The Central Ohio native overcame tragedy to become one of Chicago's most acclaimed chefs. A new documentary tells the story.

The Central Ohio native overcame tragedy to become one of Chicago's most acclaimed chefs. A new documentary tells the story.

The theater at the AMCEaston was packed. "It'd be a bad night to eat out in Columbus," a moviegoer sitting next to me quipped, gesturing around the room at some of the city's best executive chefs filling the seats: Bill Glover from Gallerie Bar & Bistro, Seth Lassak of Wolf's Ridge Brewing, Josh Dalton of Veritas and Richard Blondin of The Refectory, to name a few.

That notable collection of Columbus culinary talent was in attendance to support, and be inspired by, a hometown boy who overcame a tragic childhood to become one of the country's most lauded chefs. This cold night in mid-December was the first screening of a documentary about chef Curtis Duffy and what it took to open Grace, his two-time, three-Michelin-starred Chicago restaurant.

Bringing the documentary home to Central Ohio was critical to him. "From my perspective it was the most important (consideration)," Duffy says. "Coming back to where I grew up is full circle for me."

The film, "For Grace," (forgracefilm.com) is now available on Amazon Prime, Google Play and iTunes. The documentary was created in partnership with theChicago Tribuneand the newspaper's former writer, Kevin Pang, who crafted a complementary longform feature about Duffy's rise in the culinary world. The film follows Duffy from his closing nights as chef at Avenue in Chicago through the triumphs and pains of building a restaurant from scratch, offering a rare front-row seat to Duffy's rise to acclaim.

But the film is more than just white tablecloths and artfully plated dishes. Duffy's coming-of-age story is intertwined, showing the sacrifice and dedication it takes to run a restaurant of this caliber (including honest moments when chefs such as Grant Achatz, one of Duffy's former employers and owner of Alinea, compare running a Michelin-starred restaurant to a marriage), while also giving credit to the caring influences in Ohio who helped him find refuge in the kitchen.

A Johnstown native, Duffy fell in love with cooking in his middle school home economics class. His teacher, Ruth Snider, would become his mentor and help see him through the tragic 1994 murder-suicide deaths of his parents that occurred when Duffy was 19.

Snider and Duffy remain close to this day, evidenced by her appearance in the film and by the star treatment Duffy gave her during his documentary's Columbus debut, calling her to the front to partake in a Q&A session after the screening.

We caught up with Duffy to lend insight into the film.

Why did you decide to share your story in such a personal way?

Well, when we started this documentary process, Kevin approached me and asked if he could be part of documenting (the launch of) this restaurant. I knew what it was going to take to build a restaurant, and I know how crazy it becomes. [I knew it'd be] a big blur. I thought, "If we have somebody documenting us, we'd have something to fall back on." That's why I said yes to the whole thing.

Fast forward eight months, it became very mundane. We're going to go down to the restaurant and watch guys hang drywall, again. Then Kevin began asking me questions: Where are you from, and why did you want to become a chef?

It was never meant to be what it is today. It was never meant to be a 90-minute documentary. It was supposed to be a documentation of the process of building this restaurant. You know, hopefully we'd have 20 minutes of edited stuff we can use on our website. I think we're all surprised at where it is today and what it's going to do in the future.

A friend of mine who staged in your kitchen speaks very highly of you. She was taken with your demeanor in the kitchen-quiet, calm and very mentoring. That's not something you often hear about kitchens operating at such a high level. Where did your nurturing approach come from?

I don't know. Maybe it's because I have two younger daughters. It comes out naturally. I wasn't like this earlier in my career, I'm guessing. It's definitely one of those things you grow into. It's our responsibility as chefs to mentor our employees, in the front of the house and back of the house, so they can one day leave the restaurant and do great things.

What I love so much about your story is that you came from Columbus State's culinary program. In this day and age, with so much emphasis placed on first-tier culinary schools, what advice do you have for chefs coming out of second- and third-tier culinary institutions?

I have a biased opinion, and it's not in favor of culinary school. There are a lot of great ones. But working 70, 80, 90 hours is going to give you more day-to-day knowledge than trying to figure it out in a classroom. The day-to-day experience is what gives you the upper hand. The reason I chose to go to Columbus State is because I was only in school one day a week, and the rest of the time I was on the job working. I didn't want to sit in a classroom. That wasn't my thing.

What I always tell chefs who want to go into this crazy business: Go get a business degree. That's going to be worth 10 times more than a culinary degree. I promise, if you want to own your own business and run it, you have to havethat business background.

Operating a three-Michelin-star level takes a lot. Is there such thing as work-life balance for you? And how do you try to get there?

I don't know if there is a balance. Being able to take it day for day is my balance. Martial arts is very important to me. I study it every day. That's how I deal with the stress. I punch people legally (laughs). So that's my outlet. I force myself to do that at least five or six times a week.

I also have two fairly young daughters, 10 and 7. But it is very important that I spend as much time with them as I can. I cook for them and they stay with me on Sundays and Mondays. They are very picky eaters. But I've found if they are making it and messing with it and peeling it, they are more likely to eat it. I always encourage them to help me in the kitchen.

(He pauses.) Very little sleep is the answer.

Since you're coming back into town, are there any Columbus restaurants that will be must-visits for you?

No, but I've been wanting to get back to the Refectory. I know the chef and one of my old high school teachers is still waiting tables there. John Saunders used to be my history teacher for 11th and 12th grade. John played a huge part in my upbringing and education. John knew how much I hated school. I was so passionate about what I wanted to do, and what I wanted to do was cook. He used to send me to the library every day. He would give me homework based on something he wanted me to learn. How do you make this sauce? What's the history of this ingredient?

That's what I did for two years with John. That's what Ruth Snider did for me as well. I am forever thankful for that. I would love to get back there and have a few bottles of wine with John.

About the Chef

Raised in the Central Ohio small town of Johnstown, Curtis Duffy discovered his passion for cooking at a young age, inspired and encouraged by his middle school home economics teacher. His first restaurant job as a dishwasher at New Albany County Club belied the career to follow.

After graduating as "Outstanding Senior" from the culinary arts program at Licking County's Joint Vocational School in 1994, Duffy attended Columbus State and worked at The Country Club at Muirfield and Tartan Fields Golf Club in Dublin before moving to Chicago in 2000. There, he pursued a career in fine dining, earning a spot on the line at some of the country's best restaurants. He learned in the kitchens of lauded chefs such as Charlie Trotter (at Charlie Trotter's) and Grant Achatz (Alinea). Duffy then became the executive chef at Avenues, where he earned two Michelin stars.

Duffy left Avenues in mid 2011-where the documentary "For Grace" picks up-to start work on his own restaurant, Grace. He opened the acclaimed fine dining restaurant in December 2012, with a focuson eight- to 12-course tasting menus that highlight the beauty of the ingredients used. Grace earned three Michelin stars in 2015, and then renewed the accolade for 2016. Three stars is the highest recognition a restaurant can earn from the esteemedMichelin Guide. Fewer than 15 restaurants in the country have earned the honor. TheChicago Tribune also named Duffy "Chef of the Year" in 2014.