The kitchen staff remained laser-focused throughout the seven-course meal.
Over the summer a friend sat me down and had me watch the documentary For Grace
. She had just visited Grace
, the three-Michelin-star restaurant in the West Loop that's featured in the film, to shoot a video with owner and head chef Curtis Duffy for Escoffier Culinary School's online program and was in awe of the food, the restaurant, and the man behind it all. As someone who's more likely to be found eating pizza at a dive bar than sitting for a multicourse meal at the most expensive restaurant in Chicago, watching the movie was the closest I ever thought I'd get to this experience. But when Duffy was chosen as an inductee into the Disciples d'Escoffier, I joined in on the celebration and got a look at Grace firsthand.
The Disciples d'Escoffier is an elite group of culinary professionals from across the world who honor the spirit of French chef Auguste Escoffier. Past recipients of the title could be spotted at the November 21 induction ceremony and dinner wearing a red, blue, and green sash with a golden ladle on the end. New inductees included Duffy, Koval founders Robert Birnecker and Sonat Birnecker Hart, and Ruth Snider, a culinary educator who also just happened to give Duffy his start in her high school home economics class (she also features prominently in For Grace
). Each new disciple was welcomed with a ceremony befitting a knight—but instead of a sword touching each shoulder, it was a large wooden spoon. Escoffier's great-grandson, Michel Escoffier, playfully bestowed the honors, giving a whack on the arm to the male inductees.
Curtis Duffy getting spooned by Michel Escoffier as Ruth Snider and Sonat Birnecker Hart look on.
Duffy's inclusion is a no-brainer: he's a James Beard award-winning chef
at one of the most lauded restaurants in the country. But Birnecker and Birnecker Hart are the first U.S. distillers to be inducted. Part of what made them stand out, according to Escoffier School president Jeremy Wheaton, was their dedication to educating and supporting future distillers: the pair has assisted more than 3,500 students in learning the craft and helped some 140 of them set up their own distilleries. And Duffy's mentor Snider, while not a fine-dining chef, similarly proved herself with a dedication to educating the Michelin-star worthy chefs of the future.
Before the fanfare, attendees went on a tour through the kitchen that felt otherworldly. The space is brightly lit, impeccably organized, and silent as each chef kept his or her head down to focus on perfecting every detail of their dishes. Complete silence is common in this kitchen; when chefs want a chance to blast music or chat about service they can head to a downstairs hangout, complete with kegs of PBR, a wine cellar, video games, and a washer and dryer. It's their home away from home to make up for the long hours required of the staff.
On this particular night, the prep stations were decorated with logs, moss, branches, and other flora. We were served bites like white truffles on a tapioca cloud and a piece of lobster with a ball of butter that burst open in my mouth. Chefs would step away from their culinary prep duties every once in a while to add a magical-looking fog to the scene ("It's just hot water on dry ice, pretty easy," one chef admitted). Paired with the appetizers was a cocktail featuring Koval rye whiskey, Koval walnut liqueur, and apple cider to honor the work of Birnecker and Birnecker Hart.
After watching For Grace
, just walking into the dining room felt like a peek behind the scenes. I sat in one of the much-discussed chairs featured in the documentary (the film reveals they're $1,000 a pop). I saw the militant front-of-house staff in action, swooping in to push in chairs and properly fold the napkins of those who have left their seats. And I got to enjoy a seven-course meal created by Curtis Duffy. The stand-outs on the menu were an Alaskan king crab served with the Japanese citrus fruit sudachi and lemon mint in cucumber water, and a melt-in-your-mouth portion of Miyazaki beef paired with carbonated grapes and a creme caramel. Both dishes are on the restaurant's current menu and the documentary is currently streaming on Netflix for those who wish to indulge in their own dinner and a movie, Grace-style.