If you’re ever fortunate enough to speak for a few moments with Chef Curtis Duffy, you quickly may find yourself swept into a lavish culinary atheneum, an epicurean mind palace where each dish is poetry, where ingredients and flavors weave literary epics, and the course ends in a cliffhanger. Doors open July 28th.
Duffy’s highly anticipated new restaurant, Ever, will sit at the corner of Fulton and Ada in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood. As Chicago slowly reopens from COVID-19 closures, Ever’s official launch date announcement ushers in a wave of excitement and hope.
The restaurant’s exterior is an understated dark gray concrete, while its interior is a chambered, curvilinear space where every feature is deliberate and considered. Each element, from the minute amuse bouche shelves to the dramatic restroom tissue, is added to lead guests through the perfect culinary journey, directed by Chef Duffy. In his words, “It will literally be the best Ever. Nothing is a secondary thought.”
Duffy trained under famed Chef Charlie Trotter before working the Alinea and Avenues kitchens and winning three Michelin stars at Grace. He’s seen the detailed heights of culinary excellence, and plans to give each guest at Ever the experience of a lifetime.
This assiduity is clear in Duffy’s cooking philosophy, especially when it comes to the quality and provenance of his ingredients. Each component must be pristine, the finest on the market. Ever will eventually have a rooftop garden for herbs and an apiary, but Duffy will also source from farmers with whom he’s spent years building relationships. “We bring our farmers and their families in for dinner, so they can see what we’re doing with their hard work,” says Duffy, “If I ask them for 200 dime-sized Nasturtium leaves, they’ll understand why we’re asking for things in such a specific, certain way.”
To make sure his ingredients are consistently the best ever, Duffy works with farmers around their planting system, foregoing an ingredient when fields must lie fallow, and preserving acreage for highly specific crops and grazing. Ever won’t use a lot of red meat, but when they do it, it will be purchased from families who raise just one or two cows a year. “We know the generation of the animal, its lineage, where it comes from for years back,” says Duffy, “Knowing the people and understanding their product is the easiest way to make sure it’s the best.”
One of Duffy’s spur of the moment riffs on fennel:
“Let’s say fennel, perhaps with hoja santa, coconut, and black liquorice. Let’s utilize that fennel to its fullest potential. The bulb itself is cooked, the stalk is shaved raw, then the fronds are used to maybe make a tea or a puree. Then finally, we incorporate the fennel blooms.”
“Then we say, how are we going to treat the fennel in a new way? But we don’t want to reach too far – diners should be able to wrap their heads around it, because you need an element of familiarity. Without that connection, they won’t enjoy the dish, and you’re just hiding behind smoke and mirrors. From there, we take the hoja santa, the black liquorice, the coconut, and we break those elements down too, maybe microplane one table-side, use another for tea, another to wrap the fish course…”
Despite the seemingly instantaneous way Duffy can improvise, developing menus for Ever is a time-intensive process. “Every dish is written down on paper and worked through in the kitchen. It could take a week, it could take a month, and by that point sometimes it’s out of season,” says Duffy, “Sometime we nail it right away, but that’s very rare.”
He’s also aware of the loftiness sometimes attached to menus of this caliber. “You come into a restaurant like Ever and there’s a lot of expectations, but there’s also nervousness,” Duffy notes, “There’s a staff of people trying to meet your needs, and minimize the amount of decisions you have to make.”
Duffy develops his tasting menus like a musician would complete the songs in an album. His muse is a single ingredient, and his dishes are composed to offer a concentrated complexity in two or three bites, drawing guests in and leaving them eagerly awaiting the next course. But if the menu is a carefully ordered album, he says, each evening of service is a live concert, played a little differently each night.
Ever originally planned to offer two tasting menus, but for the safety of guests and staff during the novel coronavirus pandemic, they’ll launch with a single 8-10 course daily menu. Focused on land and sea proteins, with seasonal vegetables complemented with fruits, grains, seeds and nuts, the preliminary menu will pave the way for a second, vegetable-forward menu as occupancy restrictions lessen. True to form, Ever is taking meticulous safety measures to ensure the dining experience goes above and beyond social distancing regulations.
Adapting and evolving is important to Duffy – he’s excited about the architecture at Ever because it allows for seamless modifications and additions as menus and ideas unfold, as new ingredients come into season, and new sourcing partnerships form. It will be a space to push limits and to cook whims into reality. “My food changes when I change,” says Duffy. “I’m always progressing, and so is my food.”
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Photo courtesy of Michael Muser.