The chef and the general manager who five years ago opened Grace, a Chicago restaurant considered one of America’s best places to dine, have quit after a dispute with the wealthy Chicago real estate investor who owns it.
The loss of the two men — the chef Curtis Duffy and Michael Muser, the general manager, who also ran the wine program — leaves the future of the restaurant in limbo. Under their guidance, Grace become one of only 14 restaurants in the United States to win three Michelin stars.
“This is going to shake the restaurant community to the core,” said Carrie Nahabedian, the chef who runs Naha, a Chicago restaurant that also has a Michelin star, and is close to the two men.
Ms. Nahabedian and Kevin Pang, a former reporter for The Chicago Tribune who was the co-director of “For Grace,” a 2015 documentary about the restaurant, said the men’s departure came after a contract dispute with Michael Olszewski, the investor who provided more than $2.5 million to open Grace. Mr. Olszewski did not return calls seeking comment.
After months of negotiation, Mr. Pang said, the men’s efforts to buy the restaurant fell through.
“It came down to ownership, plain and simple,” he said. “As much as Curtis Duffy and Michael Muser were the faces of Grace, they were just employees, not employers. Restaurateurs who have achieved three Michelin stars don’t usually lack for ambition, and my sense was until they were their own bosses, they were stuck idling in neutral.”
Mr. Duffy and Mr. Muser said through a spokeswoman that they had explored the possibility of a purchase that would give them complete financial and creative control of Grace. The transaction did not happen, and they said that would greatly limit their ability to advance their vision for the restaurant. Mr. Duffy left on Dec. 1, and Mr. Muser on Monday.
The men would not discuss their sudden departure in any more detail, but said in a statement to The New York Times that it was 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,” they said. “As this chapter ends, another begins. We plan to spend quality time with our families as we develop our next project.”
Mr. Duffy dreamed up Grace as he worked his way through Chicago’s top kitchens, including Charlie Trotter’s and Alinea, the only other Chicago restaurant with three Michelin stars. Alinea’s tasting menu, like Grace’s, tops $200 a person.
Grace, which starts booking tables two months in advance, is a modernistic, sublime and elegant counterpoint to the technical prowess and whimsical approach at Alinea, whose chef, Grant Achatz, was a mentor to Mr. Duffy.
The harried, pressure-filled days preceding Grace’s opening in 2012 in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood were examined in “For Grace,” which also dug deep into the personal life of Mr. Duffy, whose childhood in a central Ohio working-class family was punctuated by domestic violence. His father shot his mother and then himself in a 1994 murder-suicide.
Mr. Duffy found solace in a junior high school home-economics class, and his teacher remains a friend and mentor.
That the two men would walk away when the restaurant, by all accounts, was at its height would be a shock to the city’s restaurant community akin to the unexpected death of the chef Charlie Trotter in 2013, Mr. Pang said.
Still, Grace continues to operate, and was taking reservations on Wednesday. It will probably continue with a new chef, Ms. Nahabedian said, but it won’t be the same.
“You take Curtis out of Grace, you take Michael out of Grace, and its suddenly going to become just another restaurant,” she said.
Mr. Duffy is working with a legal team to determine where and when he might be able to open another restaurant, said his spokeswoman, Janet Isabelli. But nothing will likely be what Grace was to him.
As he told Mr. Pang in a 2013 profile in The Tribune, he found grace from a difficult childhood through cooking. The word meant so much to him, he gave it to one of his daughters and to his restaurant.