Q&A with Chef Curtis Duffy

For the chef-owner at Grace in Chicago, there's less distance between Michelin stars and Muay Thai than you'd think.

Curtis Duffy is a man of discipline. As the chef-owner of Grace in Chicago, he spends 14 hours a day delivering the hyper-seasonal and visually stunning creations for which his three Michelin-starred restaurant is known. During the week, he starts each day with two hours of Muay Thai practice at the gym. Then on Saturdays, he commutes an hour pre-dawn to an elite martial arts school. “For me, it’s like anything I do in my life—if I’m committed to it, I’m going to commit to it 100 percent and do the best I possibly can,” Duffy says. “If that means going to bed at three a.m. on Friday and getting up at six a.m. on Saturday, that’s what I’m going to do; it’s a mindset.”

That mindset has landed Duffy and his restaurant with a series of coveted accolades: Grace is just one of two restaurants in Chicago to have three Michelin stars and received a five-star rating from Forbes Travel Guide, while Duffy was named Eater National's Chef of the Year. And on February 2 comes the release of For Grace, a documentary chronicling Duffy’s tough childhood and how he found his culinary prowess. Here, the chef shares his constant goal, why he needs fitness and the vice he can’t kick.

Why is fitness a priority for you?

It’s all about bettering myself. As a chef, or anyone in the hospitality field, we’re hospitable by nature. We’re always giving. It’s never about us — it’s about our guests, our employers, our employees, and everybody else. It’s important to be able to take that time and focus on myself, because it’s the only time I get. The moment that I leave the gym, it isn’t about me anymore. 

How does competition factor into your life?

In martial arts, you’re always competing with yourself. My goal is to better myself, my health, and my body. I’m not going there to fight someone. It’s the same thing with the restaurant. I don’t compete with other restaurants — I compete within my box of 652 West Randolph Street. I always ask myself, “How do we challenge ourselves to be better than we were yesterday and what are the small things we’re doing to refine ourselves?” 

What’s your go-to workout music?

I’m heavily heavy metal — that’s the music that gets me going when I lift weights and run outside.

So we know that you help others to eat really well, but what do you eat?

I’ve always been a big advocate of cooking the way you eat. My food is very clean—I always tell our guests that the most fat they’re going to see throughout the meal at Grace is the butter that they put on the bread. We cook very healthy because I like to eat that way. Now, I don’t eat like Grace everyday, but I’m very conscious of what I buy and where I buy it. It’s a lot of chicken, fish, grain salads, and vegetables. I have my junk food, as well. Everybody has a vice.

What’s yours?

Twizzlers are my go-to. I don’t eat junk food everyday, but I allow myself certain amounts. If not, I’d go crazy.

Have you noticed any similarities between the relationship you have with fitness and the one you have with cooking?

It’s about discipline. Martial arts is all about the fundamentals—the very basics of things. Cooking is the same way. You rely so heavily on the foundations of your cooking. If the foundations of your cooking are strong, that’s when you can build upon that base to really refine what you want to do in the world of cuisine. I apply that to martial arts, as well. If you’re going to stand there and kick 1,000 times, at some point you’re refining that kick and building that foundation to go on and do something great. Today you’re going to be better at it than you were yesterday. And that’s the whole goal – to be better every single day at whatever it is you do.

Recipe: Fruits, Nuts and Herb Grain Salad

This post-gym staple is one of Duffy’s favorites for its seasonal possibilities.

In a large bowl, combine 4 cups cooked barley with ½ cup each chopped dried fruit (such as cherries, raisins and cranberries), chopped fresh fruit (such as apples, oranges, pears and blueberries), roasted coarsely chopped nuts (optional), roasted seeds (optional), chopped herbs (such as chives, basil, mint, dill and parsley), freshly squeezed citrus juice (lemon, lime or orange); ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil and 1 Tbsp salt. Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours. 

Fruits, Nuts and Herb Grain Salad

This post-gym staple is one of Duffy’s favorites for its seasonal possibilities.

In a large bowl, combine 4 cups cooked barley with ½ cup each chopped dried fruit (such as cherries, raisins and cranberries), chopped fresh fruit (such as apples, oranges, pears and blueberries), roasted coarsely chopped nuts (optional), roasted seeds (optional), chopped herbs (such as chives, basil, mint, dill and parsley), freshly squeezed citrus juice (lemon, lime or orange); ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil and 1 Tbsp salt. Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours.