Q&A: Columbus native and 3-Michelin starred chef Curtis Duffy

Beth Stallings, Columbus Crave

Renowned chef Curtis Duffy returns to his native Central Ohio tonight for two special screenings of the documentary "For Grace." The film follows Duffy as he conceptualizes and opens Grace, a Chicago restaurant that this year earned the chef a coveted three stars from the Michelin Guide. Woven throughout the documentary is Duffy's personal story-how his turbulent childhood, coupled with caring mentors, helped him find refuge in the kitchen.

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

Duffy will appear at both screenings at Easton AMC on Monday, Dec. 14 and Tuesday, Dec. 15. Filmmaker Kevin Pang, who also profiled Duffy in a Chicago Tribune profile, will be there as well. So will Ruth Snider, Duffy's home economics teacher and mentor. Tickets for tonight's screening of "For Grace" are sold out, but are still available for the Tuesday screening.

We caught up with Duffy who lends insight into why he shared his personal story, his demeanor in such a high-stress kitchen and why chefs should go to business school.

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 building 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 watching 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 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 Culinary. In this day and age, with so much emphasis is placed on first-tier culinary schools, what advice do you have for chefs coming out of less glamorized institutions?

I have a biased opinion about culinary school, 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 that business background.

Operating at a three Michelin stars 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. You can legally punch someone and get away with it. (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.

(After a pause) 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 is 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 to 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 (the teacher-mentor credited in the documentary and Chicago Tribune story) did for me as well. Not just going through the motions as a teacher. That's John Saunders for me. I am forever thankful for that. I would love to get back there and have a few bottles of wine with John.