It was a West Loop success story made famous far beyond Chicago by the highest praise from the world’s toughest restaurant critics and a documentary film.
The sudden closure of Grace this past week ended what looked like a dream run for chef Curtis Duffy and general manager Michael Muser.
Behind the scenes, though, the fall of Grace — one of just two restaurants in the city that could boast three coveted stars in the Michelin Guide — was more like an episode of Gordon Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares” TV show.
Internal restaurant documents obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show Grace owner Michael Olszewski leveled a long list of allegations at Muser and had clashed with him for more than a year before firing him last month. Star chef Curtis Duffy quit Dec. 18.
The owner also had a falling out with Muser and Duffy after the Chicago Health Department inspected and fined Grace last spring in response to food-poisoning complaints, according to the restaurant records, city documents and a statement from Olszweski on Friday.
Duffy and Muser initially said they had quit Grace.
“While incredibly difficult to step away, it became evident that our evolving goals and aspirations were no longer aligned with the restaurant and its future, making this change necessary,” Duffy and Muser said in a joint statement after news of the restaurant’s demise broke.
But there was much more to it than that, judging from the records obtained by the Sun-Times.
The restaurant owner issued Muser a two-page “immediate termination” letter on Nov. 30. The letter from Grace MMC LLC listed 20 alleged shortcomings, saying Muser exhibited “continual failure to perform duties as sommelier and general manager for the past year.”
Olszewski accused Muser of “chronic absenteeism from work without cause or prior employer approval over the past year.” In one of the cases detailed in the termination letter, Muser allegedly made “an emergency visit to see his seriously ill father in California while in Hawaii on vacation.”
Olszewski also apparently got into it with Muser over Grace’s valet contract and said Muser didn’t follow orders “to immediately cease falsely identifying himself to the public” as a partner in the restaurant.
And what reality-TV restaurant nightmare would be complete without a surprise visit to see what lurks out of sight in the kitchen?
Public records show health inspectors made a surprise visit in the spring to Grace — which operated for five years at 652 W. Randolph Street — after someone who ate there told the city that he or she and a sibling became “very ill” within 24 hours of enjoying the restaurant’s “Fauna menu.” (The city records don’t say whether the complainant was a man or woman).
For $235 a person, that bill of fare included guinea hen, Alaskan king crab and bay scallops.
The anonymous complainant told health officials of suffering from “severe headaches, dizziness, stomach pain, severe nausea, fever/chills, weakness, etc.” The diner’s brother had the same reaction.
“The only meal we ate together during that time period was at Grace,” the complainant alleged, according to the city’s inspection report.
The health department found five violations on June 2, records show, including a “critical” infraction for piling utensils in a sink where Grace employees were supposed to be washing only their hands.
In his termination letter to Muser and a statement to the Sun-Times, Olszewski said Muser and Duffy didn’t tell him about the inspection, which resulted in a $1,300 fine, according to the owner.
“After getting word of reports of food poisoning and subsequent health code violations, I can’t pretend I wasn’t disappointed about it, which I communicated to Curtis and Michael,” Olszewski told the Sun-Times.
“It was a difficult conversation, and Curtis decided to move on. But he came back to me a few months later wanting to reconcile our personal relationship. I decided to put that chapter behind us and re-hired him in September.”
The dispute between Muser and the owner apparently had festered for an even longer time, with Olszewski sending a warning letter to his G.M. last year. The termination letter said Muser had shown “no improvement in work and in fact has worsen [sic]” since that reprimand was issued in October 2016.
A spokeswoman for Muser and Duffy said they declined to comment on the documents obtained by the Sun-Times.
Olszewski says he invested nearly $3 million to start the restaurant.
Muser and Duffy signed 10-year contracts with Grace in December 2012, with starting annual salaries of $90,000. Olszewski says he gave them raises, to $160,000 a year, two and a half years ago. The men were to get two weeks of paid vacation every year after the first year.
Under their deals, Muser and Duffy were set to reap one-third of Grace’s profits each after five years. That clause would have gone into effect next month.
In their statement, Muser and Duffy vowed to “develop our next project.” Without providing any details of such plans, they wrote, “The future holds much in store.”
It might be a long wait to enjoy their culinary efforts anywhere near here, though.
Their contracts with Grace appear to block them from investing in or even working for another restaurant in the Chicago area for 18 months. That clause covers Cook, Will, DuPage, Kane, Kendall, Lake and McHenry Counties.