Q & A with Curtis Duffy of JBF Award–Nominated GraceElena North-Kelly
April 29, 2013
After coming up the ranks in some of Chicago's most prestigious kitchens, Curtis Duffy opened his own restaurant, Grace, to rave reviews. A 2013 nominee for Best New Restaurant, Grace attracts diners from all over the country who are seeking a taste of Duffy's thoughtful, sophisticated cuisine. In our interview below, he fills us in on his progressive approach to cooking, the dish that took years to come to fruition, and the unconventional tasting menu devoted almost entirely to flora.
JBF: Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration and philosophy behind Grace?
Curtis Duffy: My inspiration for Grace was to be minimal, modern, and warm. The cuisine is light and rooted in the ingredients first, and the technique second.
JBF: We’ve heard you talk a lot about “progressive” cooking—can you describe what that means to you?
CD: “Progressive” cooking refers to sourcing ingredients at the height of their season and utilizing modern techniques to showcase those ingredients. It means that we never allow ourselves to become comfortable; we’re always looking for new ways to push our cuisine forward and not rely on what we’ve done in the past.
JBF: You offer two different tasting menus at Grace: one for flora and one for fauna. Can you tell us about the decision to offer a vegetable-centric menu at a refined, fine-dining restaurant?
CD: I have always enjoyed eating and cooking with vegetables. For me, vegetables can be far more interesting than anything else. The diversity of vegetables allows for more creativity from season to season. Seasonality plays a big role in vegetables and our cuisine, and it forces us to change things frequently and keep moving forward.
JBF: What’s your favorite item on the menu at Grace, and why?
CD: The nairagi dish because of the technique behind it. We create a frozen sleeve made from ginger water to encase the raw nairagi with elements of coconut, basil, and pomelo. This dish is special to me because it’s taken years to come to fruition. I worked closely with artisan mold maker to get the sleeve just right.
JBF: What are a few of your favorite cookbooks, and why?
CD: I love Michel Bras’s Essential Cuisine and Peter Gilmore’s Quay: Food Inspired by Nature because of their simplicity and pureness of ingredients, as well as Fernand Point’s Ma Gastronomie, because of the valuable lessons that are taught in the book.
JBF: What’s your earliest food memory?
CD: I remember my mom making her pizza burgers. She cooked beef in a skillet and poured in tomato sauce and cheese, then we spooned it onto buns.