farmer and fishmonger or forager – whoever you’re buying product from – it’s incredibly important to have that relationship with them.

Over the years, we’ve developed this really great relationship, this great friendship. I respect him as a man. I respect him as a businessman and as a family man. he’s an incredibly generous human being. His whole family – his brother Bob, his father and his mother – they are just incredible people. I’ve been to the farm many, many times. I’ve taken my teams there many, many times. We’ve stayed there. We’ve done research with them> We’ve done a lot of things with them. Farmer is just an incredible, incredible man.

Kirk Bachmann: Thanks so much for sharing that. I think the lesson in there, for those listening, is establishing that relationship with your farmers. So everything that goes on your plate, you know exactly where it came from. 100 percent.

Curtis Duffy: Absolutely.

On Plant-Based Menus

Kirk Bachmann: Gosh. So very important. What do you think, Chef, about this movement toward more plant-centric lifestyles, menus, dishes? Is it something you’re seeing a lot at Ever as well?

Curtis Duffy: I’ve said for a long time, people are finally realizing – This is where you can see that Charlie Trotter was so far ahead of his time. This is not new. This is not a new cuisine. It’s been around for years and year and years. We, as people, are so slow to catch up to these things and realize these things. I’ve been focusing on vegetable cuisine since I left [Illiana? [00:20:53]. When I ran Avenues, I had a full vegetable menu. I had a full vegetable menu at Grace. We’re talking fifteen courses of vegetables.

It’s nothing new. A lot of people are playing catch-up.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. That is so well stated. I appreciate that.

Giving Back

Let’s talk a little bit about giving back. I don’t know where you find the time, but you have found the time to speak with us, to give back to charities, to volunteer. Can you talk a little big about the Grand Chef’s Gala, your fundraising efforts with cystic fibrosis? Is this all a labor of love? Is this very personal to you?

Curtis Duffy: As chefs, we are in the hospitality business. We are meant to be hospitable. That’s what we do. Any opportunity that we get, we generally say yes. If we said yes to every event, everybody that reached out, our sole job would be cooking for charities and we wouldn’t make any money at all. We have to set our limits and our budgets every year to be able to give back through what we feel is important. We would love to say yes to every one of them. It’s not possible.

I think it important that we find time to give back. it’s our responsibility to give back. The community has given us a great opportunity to be in their city and their community. We need to be giving back. it’s important.

Kirk Bachmann: We appreciate that you do do that. I love that you said chefs are meant to be hospitable. They’re in the hospitality industry. That’s just really, really profound.

New Projects

Any current, new projects that you’re working on that you can share? Any sneak peek into what’s going on behind the scenes.

Curtis Duffy: Wow. Let’s see.

Kirk Bachmann: Where do you start?

Curtis Duffy: What can I say without getting in trouble?

We are working on things. I can’t tell you exactly what they are. We are working and have been working for a few months now on new projects, which we’re really excited to announce in the coming months. We looked at ourselves and said, “What do we want to do or what do we need to do?”

We’re in a great location where development is all around us. We see what’s coming, but I think as a restaurant group we would be foolish to think to ourselves, “Let’s just do something we want to do.” Knowing what’s coming around us, we need to think of what is needed. That’s the only way it helps the city sustain itself and help the city grow. We’re looking around the city: “Okay, what can we do? What do we need to do? What does this area need that it’s missing?” That’s really what we’re focusing on and that’s what we’re going to do.

Importance of the Team

Kirk Bachmann: So modest. So selfless. I love that. I love the fact that you use the term, “we’ as much as you do. Your team is so important to you. You’ve always talked about that.

Curtis Duffy: Absolutely. I’m just the face of the restaurant. I’m the face of the restaurant. But behind me is an army of people that I count on. They’re the ones that really make it happen. Their relentless work ethic and their push every single day is what gives me the ability to do what I’m doing now. It gives me the ability to grow the brand and to give them the opportunity to grow with me. If I’m standing in the kitchen every single day peeling vegetables, butchering fish, picking herbs, we don’t grow. We just stand still, and we have this great restaurant. We want more than that. We deserve more than that. For me to be able to do that, I have to have some time outside of the kitchen to do all these other things. Otherwise, we stand still.

Duffy’s Ultimate Dish

Kirk Bachmann: You and the team definitely deserve that. Really, really appreciate that. We’re getting close to our time. I’m going to put you on the spot. The name of the podcast is The Ultimate Dish. So, Chef Duffy, what is the Ultimate Dish?

Curtis Duffy: Great question. I would have to say, as little as I get it, sitting around the dining room table with my family is probably the most important for me. Having my wife and four children around me – I’m getting emotional.

Kirk Bachmann: So appreciate it.

Curtis Duffy: Every day, you want that time with the people that you love. You know, you’re pushing every day in the restaurant. We do try to enjoy a family meal at least once a week when everyone is around. That’s the ultimate dish.

Kirk Bachmann: I appreciate it so much, Chef, the emotion is so honest and so real. Thank you, thank you for that.

Curtis Duffy: Absolutely.

Kirk Bachmann: I’m off to Chicago. I’m hoping to come see you very, very soon. You know you are welcome. One of our kitchens is named after you. We’re so appreciative that you’re in the family, part of our advisory board. Thank you so much for taking time out of your schedule today to chat with us.

Curtis Duffy: Absolutely. Thank you. It’s been an honor to speak with you, Kirk, as always. If you’re in Chicago. I know you’re coming tonight. If you have five minutes to come by the restaurant, I’d love to see you. That would be amazing.

Kirk Bachmann: I love you so much, Chef. I really appreciate it.

Curtis Duffy: Likewise.

Thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit Escoffier.edu/podcast where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links, and other resources. You can also browse other episodes and subscribe.

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