The owner of the West Loop’s highly acclaimed Grace restaurant has sued top chef Curtis Duffy and general manager Michael Muser “to hold them accountable for their theft and breach of contract,” court records show.
Lawyers for Grace owner Michael Olszewski filed the suit late Friday, nearly eight months after the expensive restaurant at 652 W. Randolph abruptly closed its doors. The restaurant was one of only two places in Chicago, and 12 in the country, with three Michelin stars.
In the newly filed suit, Olszewski alleges that Duffy and Muser often played hooky from Grace, and that they ordered food and had it shipped to private events they worked at around the world on their boss’ dime.
The lawyers for Olszewski asked the courts to award him damages that “exceed $500,000,” according to court records.
“This lawsuit is filed to compensate Grace LLC for the damages and harm it has endured because of Duffy and Muser’s egregious misconduct,” wrote the lawyers from the firm of Johnson & Bell Ltd.
Sean O’Callaghan, a lawyer for Duffy and Muser, said Sunday neither he nor his clients knew of Olszewski’s lawsuit.
Duffy and Muser had sued Olszewski earlier this year over a clause in their contracts with Grace that would prevent them from opening another restaurant in the Chicago area.
Court records show that case, which also was filed in Cook County, got dismissed last month.
But the newly filed suit from Olszewski provides the most detailed account yet of his perspective on the broken relationship between the restaurant owner and his two star employees.
Olszewski says he first met Duffy and Muser when he and his wife dined about nine years ago at Avenues, a fine-dining restaurant the Peninsula Hotel where Duffy was executive chef and Muser was wine and beverage director.
Duffy and Muser told Olszewski they wanted to leave Avenues and open a new restaurant in Chicago, according to the new court documents. Olszewski says he invested “almost $3 million” before Grace opened in 2012 and entered into contracts with Duffy and Muser that initially paid them $90,000.
Duffy and Muser did not invest their own money into Grace, according to Olszewski, but did get raises to $160,000 a year each after the restaurant became a “huge success,” according to court records.
Olszewski alleges that problems with Duffy and Muser began over three years ago.
“Their unexcused absenteeism became a chronic issue, which became a problem for customers who were paying top dollar for a world-class fine-dining experience and expecting that the world-famous chef and sommelier would be providing them with that experience,” the new suit says. “Duffy seemed to come and go as he pleased.”
Part of their time away from work, Olszewski says, was spent at “unauthorized events” in New York, Hong Kong, Florida and California.
“Grace was never compensated for any of these events and food was ordered on Grace’s accounts for these events,” according to the court filing.
As in court filings in Duffy and Muser’s case against him, Olszewski again suggests that Wagyu beef, truffles and wine from Grace went “missing.”
The owner also says he fought with Duffy and Muser over a city health inspection that found code violations at the restaurant in April 2017, prompted by a customer complaint of food poisoning. Olszewski says he confronted his top employees but “neither Duffy nor Muser could provide a satisfactory answer.”
Duffy allegedly left the job soon after, only to return to Grace after a few months, and then quit again last year.
Before leaving for good, Olszewski says, Duffy and Muser “hatched a scheme” to get other workers to leave Grace with them.
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter for WBEZ. Follow him @dmihalopoulos.