Saving Grace

Kevin Pang: It was the most important night of his career. Curtis Duffy hovered over plates inside the gleaming white kitchen of his new restaurant, Grace. Head down, with the poker face that was the 37-year-old’s default demeanor, he arranged long celery curls, ricotta and fried sunchokes into a three-dimensional wreath resembling the architecture of Antoni Gaudi.

The lock on the glass front door was unbolted, and the first customers walked through.

Finally. The restaurant was supposed to have opened in March. It was now December. The equipment that arrived broken, the delays, the cost overruns — all of it had turned many of his nights sleepless. But so did the pressures of high expectations. Curtis had worked his way up through the finest restaurants in Chicago — Charlie Trotter’s, Trio, Alinea — and earned four-star reviews under his name at Avenues in The Peninsula hotel on the Magnificent Mile. But this restaurant, Grace, was his.

What would customers think? How would food critics react? What if the restaurant was a failure? The hypotheticals lingered, but on this December night, the what-ifs became secondary.

He was mostly anxious about the 9:30 p.m. reservation.

It was booked for Ruth Snider. In many respects, she was the woman who had saved Curtis. She steered him at a time his life felt aimless, back when he stole from supermarkets and bullied kids in his neighborhood. She kept an eye on him during his travails, through family turmoil … before and after the murder. They cried on the phone with each other.

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