Interview with Chef Curtis Duffy of Avenues, Chicago, IL

June 2009

When Curtis Duffy was working as a dishwasher at a young age, he became fascinated with the way potato skins just slipped off when the potato was boiled. That early experience informed Chef Duffy’s culinary style, and to this day he tries to maintain the purity of ingredients in his cooking. At Avenues in Chicago, Chef Duffy’s cuisine is exciting and playful, and invites the interaction of the diner. He pairs contrasting textures and flavors in a way that makes each bite fun and different than the one before. Chef Duffy has worked hard to get where he is today, and he recommends that young chefs do the same; the fancy title and the money, he says, will come with time.

Antoinette Bruno: How did you begin cooking?
Curtis Duffy: I started in a kitchen when I was 13 or 14 as a dishwasher for $15 a day after school. I was peeling potatoes and carrots. One of the things that hit home with me, and I can’t understand why, was the fact that the chef was boiling potatoes with the skin on and as they cooled the skin would just fall off. You could pick up a potato and [the skin] would just fall off. You would see this beautiful, smooth potato that was untouched by a knife or a peeler and you could actually see the potato and what it looked like under its skin. Something about that was amazing to me. I wanted to see how many I could do. I wanted to keep them as pure as I could without any blemishes. Sometimes you had to use a knife to peel the pieces that were stuck together. For me it was about keeping them very smooth and natural.

As I grew up and matured and took on other jobs it always seemed to be in the kitchen somehow either washing dishes or prepping food, and I just decided that’s what I wanted to do.

AB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs?
CD: I went to Ohio State. I think any school is important, but I wouldn’t necessarily say culinary school is important; I can’t say I loved it. It was a lot different than CIA or Johnson and Wales. For me it was an apprenticeship program. So you went to school one day a week and it was a 14- to 15-hour day. The rest of the time the idea was to learn on the job, learn where you were working, and get paid for it; understand the business and the hours you were going to do.

It was beneficial for me because if I would have had to go to school for two and a half or three years as a culinary school student, I don’t think I would have graduated. Just the monotony of being in a school and a school setting is not for me; it seems redundant. Some of the best chefs out there never went to culinary school. It’s all about mentorship through great restaurants or great chefs they’ve worked under; some are self-trained or self-taught.

AB: What sets good chefs apart from great chefs?
CD: I think an understanding of the business. It’s not about just the food, it’s about understanding the business side, understanding the customers’ needs, understanding the actual dining room and how it flows; the way the wine service is paired with the food; the way the wine service is choreographed throughout the night. All those things come into play and I think understanding those as a chef is key. Understanding your staff, getting in your staff’s brain, how to motivate your staff. I think those are the things that make a successful chef.

AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
CD: Ingredients. The number one philosophy for me is keeping it as pure as possible and not changing the food to where you don’t understand what it is or the guest doesn’t understand. I want them to understand where food comes from. A lot of people think they just get carrots from a supermarket shelf, but that’s not really where they comes from—they come from the ground and they comes from a farm and someone grows them for you. For us the philosophy of food is keeping it pure and exciting. We want it to be exciting and engaging for the diner as well, but first and foremost it has to be about quality of ingredients and respecting where they come from.

AB: What are your favorite things to eat?
CD: My favorite things to eat would probably be seafood, Thai cuisine, Japanese cuisine, and pizza. Who doesn’t love pizza? I love and respect the cleanliness and purity of flavors of Japanese cuisine and you can see that in the subtleties of my food. I don’t call my food Japanese, but we use Japanese and Thai ingredients. I mean, look at the wagyu beef cheeks with Vietnamese flavors and sesame and sudachi; it’s apparent.

AB: What are some of your favorite ingredients that you can’t live without?
CD: I’d have to say a fatty piece of fish, kaffir lime, salt, and water.

AB: When you fix yourself something to eat, what do you make?
CD: I eat a lot of fish at work. I cook a lot of fish—any of the pieces that I won’t serve to the guest I’ll eat, either raw or cooked. I tend to eat very clean; I eat a lot of greens with minimal dairy, minimal fat, and lots of seafood. But then I love pizza. I won’t bake a pizza at home, but I’ll order it out for sure.

AB: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made or the worst experience you’ve had in the restaurant business?
CD: I’ve been in the restaurant business for a long time…. There’s a guy I would never work for again—an incredible, famous chef whose name I won’t mention. It’s like one of those classic fairy tale stories you hear about a French or German chef screaming and yelling, throwing stuff, pushing hitting you—that was this guy’s restaurant and mentality. I worked there for three months a year for three years. When I was in Columbus I worked at a private golf club that was closed three months out of the year. I had the opportunity to travel or go somewhere else and work. But I would relentlessly go back there and work because I knew as much as I hated it I was learning a tremendous amount about food and cooking.

AB: Is there anything that you would do over again if you had the chance?
CD: I’ve thought about this a lot; I don’t know if I would redo things, but I would rethink them. I love the position I’ve put myself in now because I worked extremely hard to get where I am now and I wouldn’t change that for a thing. What I would change would be putting myself in a position where I’m a little more mainstream in terms of food and thought. When you get into fine dining—the small window of fine dining—the path becomes very narrow. I put myself in that position because I’ve always wanted to be in that realm; I’ve always wanted to be thought of as a great chef, a four- or five-star chef. I’m thankful for that, but at the same time the window of opportunity is very small unless you are a chef who would be willing to cook at any level.

For me I’ve always wanted to cook at the best restaurants. I’ve always wanted to cook at the highest level possible and to take a step backwards is going to be very challenging. I think in the future fine dining isn’t going to go away, but it’s going to be very, very far in between. And you can see that now where you couldn’t see that five years ago, and it’s going to continue to move that way. So if I would change anything, I think 15 years ago I probably wouldn’t go in that direction, I would have gone more mainstream.

AB: But do you think maybe it’s easier now that you have the fine dining experience to do something that’s more mainstream at a higher level?
CD: Of course it is. I think if you apply the same principles at a four-star level as you do at any restaurant level then it’s going to be the best one in the category, guaranteed. So if I apply myself to a three-star restaurant with the four-star attitude I have and the know-how, its going to be the best 3-star restaurant in the city. It’s all about ego, though. It’s a little easier now that I’ve attained the 4-stars, but it’s about taking that swelling of pride and being able to do that. Chefs are egotistical. If you’re able to swallow your ego and do it at that level, then great.

AB: Talk to me about the biggest challenge facing your restaurant now.
CD: I think the biggest challenge is getting people in the door. We’re in a hotel, which is the biggest challenge for us. People don’t know where we are because there are no signs; we’re not advertising where we are. That’s our biggest challenge—getting people five floors up, all the way across the lobby of the hotel. It’s hidden, there are no signs, and we’re in this little box—you don’t even know the doors are there sometimes. People actually think this is the bar; we have to turn a dozen people away a night and direct them to the other side of the hotel because they think this is the bar. There are no signs out the window. We have amazing views of the city, and everybody looks up, but nobody knows what’s up here.

AB: What advice do you have for young chefs getting started?
CD: My biggest advice that I tell all my cooks is don’t chase the title, and don’t chase the money—just learn to cook. Be willing to sacrifice 10 years of your life in the business. Sacrifice hours and time into great restaurants if that’s what you want to do. Kids get out of school and think they can be a sous chef—they want that title—but what they fail at is they don’t even know how to cook. There are so many sous chefs in the city and they can’t even break down a chicken or fillet a piece of fish and have finesse about it.

If you want to learn how to cook, then dedicate yourself to the business before you chase that title. The title will come and the money will come. It’s about dedicating yourself to the business, understanding it, and understanding the food. Once you get into those management positions it adds a whole new level and takes you out of the kitchen. They all want the title; they all want to be a sous chef. I don’t have a sous chef for that reason. I want them to cook; I want them to leave here in a year and a half and have my name attached to them and have them be extremely good at what they do.