Podcast Episode 63

How Iron Chef Challenger Curtis Duffy Nurtures a “Family Kitchen” Culture

Curtis Duffy | 52 Minutes | October 11, 2022


In today’s episode, we speak again with the world-renowned Curtis Duffy, a Michelin-starred chef and owner of Ever restaurant in Chicago.

Some of Curtis’s many achievements include earning three Michelin stars at his former restaurant, Grace, as well as earning two Michelin stars at Avenues in the Peninsula Hotel in Chicago, IL. He also received Forbes Travel Guide’s Five-Star rating, AAA’s Five-Diamond rating, and the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef, Great Lakes Award in 2016.

As a member of the prestigious Disciples d’Escoffier International, Curtis focuses on leading teams to a greater vision—all by harnessing camaraderie and competition. More recently, he was a challenger chef on Netflix’s Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend.

Listen as Curtis talks about how he prepared for the Iron Chef competition, the food scene in Chicago, and how to build a family culture in the kitchen.

Watch the podcast episode:

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Notes & Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode, I have the ultimate honor of once again speaking with chef, Curtis Duffy, a world-renowned Michelin-starred chef who recently competed on Netflix’s new culinary competition, “Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend.”

Chef Duffy has received many accolades, including being inducted into the prestigious Disciples d’Escoffier International. His current restaurant, Ever, received two Michelin stars in 2020. He earned two Michelin stars at the Avenues at the Peninsula Hotel in Chicago, and three Michelin stars at his former restaurant, Grace. He’s been awarded Forbes Five-Star ratings, AAA Five Diamond ratings, and received the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chefs Great Lakes Award 2016.

Join me today as I chat with Chef Duffy about his experience competing on “Iron Chef,” what’s new at Ever, and much, much more.

There he is. Good morning. Can I just tell you, I’m exhausted?! I’m exhausted from the intro. I was trying to do the Iron Chef. Today!

Curtis Duffy: Yeah. You make me sound like a rock star. I’m just a cook over here in Chicago. But thank you for having me. I’m excited to be back on the show.

Kirk Bachmann: Almost a year ago. So great to see you. So much has changed in the world. First and foremost, you look phenomenal. Things are going great. I know you’re busy, busy, busy. How are you? How’s the family? I love the Instagram posts. How’s Chicago this summer?

Curtis Duffy: Chicago, it’s been great. The summer has been pretty mild. It’s tolerable, which is great. Sometimes it gets really, really muggy and hot, and it starts to affect some of the things in the kitchen that we like to work with. Family is great. We just had all the family together in the summertime for about a month up here in Chicago. The kids came up from Miami. We had a lot of great things going on. We went to a few concerts and just spent a lot of quality time together, so that was a lot of fun.

People Want to Be Outside

Kirk Bachmann: That’s great. So absolutely important.

I don’t know if the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror. I think maybe it is. I think people are trying to get on with their lives. Has Chicago exploded? Is the restaurant scene happening? Is it different? Is there a lot of outdoor dining? Have you seen some changes that came specifically out of the pandemic?

Curtis Duffy: I think when Chicago when through this pandemic moment and the city really embraced this outdoor dining moment where they would close streets, and the restaurants would build outdoor structures where people could dine. It seems to be that before, a lot of patio space was not available in the city. Now it’s kind of a priority. it’s really interesting to see, because you walk through these neighborhoods where you normally would just walk through downtown, and you would go inside to the restaurant. Now, there is a vibrant energy outside during the summertime that you never had before in the city. That’s kind of exciting to see. These restaurants are able to thrive on some of the outdoor activities.

We’re a city where the summertime is very limited. We’re four, maybe you could stretch it to five months. I’m guessing more four months out of the year where we’re really able to enjoy the weather outside. People want to be outside in the city. The moment the sun is out, people want shorts and sandals, and they want to be outside. To have that restaurant world embrace that – for people to be outside and sit outside and enjoy family and friends, a glass of wine, some great food – hopefully this city will continue to allow that and make it a permanent change. That would be amazing.

Working for Themselves

Kirk Bachmann: Well said. Same thing in Boulder and in Denver as well. Chicago is my home city, though. That’s great to hear.

Chef, every article I read, things on Instagram, social media, you’re always so thoughtful when you’re talking about Michael and you’re entire team. This goes back all the way to Peninsula, Grace, Ever, and anything that you touch. I just love that. So intentional about how important your team is to you. Before we dive into “Iron Chef” and so much more, I’d love it if you could share a few thoughts about how important culture is not only to you, but to the business, when you’re working at the level that you are. I’ve had the good fortune of seeing you in your restaurant. There’s a respectful hush. There’s a beautiful sense of urgency. Everyone seems to know what they’re doing or what they’re asked to do. The culture seems really, really good.

One funny part of that is I remember coming up to you and I asked the silliest question. I asked, “So, what if some of your team members come up with some great ideas for menus? Do you kind of let them run with that?” You were kind of like, “Yeah. No.”

Talk about culture a little bit.

Curtis Duffy: I guess for me, it’s working at some of these restaurants that didn’t have a great culture. It was very cutthroat and intense in a way that every restaurant, you’d think, would be. It’s hot. It’s sweaty. It’s long hours. It’s tedious. It’s stressful. People are yelling and screaming. A lot of drugs and alcohol activity going on. The classic Anthony Bourdain story from one of his books. I’ve been through those restaurants, but it was never a restaurant scene that I wanted to be a part of. I always thought there was a better idea behind that, a better culture behind that.

Something that Michael and I have always strived [sic] for is to create a family culture in the restaurant. We want these people that, if they’re going be here fifteen-plus hours a day, we want that environment to be as less stressful as possible. The demand is obviously incredibly high, and my demand for them and their work ethic is incredibly high. But at the end of the day, it feels family. It feels like we spend a lot of time with each other, and we want these guys to feel comfortable enough to [say], “We want to be here.” That long, every day, five days a week.

While we do give everybody two days off a week. We are closed Sundays and Mondays. I think it’s very important. Some of my key people really love to come in on Monday and do some R&D, but I try to push them away from that. Because I really want them to disconnect for a couple days, 48 hours, and really hit the reset button, and spend time doing the things that are important to them outside of work.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s great. That’s great.

Curtis Duffy: I’ve always said to myself, “This is the way that I grew up in the restaurant world. They don’t work for me. They have to have the mentality of working for themselves.” I think if they can grasp that at an early age, as a young cook, they’ll win. Ultimately, most of them want to go on and do their own restaurant or be a chef of some restaurant or maybe a restaurant of a hotel or executive chef of a hotel. At the end of the day, yes, I do pay them, but their mentality should be that they don’t work for me; they work for themselves. When they work for themselves, I think the mentality changes quite a bit.

I do this little game with them in the kitchen. Every chef is responsible for one to two dishes of the menu. I tell them, “Look, this is your station. You have one dish here, but this is your station.” But if you have a mentality, “This is your restaurant,” and everything inside of this little box is your restaurant, and you play that game of everything that I give the chef is going to be absolutely perfect because it’s a representation of who I am. If I’m going to give the chef an herb that has a brown tip on it or wasn’t picked properly, or I’m going to give the chef the beef that’s overcooked or slightly under-cooked, that’s a representation of who I am. That, ultimately, is my “restaurant” and you’re okay doing that, what does that say about you as a chef?

It holds them to a higher standard every single day. I set the standards. They’re goal really is to exceed those standards every day. That’s the mentality, that’s the direction I try to push them to be every day, to be greater than they were yesterday.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. Lots of great quotes right there. I love the outcome of ownership and pride by doing it that way. It’s for the team, it’s for the greater good, but it’s also for themselves. It’s a great lesson for students, too.

Curtis Duffy: if you can get their head wrapped around, It’s them. It’s all about them contributing every single day. Without them, I don’t exist because they’re the ones doing the work every single day. If they can contribute in some way, then they win as well. They’re more excited about it than just coming in and doing the work.

Kirk Bachmann: Then the idea is, too, that people who work in your kitchen will hopefully take that culture with them, and it’s ultimately great for the industry if that culture just spreads.

Curtis Duffy: 100 percent.

Iron Chef Wasn’t for Me

Kirk Bachmann: That’s great.

Let’s just jump into competing for the golden knife. I’m just fascinated. “Iron Chef.” Wow. Chef, you’ve achieved more that most chefs or people could even dream of. Hard work. Michelin stars. Great family. Was competing on “Iron Chef” was something you had thought about for some time? I went back to see when did that originally air? 1993. Oh my God! Did you ever watch some of those early ones with Morimoto and all those?

Curtis Duffy: Those were my favorite episodes. I did watch them back in the day when it was all still in non-English. I don’t even think they had subtitles – well, maybe they did have subtitles back then.

Kirk Bachmann: But it was rough!

Curtis Duffy: You would spend more time reading the subtitles than watching the episodes, so you had to go back and actually watch the episode and not really read because you already knew what was going on.

For me, that was really fascinating, because I’d competed through high school and through college and gained some awards and notoriety through that type of world. But the competition world of food is a lot different than the restaurant setting, as we all know. The Bocuse d’Or is beautiful and magical, but it’s not something you can really apply to the restaurant world on a daily basis. Now, the discipline behind it? Absolutely. There’s something to be said for the details and intricate…the self-discipline it takes to get to that level. Yes, that can be applied to your every day world in the restaurant, but your not setting up beautiful platters like that on a daily basis.

The competition thing I did in my moment and had some fun with it in my younger years. I knew it was just not practical for me to do that. I didn’t really do that, but I did watch a lot of the “Iron Chef” back in the day. When it went on to the Food Network and it became more Americanized and, for lack of a better term, very cheesy, I didn’t really enjoy it.

I was asked to go on it when I was working at Avenues. I agreed to do it, then I had to disagree and had to cancel my participation because after saying, “Yes, I would do it,” it sank in to me. “You know what? I don’t really want to be that chef.” I was just starting to get my name out there. This was my first restaurant as THE chef, as the name behind it, and I wanted to be taken seriously. I didn’t want to be known as Iron Chef, so I declined it and moved on.

Then I had a friend of mine reach out to me, Chef Gavin. Gavin says to me, “Look, we wanted to gauge your interest on this ‘Iron Chef.’ Netflix has purchased the rights behind it. It’s going to be a lot different than it was when it was on the Food Network. Chef’s that are on your caliber competing. Would you be interested in doing that?”

I had to give it some thought. I said, “Let me check with my team. I’ll get back to you.” I brought it back to Richie and Justin. They’re the two people that I thought, if I was going to go on there, who I would bring. It would be Richie and Justin. Before I could get “Iron Chef” out of my mouth, they were like, “Yes! Yes, yes! Let’s do it!”

I said, “Okay. I guess we’re doing it.” I want them to have fun, too. “Yeah. Let’s do it.” I’ll do it just because they want to do it. I was on the fence of doing it or not. It really pushed me to do it.

And thankfully they did. They pushed me to go there and compete, and it was a lot of fun. It was an incredible experience.

Kirk Bachmann: Well, it looked like a lot of fun. I want to go back. You said something very important, very insightful. There’s different paths that we take as cooks or welders or doctors or lawyers. The Michelin route is just such a level of excellence. Bocuse d’Or you mentioned. Iron Chef. Other competitions. ACF Olympics every four years. Certification. No matter what route you go, you mentioned the word, “discipline.” That’s the foundation. That’s the denominator for all of it. Whether you’re going to go for all the marbles on one day every two years at Bocuse or you’re going to go every four years, if you’re not serious about it, if your team is not on par to make it happen, it’s not going to happen.

I will say this. I watched the episode with you and Chef Dominique Crenn. I agree. I thought Netflix did a very professional job. It was super respectful. It really highlighted two of the greatest chefs today, Michelin star both of you. There was no jumping up on the counter or any of that stuff. It was really sophisticated. Quite honestly, I think Kristen Kish does a really lovely job as a host and narrator as well.

Curtis Duffy: Absolutely. She did have a great spirit behind her.

Kirk Bachmann: I’m glad you brought Richie up. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that I met him years ago when he was working with Homaro at Moto. Gosh, I got so excited when I saw that he was working with you. That’s got to be a lot of fun.

Curtis Duffy: Richie’s been with us since Day One. I’ve known Richie since my days, obviously, knowing Homaro. I’ve known him since he was a young cook working at Moto and then finally working his way up to chef de cuisine as the last few years that he was there. Richie has just always been a really positive and incredible person to be around. Very inspiring. His work ethic is incredible. He’s the guy who’s going to be the first one here, last one to leave. You have to physically kick him out of the kitchen. “Go home!”

We were just talking about coming up on our October, November, December. It’s the busiest time of the year for us in the restaurant world. We’re looking at our china. We’ve lost some. We’ve lost a substantial amount of pieces due to breakage. I said, “We need to really hone in. Let’s get an inventory of all the pieces of china. Let’s retake the photos. Let’s document it. Let’s get it back in tune with the spreadsheet so we have it at a quick glance.”

He said, “Yeah, I’m in on Monday to do that.”

“No! No! I don’t want you to come in on Monday to do it. Let’s figure out a time during the week. Even if it’s getting half of it done and then doing the other half the next day. But I don’t want you to be here on Monday.”

He’s insisting. “I have no problem doing it.” That’s what I’m talking about, that work ethic, just let’s get it done. It doesn’t matter what it takes. I wish I had a hundred of those people around me.

Preparing for Iron Chef

Kirk Bachmann: Be sure to give him my best. It’s so great that he’s on your team.

You bring up another great point – the inventory of the dishes. Everything has to be thought about like that. We take that for granted when we come in and sit down. Everything’s just going to be there. I love those behind-the-scenes stories.

I’m sure there some privacy around [the show], so I’ll be super respectful of that. Now the team’s like, “Let’s do this. What have we signed up for? We’re going on Netflix.”

What do you prepare? I’m sure there’s some real secrets there. You have an idea of what you might have to prepare, but you might have to prepare for a couple of different ingredients. How much time did you have to prepare before you knew you were going to be on the show? Where did you practice? How did that all come about? So much work, I imagine.

Curtis Duffy: Great question. Once we signed the documents and all the agreements that go behind that, they released the two ingredients that it could potentially be. For us, it was chocolate, and it could be milk. Honestly, I don’t remember if it was milk that we knew how many different varieties of milk there were. I think we did. I do remember getting those five milks to practice.

What we did was we just came up with a menu that utilized all the five different milks, and try to use five different techniques with them. We did the same thing with chocolate. We figured out, if we were given chocolate, what could we do that could be savory and sweet. With the milks, it was savory and sweet as well.

Both lend themselves very well to savory and sweet, if you will, even though chocolate was a little more challenging for some of the earlier courses without it being incredibly sweet. But then the day of, we didn’t know going into it which menu we would have. We were prepared to do either one.

Kirk Bachmann: The day that you’re there to cook –

Curtis Duffy: We still didn’t know.

Kirk Bachmann: -We’re either going this way or this way. Doubled the work and the preparation. Wow.

Curtis Duffy: It’s moments before we actually go on set when they reveal the main ingredient. It’s only moments before when we really know what we’re going to get.

Kirk Bachmann: So you’re mind’s going a million miles an hour.

Curtis Duffy: We’re still surprised. “Damn. It’s milk. What do we do?” What we prepared for is going to be great.

It was a lot of fun. We practiced quite a bit in the kitchen of Ever. I really wanted to get out of our kitchen because going back to my competition days, I remember practicing at multiple different kitchens just to have the different scenarios of not being familiar with where things were. It’s very easy to do what we do in our kitchen because we’re there every single day. We know where to get every single thing. Throw yourself in another kitchen, how much time does that eat up? I know that eats up a tremendous amount of time just trying to find things, look for things, run for things. We just didn’t get the opportunity to do that.

We tried to stage it while we had everything at our fingertips. The next time we practiced, completely had nothing at our fingertips and had to run for it all. It was all being timed and watched. We had a couple people taking notes on what we could have done differently and how we could have changed this, and the timing of every single course of what we made, how much time it took. We tried to shave it down each time.

Kirk Bachmann: So most competitions have some sort of time frame, some benchmark, but this is connected to television and money, commercials, sponsors, all of that. I guess they speed all that up for the viewing audience. Did that become a really big part of the mise en place, of the prep? Okay, we want to do this, but that’s going to take four minutes too long. To me, that seems like that would be really nerve-wracking.

Curtis Duffy: I felt when we were done practicing here and we could nail our menu here, I felt pretty good that we would be able to do that there. We had a game plan if we didn’t get to a place. We offered three different desserts. If we got to a place where we felt like we were behind there, we would just pull back on some of those desserts and just serve one instead of three. The beeswax that we did, those don’t take any time at all to do, but it is an extra step. There were some safety net precautions we were going to take to pull back a little bit and still presented what we went there to present.

Kirk Bachmann: I know there are a million questions people have, and I know you can’t divulge everything. The way we saw it on Netflix wasn’t terribly different from “Chef’s Table.” Netflix did a beautiful job with “Chef’s Table.” I imagine each one of those episodes took forever to put together. When I watched your episode a couple of times, I felt like it was super respectful. There weren’t a lot of antics. There was respect for everything that was happening. They do try to get in your face a little bit. “What are you doing?” Thirty seconds [later]: “What are you working on, Chef?” I get that, the drama of all that. I’m just curious: what we don’t see is all the cameras. There’s probably sixty people all around you.

Curtis Duffy: Yeah, there is. At one point I think we counted 28 cameras in different angles.

Kirk Bachmann: My goodness! Wow.

Curtis Duffy: People running around following you everywhere you go. You’re trying not to trip on their cords. You’re trying to do what you do, move in the kitchen gracefully and elegantly. Something we went there with our mindset was, “Let’s show the world how we act in our kitchen.” I know it’s TV. I know they are looking for mistakes and catching on fire, and people running around throwing stuff. That’s all great, but that’s not my world. That’s not the world that I live in.

Kirk Bachmann: No, you have a brand to protect, too. I truly felt like you did do that. It makes me feel good as a Netflix fan and a Curtis Duffy fan that they didn’t push you to do something that was not you.

Curtis Duffy: There were moments were, obviously, they cut and edited because I just started to ignore them. At some point, they kept asking me questions, and I’m in [the middle] of trying to hone in. I was under a lot of pressure to get things done under a timely restraint. At one point, I remember just ignoring them completely and pretending like I couldn’t hear them.

At that point, everybody was still wearing mask. When we went live, everybody took the masks off. But the moment cameras were off, then everybody had a mask back up. Even being the camera, people were asking questions, and I honestly couldn’t understand them most of the time. I kept asking them to repeat themselves. Eventually, I just ignored them. I’m behind right now.

Kirk Bachmann: And we forget about that time with masks. We went through it here at the school as well.

One and done, is that it? Because they’ll call again. You know they will.

Curtis Duffy: I just got a message from the chairman a few days ago asking for me email. They’re working on something. I’m waiting to see when that email comes back and see what they want from me. I don’t know. It was a lot of fun. It takes a lot of time away from the restaurant. I think we were gone three days even though we were filming one day.

It is a true time restraint. What you do see on TV in terms of that hour, I think this one was an hour and half they gave us. One course had to be done in the first 20 minutes. I think it was something like that. It’s been a while since I watched it and reflected on it. I think the first 20 minutes we had to produce our first course.

Then, we wanted to utilize all the different dairies that we had available. We did. We used all five different milks, different styles. I think we did a total of eight courses plus made one serving piece, so nine different things. There were a lot of things that went in there.

Kirk Bachmann: Congratulations, because it aired very, very well. It’s really exciting to get a little view from behind the scenes. We’ll stay tuned on that.

Curtis Duffy: Yeah. We’ll see what happens. I don’t know if they’re going to plan a second season. I think it came over pretty well. It was the number one viewing on Netflix for a while.

Staffing and Culture at Ever

Kirk Bachmann: It’s a great line up of chefs and competitors. It’s all over the board. Very cool.

Let’s jump over to Ever a little bit, if you have a little more time. We started to talk about the Chicago restaurant scene changing a little bit. What’s going on at Ever? What’s changing at Ever? How’s staffing for you? You mentioned Richie. I know a lot of people have been with you for along time. I know our students would love to hear: Is plant-based here to stay? Is that being woven into menus more frequently? Gluten-free? All of that. Where does your inspiration come from on a daily basis?

Curtis Duffy: In the last six months, I think we’ve been very fortunate to keep a lot of our staff. In the beginning, we had high turnover. We opened in the middle of a pandemic. We were open three months, forced to close for another four months, started the burger place. That went over well. Reopened Ever again, and then it’s been a turnover of staff, front and back. Finding the right people, getting the right people in the door, training them.

It’s been interesting to see how many people really want to commit back to this industry. I think the ones that want to commit are the ones that are going to ultimately go and change our food world years down the line.

As far as Ever, in the last six months, we’ve been fortunate enough to keep a lot of our great staff, our chef de parties. All the key people have been with me since Day One of Ever. Amy and Michael, Richie and Justin, Lucas, Octavio, Nick From. All of them have been with me since Day One, and most of them worked with me at Grace as well. Key people are important because they’re the ones that are the foundation, the structure of what we do every single day. They’re the ones that can take my voice, Michael’s voice, and really see it through, spread the word, if you will.

Kirk Bachmann: I’m interested. When you get to a level where you [have] lots of years of hard work, you’re always on stage. No matter who comes to the restaurant, it’s like, “Is Chef Duffy cooking? Is Chef Duffy cooking?”

Curtis Duffy: Yeah. Exactly. Every night.

Kirk Bachmann: You can’t be everywhere, and you’re working on all kinds of different projects and traveling. When it comes to training and that vision that you’ve outlined not only for yourself but for your businesses, how involved are you in the very specifics of training? Maybe it’s someone who is just on-boarding. Are you the first line, or do Richie and Justin do their thing, Amy does her thing?

Curtis Duffy: It’s mostly Richie and Justin and Lucas. One of my big things is I love to hire within. I love to bring people up that have been with me for some time. I love to bring them up through the ranks when they’re ready. We’ve recently promoted a couple of our earlier cooks that have been here almost since Day One into management positions. A couple of sous chefs. We’ve implemented a morning crew. We have one of the sous chefs running the morning crew, which we didn’t have before and has been great for us, obviously, because we want to continue to grow. Having a morning crew helps us grow into the evening. We brought up a couple into management.

It starts with them. It starts mostly with Justin because Justin’s been with me the longest, and Justin knows what I want, how I want it, when, where, and how, and what I wouldn’t do. It’s easy to then translate that into a cook, into what we do every day. Because I’m here and so hands-on everyday, it becomes almost like a whole restaurant is training a single person. The moment the guy closes the door too hard, the whole kitchen looks at you. It’s not like, “Oh, Chef heard that. He’s going to get upset.” No. The whole kitchen looks at you when the door gets slammed too loud or a piece of china gets banged too loud or something falls on the ground.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s culture.

Curtis Duffy: That is culture, yeah. That’s why I say, I don’t have to be that guy that has to yell and scream at you because I’ve got a whole kitchen crew that’s ready to…”What are you doing? Don’t make so much noise.” Everybody’s quiet. That’s not how we work.

Be Strategic, Learn from the Best

Kirk Bachmann: Related to that, we certainly, as we see students come and go, some certainly have that ability. You can just see it right away. “I’m going to send you here or there.” Everybody learns differently, everybody reacts to the looks from the kitchen differently. If you had to give any advice to a young culinarian who ultimately wants to end up where you are or in your kitchen, at your stoves, is it best to just go for it right away and maybe not be the best cook in the greatest kitchen? Or maybe start at the different level where you get your sea legs, your understanding of how to move in the kitchen, how to respond to people, how to work hard?

Curtis Duffy: I say, Go for it.

Kirk Bachmann: Go for what you want.

Curtis Duffy: I wouldn’t waste the time in kitchens that – I wouldn’t say aren’t going to teach you much – but if you want to own a steakhouse, why wouldn’t you work at a steakhouse? If you’re vision is to be the best Italian restaurant in Chicago, why wouldn’t you go work at an Italian restaurant and learn how that operates.

Kirk Bachmann: Cut to the chase. Yeah.

Curtis Duffy: If you want to be at this level, why wouldn’t you work at a restaurant that’s at that level and study under the chef? There’s a reason why there’s a restaurant that’s great. Everything around it is for a purpose. They’re doing it at the highest level, and that’s where you want to be, then you should be working at the highest level, and not wasting time. I don’t think wasting time. I knew as a young cook that all I wanted to do was work in what were considered fine dining restaurants. I didn’t waste my time in. I didn’t go and work in a restaurant that did 400 covers a night, that was just a turn and burn, an Olive Garden or somewhere like that. I wanted something that was less busy, more refined, and took the time to source ingredients and really hone in.

I strategically put myself in those positions right from in college, where I did my externship. Then on to Charlie Trotter’s. Two years in Charlie Trotters, I thought I wanted to be working at the French Laundry. I thought that’s where my next step was going to be, and at the time, I didn’t see myself moving all the way west. I did a two-week sting and realized Grant Achatz was Thomas’s right hand guy and was moving to Chicago. I thought, “Well, if he’s here in Chicago and he was Thomas’s right-hand man, then maybe I’ll go there.” So that’s where I ultimately went and was the pastry chef at Trio for a while.

Strategic moves. Putting yourself in those positions to make that ladder up to where you ultimately want to be.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. It’s about making a plan and sticking to that plan.

Curtis Duffy: And not deviate from it. Just laser focused. Put your head down and work extremely hard and try to absorb everything you can from that restaurant. For me, Charlie Trotter’s was that restaurant where I wanted to learn everything. To be in that restaurant was like a God moment for me. I didn’t think any other restaurant in the world was greater than Charlie Trotter’s. I was probably naive at the time, sure, but that’s where I wanted to be. I wanted a restaurant like Charlie’s.

So I wanted to learn everything that was there. I wanted to learn how we receive the wine. How are we washing the sidewalk out front every single day? Why? Because that’s the first place that the guests step out of a cab onto your sidewalk. Even though the sidewalk is the city, it doesn’t matter. The alleyway was pristine. It was clean. The area around the restaurant was pristine because it’s a representation of that restaurant.

I take so many things from that restaurant and instill it today. We wash our dumpsters out every week because of Charlie Trotter. It’s not something we have to do. Do we have to do that? No, absolutely not. We have my staff pick up garbage around the neighborhood. It’s what we do.

Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely. The passion coming through in your voice with that is so important to the students that are listening. I’ve never heard it said quite like that before. The cab pulls up, the first step is onto the sidewalk that is leading into that restaurant. What a great vision! That’s perfect.

Curtis Duffy: It’s the same thing we do every single day here at the restaurant. We scrub the sidewalks outside. The windows are washed down. There’s a trash can out front that the city permanently puts in. It’s there. Ask me if they empty it regularly? Absolutely not. So we, as a restaurant, take on that responsibility. We empty it and we make sure there’s nothing around it. It’s clean. Even the street leading around my restaurant is blown dust-free. It’s what we do. That’s the first impression that someone will see when they step into my area, my neighborhood, right here. That’s so important for us. First impressions are everything.

Kirk Bachmann: First impressions are. You’re getting me pumped up, and I’m pretty good, but I’m going out to the sidewalks in front of your kitchen, by the way, that still has your name on it, and I’m going to make sure there’s absolutely no bird poop or anything out there.

Curtis Duffy: Yes. I love that.

Burgers Everyone Would Like

Kirk Bachmann: 100 percent. You mentioned the burger business that you had for a bit. I thought that was fascinating. Was that something specific that you wanted to do for the community during covid? That’s kind of the way I saw that.

Curtis Duffy: We were in a position where covid had hit, and was already there. As a restaurant, we were already late in the game. We had no intentions of doing the to-go moment as every restaurant around the world was doing. We were so far behind, because people had been doing this for a year now when we were finally kind of forced to do that. The restaurant closed. We said, “Okay, we’re going to have to do to-go to help bring in some funds and keep some of our key people employed.” We did that for a while and realized we were so late in the game that people were so over ordering to-go. It was successful, but had we been a year earlier, we would have been really successful. It just didn’t take off like we wanted it to.

So we decided to – it’s very simple. Google “number one food in America.” The first thing that pops up is hamburgers. Second one is pizza. I don’t even remember what the third one is. “All right, let’s figure something out. Let’s do some cheeseburgers or something.” We started developing our own cheeseburger and fry moment, something I would eat if I ate burgers on a weekly basis, which I don’t. If I was going to, what would I want?

Kirk Bachmann: Better be a good burger.

Curtis Duffy: We came up with that burger. People expected it to be this fancy burger and truffles and foie gras and all kinds of chef stuff on it. That’s not what I wanted. I wanted something that everyone would gravitate to and enjoy and could eat on a daily basis. We did that.

It was very successful. We did that in the kitchen of Ever. We did that for about three months, then we were finally able to find a location which was across the street from us that had a catering business that had closed. It had some of the structure that we needed. It had a hood system. It had the ability to put refrigerators in there, a big open space to do whatever we wanted to do. We spent some money on tables and refrigerators and some flat tops and fires, and off we went.

Kirk Bachmann: Off you went.

Curtis Duffy: Of we went. But we knew it was a temporary thing. The building we were going into was in a position where they were going to tear it down and build a new structure. July 1, we closed because they are in the building of tearing it down.

Kirk Bachmann: I just love the vision and the courage that restaurateurs like you, and the city of Chicago, had getting through that time. We saw a lot of it here in Colorado as well. Definitely a scary time.

Speaking of time, I don’t know how much you’re at liberty to share, but I love to follow you on social. Are the motorcycles still a big piece of Curtis Duffy’s life?

Curtis Duffy: Yeah. They are. The biggest part that they’re in my life? They sit in my garage.

Kirk Bachmann: Mine does, too, but at least it’s still there. It’s not in somebody else’s garage.

Curtis Duffy: That’s it. I have one in Chicago and one in Miami. The one in Miami, I swear: I don’t think I’ve been on it this year. I’ve been on it maybe a couple of times around the block, take it out and wash it. The one in Chicago, I’ve been fortunate enough to ride a couple times this year.

Normally, we ride down. We do an event in Greenville, South Carolina for the Euphoria. It’s such a great cause, and we’ve been doing it for so many years now we’ve partnered with the Michelin group. We go down there. It’s in September, and that’s really our green light saying, “This is our last ride of the year.” We usually ride down there with three, four, sometimes six guys. We spend a week down there. One, we do this event. We do the dinner. We do a cooking competition with the kids. Three or four days after that, we’re able to ride. South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, they all have these beautiful Smoky Mountains to ride through. Some epic riding, especially with a group of guys that you’re just having a blast.

This year, unfortunately, I’m not going to be able ride down there. I’m going to fly down and fly back.

Kirk Bachmann: You’re busy. I just love to hear it, because when you’re a rock star chef, music and motorcycles need to remain in your life.

Curtis Duffy: 100 percent.

Surprise!

Kirk Bachmann: I’ll keep reminding you. The next thing is – and I’m probably getting over my skis here – but where’s the book? I think it’s time for another documentary. Come on.

Curtis Duffy: Yeah, well.

Kirk Bachmann: So there is a book!

Curtis Duffy: There is a book. I have a great friend of mine. He’s a writer and has published multiple nonfiction books, been in a lot of magazines, and writes for a lot of publications. We sat down over the last couple of years. It’s probably been three years in the making. We’ve finalized the memoir, if you will, with the idea of going on and doing a series of cookbooks down the line. That’s just getting everything in place. Yeah, the book is working.

Kirk Bachmann: It’s real! I love that.

Curtis Duffy: It’s real. We don’t have a release date yet.

Kirk Bachmann: I want to be at the top of the list. I’m going to get it for the chefs and the students. That’s great. We’ll have a book signing here in Boulder.

Curtis Duffy: Oh, that would be amazing! That would be fun.

Kirk Bachmann: That would be an incredible event.

Curtis Duffy: That would be fun.

In terms of a documentary, we’ve been filming for three years now. We had the intention of doing a docu-series. We pitched a sizzle reel to all the streaming platforms we could imagine. A lot of them came back with huge interest in the purchase of a documentary as long as we filmed it in full-length instead of a docu-series. We came back, the team came back and said, “Let’s continue. Let’s just do a documentary, another one.” This will be a follow up to “For Grace.” What’s been happening in my life? What’s happening with the restaurant world? Our new projects are being filmed as well. A lot going on there. Hopefully, first quarter, second quarter next year, it will be released.

Kirk Bachmann: Wow! Congratulations. That’s great. I was just kind of teasing you, but BOOM, there you are. Book, documentary.

Curtis Duffy: We’ve been filming for, like I said, three years. We still, for the most part, are finished. There are some pieces that we want to get here and there to close the story. That’s just going to take time.

Chef Curtis Duffy’s Ultimate Dish

Kirk Bachmann: That’s great. That’s absolutely great. Congratulations there. I’m not going to let you slip away. Last time we got together, you probably had the best response I’ve ever had to this question, because it was about family. Before I let you out of here, I’ve got to ask you: What is the Ultimate Dish?

Curtis Duffy: I don’t remember what I said last time, but I know it had to do with the family. I think I have to stick with that. Four kids, my wife and I, together with the two dogs, and just enjoying. It doesn’t even have to be a sit down dinner. It can be just enjoying a Sunday afternoon, some LP records playing on the background. What we like to do on Sundays is randomly choose a record. Grab something with your eyes closed and you’re forced to play it, whatever it is, you have to at least play it front to back. We’re forced to do that.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that.

Curtis Duffy: That’s a lot of fun, because that can be anywhere from something really heavy to some classical to the Bee Gees. It can be all over the place. It’s fun. “Aw, I got stuck with this.”

Kirk Bachmann: No, I love that.

Curtis Duffy: That’s always involved with a glass of wine, a glass of champagne, hanging out at the house, just enjoying family time. Sundays, for me, phones are off and we’re just chilling as a family group and reconnecting as we should be. The whole week has gone by. It lets everybody catch up on what we do. We also do a little game called, The Peak in the Pit. We go around the room and talk about the peak of our week and the pit of our week. That always sparks a lot of different conversations. Maybe you forgot to tell us about something, and it came up. “The pit of my day was this girl in my class took my crayons.” Or whatever. “Wow! I wish I had that drama.”

Kirk Bachmann: I’m going to jump on that. We do something similar. I love that story. I need to ask, first, who does the cooking when you’re doing that. Is everybody just around the kitchen? That’s kind of how it is with us. The kids are good enough at the stove that they can crank out their own thing. It’s the same thing. We have Alexa in the background. We’re just moving around, everybody’s doing their own thing. Do they expect Daddy to cook at home?

Curtis Duffy: The kids are involved. They do, they expect it. My youngest one, Jolie, we call her Little Chef. She loves to get hands-on. She’s cutting things and peeling things. That’s always great, but I always make sure they’re washing the vegetables or whatever we’re cooking. They can see, they watch, if they want to get involved, that’s great. Sometimes it’s just better watching. it’s good.

Top Three Bands

Kirk Bachmann: Here’s a game we play. It’s based on John Cusack’s movie of many years ago called, “High Fidelity.” We go around, “Top five bands of all time. Go.” Change it up. You don’t know this is coming, but I’m going to put you on the stop. I’ll give you top three bands of all time, from Chef Curtis Duffy.

Curtis Duffy: That is so funny! My wife does this. Every time we meet somebody new, if we’re having dinner with somebody we’ve never met before, my wife is always asking the same questions. Not always the same questions, but that particular question always comes up. “What are your top three bands?”

Kirk Bachmann: That’s awesome!

Curtis Duffy: Favorite songs of all time.

Kirk Bachmann: It starts conversation.

Curtis Duffy: That’s so great. It does. I’m starting to work with this blacksmith who does chefs’ nights, and he’s an incredible craftsman. We’re ultimately going to launch a chef series, a very limited edition chef’s knives from me and him, obviously collaborating.

At the end of the day, we were all sitting around. It was three of us. That question came up. One of the questions was, “During your childhood, what music was playing around the house that something has stuck with you through the days?” My answer was CCR, Quiet Riot and KISS, because that was what my dad would play on the records. CCR, I love to this day because it’s so iconic. John Fogerty’s voice is so incredible. CCR, Quiet Riot, KISS. Iron Butterfly would be another one.

Another question was, “What would be a band that really stuck with you, your personal preference, that you liked immediately? One of those first bands.” For me, it was the Doors. I started listening to the Doors in seventh or eighth great. I guess classical rock and roll would be the Doors.

Three ultimate bands that I would say all-time favorites would be Danzig Misfits, The Doors, for sure.

Kirk Bachmann: Doors on the podium, I love it.

Curtis Duffy: Wow. The third one is always tough. Five bands would be: Marilyn Manson would be one. Nine Inch Nails. Queen.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s on my wife’s list. Queen’s on mine.

Curtis Duffy: So what about you?

Kirk Bachmann: U2, Stones, Queen. Just like that.

Curtis Duffy: U2, the Stones, Queen.

Kirk Bachmann: Boom. And I’ve seen. It’s easy. Quite honestly, Chef, I love country music. That’s what I listen to, Chris Stapleton-type stuff. A little bluesy, Tennessee, in the car and all that. But I’ve seen U2 five or six times, Stones twice, and Queen once, believe it or not, I’m that old. With Freddy.

Curtis Duffy: That would have been amazing to see.

Kirk Bachmann: With Freddy Mercury in Portland, Oregon. It was insane. Those three bands will never go away. I was probably – gosh, 20 years ago. I was at Red Rocks outside of Denver, beautiful place to see music. I happened to stumble upon U2 practicing for their concert. Nobody was watching anything. Those were the days when Bono would wear those white flowing shirts and the fan would blow his hair and all that. I got that concert, and then came back later that night to see the real thing. That was like 1982ish.

Curtis Duffy: Amazing. You know, I’m actually going to Red Rock for the first time in September.

Kirk Bachmann: Who are you going to see?

Curtis Duffy: We’re going to see Nine Inch Nails. We’re going to see two shows there, Friday and Saturday night. Ironically, because I spent my first 13 years living there. Never made it to Red Rock, even though as many times as I visited back there, I never made a concert there. I’m pretty excited to see it.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, it’s opening and jamming. We went and saw one concert during the pandemic. It was crazy with the masks and all that. It’s rocking and rolling, pun intended. Let me know when you’re in town. Have you met Bobby Stuckey? Do you know Bobby?

Curtis Duffy: I know Bobby, yeah. We’ve met before.

Kirk Bachmann: He’s got a place in Denver called Sunday Vinyl. When you were telling me that story, that’s what he does. His wife picks the LP for the night, she throws it on. It’s comfort food. It seems to be doing really, really well.

Curtis Duffy: What a great name of a restaurant. Sunday Vinyl.

Kirk Bachmann: Isn’t it? Sunday Vinyl.

Curtis Duffy: Phenomenal. I love that.

Kirk Bachmann: I’m going to send you that link. It would be cool for you to stop in. Hey Buddy, thank you so much.

Curtis Duffy: Yeah. Thank you. It has been a great conversation.

Kirk Bachmann: If you do have more time, we need you here at the school. Not going to do anything other than walk you around and introduce you to people and maybe have a glass of wine. We’d love to see you. We’ll be in to Chicago soon. I’ve got to bring the wife to Ever because I missed it last year.

Thank you so much for taking the time. Congrats on all of the success. Hello to Richie. Farmer Lee says hello and he loves you, as do I. I chatted with him this morning. I said, “I’ve got to go, Farmer, I’ve got Curtis.” He says, “Tell him I love him!”

Curtis Duffy: He’s such a great man. He’s so great. I miss seeing him. I saw him recently at the James Beard Awards, but it’s never enough time. You get pulled too many different ways. He’s such an incredible human.

Kirk Bachmann: He keeps working.

Curtis Duffy: yeah, he does. Thank you so much for everything. it’s been a pleasure chatting with you as always. Give my best to everybody at the school. We’ll talk to you soon.

Kirk Bachmann: Thank you, Chef. Take care.

And 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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