Food & Wine: Curtis Duffy
Photo © Michael Muser

Curtis Duffy

F&W Star Chef

RESTAURANTS: Grace Restaurant (Chicago)

EXPERIENCE: Charlie Trotter’s, Trio, Alinea, Avenues (Chicago)

EDUCATION: Ohio State University Culinary Arts program

Who taught you how to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from him or her?
John P. Souza was one of the first chefs that I worked for who was a real teaching chef. He taught fundamentals at the highest level. As a young cook, getting the basics of cooking and understanding how things react is important, and that’s the ability he gave me.

What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
A cooking style is separate from a particular dish. My style is very light and refined and heavily influenced by East Asia, though it’s not Asian food. It’s minimal in the sense of flavors and textures. We call it “thoughtful progressive.” Thoughtful because of the amount of research and time and energy in every single dish; the progressiveness includes using new techniques that weren’t available even five or ten years ago. We’re not a spontaneous restaurant. It’s a lot of research and development for each dish and some of them never make it onto the menu.

What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself? And what is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
The first dish I cooked as child was grilled cheese. That was the first meal I made myself.

For a neophyte, I recommend making Tom Kai Gai soup, because it has sweet, salty, sour and bitter. It has all the balance of flavors you want in a dish. It’s a classic Thai soup and is pretty straightforward. The chicken is marinated and boiled, and you add coconut, lots of lime, fish sauce and galanga.

Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him?
From Charlie Trotter and his chef de cuisine Matthias Merges, I learned to search out the best ingredients and to use them in the season, and to develop relationships with the farmers and the fishmongers and the foragers. That’s still the most important thing to me, more so even than technique itself.

From Grant, whom I spent six years with, I learned to look at something and never say no to it. For Grant, everything has potential, whether it’s now or six years from now. He taught me to always see possibility.

Favorite cookbook of all time.
I have about 4,000 in my collection, but one that I always go back to is Michel Bras, Essential Cuisine, for the beauty of the book and the way it’s presented. I’m a little biased because eating at his restaurant was the best meal I’ve ever had in my life.

What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
The ability to taste and self-awareness.

Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I love the way the Japanese butcher and clean fish. I’m pretty good at it but when you watch them, you feel you have no skills. The ability to refine butchering fish, and breaking down fish the way the Japanese do. Something about that always makes me smile.

What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how would you use it?
Salt. It’s cheap and it makes things taste great. You use it in balance, with respect and caution.

What is your current food obsession?
Green strawberries. They’re under-ripe and the texture is really firm. They’re almost hard like an apple and really, really tart. A green strawberry lends itself to many applications. When you add heat to ripe strawberries, they turn to mush. With the green, they don’t. We pickle them and put them in green strawberry jam we serve with squab. They’re farmed, local strawberries from Michigan. The purveyors kept saying, “but they’re green!” but they’re used to my requests now and we have such long relationships that they’ll do things for me.

Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why?
Quay and Attic in Australia. I like restaurants that support local people and grow things themselves or use things that are locally grown, and I know both of these restaurants are committed to that.

I’m dying to go back to Alinea in Chicago. I haven’t been in many years. I want to go back and see what they’re doing and how they’ve evolved since I left.

Best bang-for-the-buck food trip— where would you go and why?
Vietnam. The food is really, really cheap for the price of the dollar. I haven’t been there yet, although it heavily influences my cuisine.

What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
Menus from traveling, particularly the ones I have from Michel Bras, Pierre Gagnaire and El Bulli.

What do you consider your other talent(s) besides cooking?
I can ride a unicycle. My uncle was into it and taught me. It was really hard to get the balance of it. It took a week of practicing every single day.

If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
It’s difficult, because long before the whole hamburger craze, I envisioned opening a hamburger place as my second restaurant. It would be only hamburgers and toppings, but I can’t do that now because it’s been overdone. My internal struggle is what to do with number two. It’s a constant thing on my mind: Do we go low-end and do a sandwich job? A bakery? A chocolate shop?

If you were going to take Thomas Keller out to eat, where would it be?
I’d take Thomas Keller to Michel Bras. I’d order one of everything on the menu, or with the vegetable tasting menu.

If you were facing an emergency and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, and what would you make?
I’d bring some type of fish, salt, kefir lime, standard lime, soy sauce and basil.

What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
New techniques with vegetables, whether it’s roasting them in their original soil or taking the juice of vegetables and fermenting it and incorporating it back into a dish.

What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
I don’t think I have anything in the fridge at home. For snacks, I love sweet stuff, so Whoppers and Twizzlers are my favorite candies. If I had a cheesecake in my fridge, that’s what I’d eat standing up. The cake would have graham cracker crust and be just plain cheesecake. I don’t like strawberries on top or other stuff that people put on them.

Do you have any food superstitions or pre- or post- shift rituals?
I don’t, but I wish I did.

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