Catching Up With The Muse

The last time I saw Michael Muser in person, I was celebrating my birthday at the now defunct Michelin 3-star restaurant, Grace. I visited the kitchen afterwards, and while talking to chef Curtis Duffy, he asked me if I wanted to say hello to his partner and GM, Muser. Even though I’d been dining for like four hours, I only realized then that I hadn’t seen Muser all night. That was partially because Muser’s front of house partner Amy Cordell is such an incredible captain and dining room conductor, I didn’t even think about the fact that Muser wasn’t around. I said to Duffy, yeah, of course, where is Muse? 

Duffy took me back by the loading dock, and Muser was stuffed into a Tyvek bunny suit wearing a full-blown gas mask while spray painting drywall. He looked like Walter White cooking meth in Breaking Bad.  Which is to say, while Muser is a great GM, sommelier, and one of Chicago’s top restaurateurs, he’s not above doing drywall work, or painting, or whatever a restaurant needs to excel. He’s also a legit Renaissance dude, an avid motorcyclist, killer photographer, comedic host of the Jean Banchet awards which raise money to combat Cystic Fibrosis, and the creator of one of my new favorite podcasts, Amuzed, with his very funny hosting partner and friend Pat Kiely.

In a couple weeks, Muser and Duffy are about to launch Ever, which is not only one of the most anticipated restaurant openings in Chicago, but also one of the most anticipated in the country. I caught up with Muser to see how things were shaping up.

How’s it going?

Well, it’s basically the first day with everyone in here [Ever restaurant].  We have cooks, service people, some contractors. It’s getting real. SOPs are in place. People are wearing masks. The chefs are in the kitchen working on plates.

Do you have the secret temperature scanners in place so guests won’t even know they’re being scanned when they walk in?

I wish. That’s the thing, we’re supposed to be the kings of disarmament. Hospitality is all about heart and making things feel natural. We’re supposed to be all polish and super soigné, but COVID-19 has that out the window. 

Right, it’s now almost like how do I violate your personal space without you knowing I am doing that? That being said, what we know is you’re booked solid for the opening despite all this. I know you joke on your podcast that’s because you have a super sexy chef (Duffy) who draws people, and while that’s true, there’s obviously more to it. You’ve talked about how because of the price you’re charging, people almost have a right to say “change my life” when they dine at Ever. And yet, people are spending incredible amounts of money, when this kind of experience can’t be exactly what it was pre-pandemic, or maybe you can’t change their life in the ways you used to.  What do you think it says about those people making reservations that they just want to come in even in the middle of a pandemic?

Those that jumped on reservations, I feel as if there was an energy being released. The guests were looking at us like a beacon, a sign that it’s not all over, that not all restaurants are dying, that one has actually not been given birth to yet. There are still construction guys bibbly bopping about here and we don’t open until July 28, but part of me wonders if those people were dying for an experience, to be excited about something. 

You know the everyday life of a sommelier is visiting with wine reps, one after another. They bring their bags of wine in rolling suitcase luggage, whip out their wares, give you all these pitches on terroir, blah, blah, blah. The sommeliers bitch about the prices. I’ll tell you what Michael, when I saw my wine reps, they hadn’t done this in 90 days. There were tears when they saw me. It was weird. Normally, getting back on the bicycle wouldn’t be sentimental or emotional, but it was. Doing it again was amazing. We just felt lucky to be doing it. So, I think these guests are just dying for something. They’re so thirsty for something fun and exciting. And we’re here I hope to make them forget all that [COVID-19 stuff] for a minute. 

And yet, like you said on your podcast recently, the captain is going to have to swoop in, in their mask like a ninja or Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula and say “Guuuud Evening!”, so it’s still gonna be weird. BTW, I loved that image, because Coppola’s Dracula is amazing.

I love it too. I think Coppola’s is the best Dracula of all time. It was like he was roller skating around all the time, like the kids with the tennis shoes with one recessed wheel. That’s the goal of the captain, to glide up to the table to make sure everything is good and explain this wacky piece of art food. Now they’ll just be roller skating in a ninja mask. And with the mask, the speaking gets harder. But it’s important. I always tell the staff no one knows what nasturtium means. They don’t deal with oxalis all the time at Jewel. These descriptions of the food are important, but they’ll be masked up like warriors now when they do it.

Let’s shift gears a second. I’d like to focus on you a bit. I like to do a lot of research before I talk to someone, and honestly I’m kind of amazed that for someone so accomplished, you’re a bit of a mystery. I know you grew up in California. You were babysat by some dude who lived under the bleachers of the minor league baseball affiliate in El Paso. You worked wine harvest in France. You like motorcycles and cigars, and good photography and design. Your dad was a major league ball player. You worked at the Kinzie Chophouse and Avenues, but that’s about it.

I feel like I’m out there now, that’s kind of why I started the podcast.

The podcast is great and that’s where I got half this information.

I mean it’s a weird situation. I’m not the show. Curtis is supposed to be. This is Curtis’s food. This has always been his show and always will be. On the other hand, I’m always talking all the damn time, and that’s because it’s a pretty comfortable place for me. I still try to get out there, that’s why I host the Banchet awards.

Yeah, you guys kind of remind me of Fall Out Boy, like Patrick Stump is the lead singer, but instead of leading everything, as is usual, Pete Wentz, the bassist, does all the talking. I mean Curtis is funny and smart and he can talk, but you kind of take the lead.

Normally, I wouldn’t talk about my partner’s private business, but, as you know there is a documentary about his entire life out there. Obviously when that kind of thing happens to your parents at his age, it goes without saying, you don’t walk away from that like tra la la…I’m not in his brain, but it’s the way he’s built and he’s not gonna be super chitchatty. It just doesn’t go with him. I’m better built for it, so we throw me up front. I mean Curtis doesn’t need to focus on the vomit about all the pitches and design work. On the other hand, he is a great leader. When he’s in the kitchen, he doesn’t say anything. He just works. He’s not bullshitting, not talking.

Speaking of design, at Grace you had the exposed kitchen, but I heard you say the new kitchen will not be open to the dining room. I’m curious about your ideas behind that decision.

I’m sitting in a chair right now staring at the kitchen window. There’s this big glow. Grace was clear glass. At Ever, the glass is etched. There’s millwork so that slats cover open elements in glass pattern. You can move the millwork so it blocks off the kitchen. At Grace when that last ticket comes in and the last first course is fired, you want to break the station down. But, that’s nothing to look at, watching people working and scrubbing. So now, we can do that at Ever without anyone seeing. The kitchen is an element in a dining room.  You can still see it, but it’s obstructed.

We know perfection is a myth, but by most people’s standards, Grace was a symbol of perfection. We also know you guys are always pushing, trying to top yourselves. Is it harder to do that the second time around, given that you did so much right the first time?

It is harder. We spent a lot of time picking what to keep. When we knew there was a better way, we changed it for Ever. Part of it is we’re so lucky to have these architects, Christopher Lawton and Micah Stanley. I trust them, and if they go left instead of right, I know they’re doing it for the right reasons. Sometimes we’d say we can’t do that again. But, we’d want something similar. I mean consider the bathrooms, I loved having the three different bathrooms at Grace. It was lunacy. Bathroom hits are the greatest thing ever. At Ever, we swung even harder on these bathrooms. You know you open a lot of china catalogs, the flatware, and it’s all the same stuff. I’m like I saw that at the Peninsula hotel nine years ago.  So, we’re always asking, do you have anything new?

Did the chairs cost you $5,000 dollars apiece this time?  (Editor’s note: The chairs at Grace were custom and very expensive)

In some ways you’re right. Nothing gets cheaper. Everything gets more expensive for sure.

I know you’ve probably been asked this question a lot, but I’m trying to come at it from a different perspective, so hopefully you’ll forgive me for asking it. Is fine dining dead?  I mean obviously you guys are sold out for the first few months, but I wonder if you guys are in a rarefied state, like the only reason you can do this is because you’ve earned that right in the old world, and you’re one of the few people left who can pull it off.

Right, you’d think if we were smarter we would have thought about doing casual instead of Michelin 3 star. And moving forward, we will probably do that, but first we need to show what we’re capable of and set the standard for our other projects. I dream of having a diner. My most frequented place is Palace Grill on Madison. I love George and all those assholes behind the counter. They love my kid. But I’m not gonna do that without an Ever. The standards on Ever set the casual foundation. With higher cover counts, detail and refinement will fade. There are things you can do with 40 or 50 diners that you can’t do at 500. We spent our whole lives working on that, so just throwing it away didn’t seem like good idea.

As for is fine dining dying, 10 years ago or more there was a day in Chicago when there was Trotter, Alinea, Everest, Ambria, and RIA and Avenues. There was the crash of ‘08 and ‘09. Hotels had those signature restaurants. It was like a Lambo parked out front. It sucks to pay for the oil change, but it’s nice to have. I want more fine dining restaurants. I love when our city has 5-7 and it does something globally.  It’s never about interior city competition. I like to be competitive against other cities and see where Chicago stands up in all aspects, where we have fine dining and Calumet Fisheries and Smoque BBQ plus the chi chi la la spots. COVID-19 has played a big part in reducing that.  But we need the Evers, they breed more Evers. Alineas breed more Alineas. Look at Charlie Trotter’s.  Beverly [Kim], Graham [Elliot], Curtis [Duffy], and Giuseppe [Tentori] all worked there.

The future of fine dining will heavily depend on people who work in these kinds of environments. This is what I want to do.  I’m interviewing people now for Ever, and the applicants, this is all they want. They’re like that little Duffy kid in Ohio reading the Charlie Trotter cookbook. How many Charlie changed my life stories have you heard? Fine dining restaurants are beacons that attract weirdos and these cats grow and go on and do their own thing. It helps if there is more than one. There are peaks and valleys for sure.

Speaking of those standards, I know Curtis likes to say, we only pay attention to what happens within these four walls, i.e. the only competition is his internal drive. And I get that, but I know I’ve seen you guys reference say Vespertine and stuff like that in conversation. You do study or pay attention to the other restaurants at your level, right?

That’s all I do. I’m fascinated. I love it when I get excited by them in my own way. I see something and I’m like, “Dammmn, that makes me want to go to work!”  I’ll show Duffy a picture on my phone and say this is baller. I live in this world, but he sees it as a bad infection. On the other hand, me, him and Amy [Cordell] sit around and think, how can we do stuff better? You can see a Thomas Keller dish from eleven miles away. These chefs have these signature styles. Curtis does a little, but people are expecting growth and change, and he owns it.  I think we can all agree we won’t see the crab dish on the Ever menu.

Everyone talks about Curtis’s innovation, but in many ways you’ve done the same thing for the front of the house. What’s your philosophy on setting good hospitality, or what’s the art?

Everything starts with Curtis’s food. It’s such a strong impactful foundation. We have to represent that, which means you have six food runners, their shoulder blades a quarter inch from the wall, staring at the expediter waiting for the course. And that expediter is going to be a general. He’s gonna be a maniac. Our cook times are 4-6 minutes and then that plate is gone. It’s like a team of football players. We can’t falter with that food in any way, shape, or form.

When a guest arrives, maybe you use their name when they get out of the car, like, “Welcome Mrs. Nagrant?” and then you’re like how did this dude know my name? The valet then radios to front desk so they welcome you by name when you’re in the lobby. It’s a lot of coaching. My dad is a coach, and I do a lot of it too.

When I’m interviewing, I tell prospects, this is the house of real.  You may have heard people say stuff at other places you’ve worked, but when we set a standard, it’s real. If we say every third fold on a napkin is ¼ wide, and you folded 500 napkins, and it’s not right, you will refold every single one.   

You mentioned your dad is a coach. Because I’m such a basic dude who loves sports, I’m gonna ask you the basic bro question, and I’m sorry, but it’s always something I’ve wanted to know. Your dad played pro baseball for the White Sox and Brewers. He coached the Kansas City Royals, but I think you’ve basically said, you don’t know anything about baseball.  Is this true?

I don’t really know much about baseball. My older brother took a ton of it.  It sunk in with my older brother.  I also have a little sister, but I just never got into it. I just found other stuff to do around baseball. When my dad was a third base instructor and hitting coach with the Milwaukee Brewers, I went in with him early in the morning. I went in because I knew where the golf carts were parked in the stadium. I wrecked a lot of golf carts.  Tom Trebelhorn, the manager, would drive around with me. Me and some of the kids would use them like bumper cars. Major league locker rooms are like candy stores. You have these ginormous tubs of  Bubblicious, Big League Chew, and tons of Coca Cola. Robin Yount taught me to play poker. Paul Molitor would do donuts with me in the parking lot in his Corvette. I’d beg him for it. Gary Sheffield let me wear his necklaces. He had this crazy gold chain and I was obsessed.

I know you’re a big fan of theatre, comedy, magic, and now it kind of makes sense to me that you’re in hospitality, because it’s kind of a show. One of the foundations of comedy is that it’s all about building tension and then relieving that tension.  Do you feel it’s similar with hospitality? People come in with these huge expectations or fears and it’s your job to diffuse that?

One hundred percent. I see clients and they’re nervous. I’m like that too. We were in New York and we were running ten minutes late for a reservation at Eleven Madison park, and I’m freaking out. We walk in and I’m like “We’re so sorry! You know cabs and traffic and I’m babbling.”  They waved it off and said we’re glad you made it. Step one, when you walk in, you do the wave of love and say, Heeey! We’re so glad you’re here! You’ve survived COVID. You made it through traffic. The theatre comparisons to fine dining don’t stop. It’s almost annoying how many examples there are. Every day you have new performers and a new audience, and even a new show.

That’s why you started your podcast right, to highlight the comics and actors you admire?

Yes, so many of them are still starving artists. It’s so hard out there. Some of them are our age and they’ve been doing this for 20 years and they still keep living their life.

Like comedian Rory [Scovel] He’s done movies. He’s done a lot of big things, but it still ain’t easy, traveling city to city. It’s grueling doing live stand up. I have so much love and respect for those guys. There’s a big hole in my heart for them.

The new restaurant does not have an underground clubhouse for the employees, right? [Editor’s note: Grace had a cool basement spot outfitted with video games and couches and stereos where the staff could hang out before or after service]

No. We were looking for 5,500-7000 square feet and you’d think there would be a lot of those in Chicago, but we exhausted the whole city pretty quick.  We found this one and it’s 6,200. It’s a grown-up space. There’s a building manager, team of engineers, and 6 or 7 security guys, so it’s not built for hanging out. Grace was like a treehouse. We used to hang out in the alley, and light huge garbage oil drums on fire and have big bonfires with the staff.

Right, this is where one night some homeless dude joined you and told you he killed people and then he turned out to be film director Christopher Nolan’s brother (Inception, Dark Knight, etc.)

Yes! Matt Nolan. That was crazy. He still texts Curtis.

When you told that story on the podcast, I looked it up. I was like, I trust Muser usually, but this is insane. But it all checks out. Matt Nolan is ex-special forces, living in Chicago and some of his brother’s movies are based on his life.

That night was crazy. He’s talking about Interpol, and how his brother made a movie about him with Leonardo DiCaprio. I was like, bro you have gone too far! But it was him. He called and he said he bought four tickets for us to see Interstellar on IMAX.  Curtis of course gets off the hook. I went solo. Nolan seems like a super nice guy. He’s a big dude, former British Special Forces.

But there is no basement in this restaurant.  The location of Ever was a very “dad” decision, a mature move. I knew we were saying goodbye to all that other stuff. We have a locker room and lots of employee bathrooms, three big bathrooms where people can change and do their hair. We have good razors, not the 99 cent ones, if you need to shave. I believe in setting people up for success by providing all the tools one needs to do their jobs.

That’s another thing I’ve heard you say that I love. If you’re asking people to do really difficult things, give them everything they need to succeed.

It serves the restaurant. You might think some of the things I’m asking you are impossible, but I will deny you no tool to help you get there.  Most things can be solved with a trip to Costco. If it can’t, you have a really big problem.

It’s very simple, but also something a lot of restaurateurs won’t do for cost reasons or shortsightedness. How did you realize this was important?

When we were at the Peninsula, sometimes it was hard. There’s the scene in the documentary [For Grace} where Curtis bitches about his coffee cups. We have like 6 coffee cups for this big hotel restaurant. To get more, you have to go to the beverage team meeting, fill out a requisition form, and go through all these layers of bureaucracy. We felt burned from that. A lot of credit goes to Curtis. He always says no when I try to chince on something. Curtis is the stop button.

At the Peninsula there was this lawyer we met with once a quarter. He was hired to help keep unions out of the hotel. He told this story about a hotel he represented, where the janitorial staff unionized because one employee was mad because he was denied a mop. Give the guy a mop if he needs it.

Do you remember the first day you met Curtis at Avenues? I know you worked with Graham Elliot before that, right?

Yes, my job was food and beverage director. When Elliot was leaving, Duffy’s name was brought up. We knew about him from Alinea.  Duffy actually had huge reservations about working at the hotel. He was right, especially for a guy who doesn’t like to talk a lot. I told him, if you take this gig, all the executive people live on the sixth floor, and you will never ever have to go up there. You will never see them after the tasting. I will do the fighting. I will make sure you get the shit that you need.

One day Curtis comes in to prep by himself at Avenues in the morning. Elliot hadn’t left yet. They were transitioning, so Duffy had no cooks yet. He just did everything himself. He made this shot glass with cold pea soup, beautiful fluorescent green, with a tapioca chip, and shaved white truffle. I ate the chip all in one bite and lost my fucking mind. I was like who the fuck are you, I want eleven more of these. He kept putting out all these beautiful dishes, and I thought you need to document this, but [photographer] Anthony Tahlier costs $1,700 dollars every time he sets up his tripod, so I bought a nice camera and figured out how to take photos.

So basically, you’re saying the reason you have such a beautiful Instagram these days is because you wanted to avoid paying Anthony’s fee?

That is so true. I figured if I don’t shoot this stuff, no one will see it. It will disappear into the ether.

It’s so fascinating that you knew immediately you wanted to be Duffy’s consigliere.

Elliot and I knew how good he was. Elliot took the succession seriously. This was when he made the Twinkie caesar salad and the foie-lipops. He was an actual chef back then, not a TV guy.  He put a lot of thought into who was going to replace him. It was important. Briefly, Rich Melman [Lettuce Entertain You] scooped up Duffy, but I took him from Melman. Plus, Duffy looked like Tom Cruise.

So you’re saying L20 might have been Curtis Duffy’s restaurant instead?

Ha, yes. You never know. L20, I loved that place.  Man, I want to have a conversation with Laurent Gras, how specific he is. What an interesting dude.

When I interviewed chef Gras, I finished and I went to hand him a business card in case he ever wanted to get in touch. He looked at me like I was handing him a bag of dog shit and said, “I don’t dew zee bizness card” and walked away. That’s the last time I saw Gras.

Hahahaha. I mean who walks away from their job when they get 3 Michelin stars. I remember, I think that was the first Michelin stars guide in Chicago. There was a party at the Chicago Cultural Center.  Duffy and I were there. We are wondering, is Laurent Gras gonna show up? Kevin Brown and Rich Melman from Lettuce, Kevin with his beautiful white teeth which you can see from across the street, were there. Laurent came in, walked around for a minute, didn’t talk to any of them, and then left.

When you were younger you did the wine harvest in Burgundy. What was that like?

Traveling around Europe, you realize it’s not Napa Valley. They’re not used to people showing up. There are no tasting rooms like in America. My experiences were epic. It makes you realize, wine is an agricultural product. That gets lost sometimes when you’re pouring it in to a $700 Riedel decanter in a bazillion dollar dining room vs. watching the grapes get harvested. Winemaking is dirty, stinky, and it changed me as a sommelier.

What were your early restaurant experiences like or how did you get in to wine?

I worked at the Water Grill under Michael Cimarusti. The sommelier had so much attitude. There was this Austrian general manager, who worked his bad English in a very bad way. His name was Joachim. This florist came in, and didn’t know who he was, so she handed him an invoice. He looked at her and said, “I feel like you are raping me.”  It was such a crazy place. The pastry chef was this bad ass tiny Asian girl.  She was mean. Michael was not a big yeller, he was a bear, though with big hair and a beard. I think he looked like Tom Hulce from Amadeus. The guests were all swirling their wine, discussing vintages. It was a bucket load of shit. But I was also fascinated by the scene, and the next thing you know you’re flashcarding and memorizing all the vintages of Puligny Montrachet.

It’s interesting because now you’re at the height of your profession. I think a lot of people would look at your dad and say that guy made it to the major leagues, that’s rare. But what you do is actually more rare. How many Michelin 3 star spots are there?

Less than 200 I believe.

Exactly, it’s pretty rare.

When my dad became the Kansas City Royals manager, he told his players, no one crosses the foul line on their own. We walk out to the field together. He then told some reporter to go cross the foul line before everyone else. He set it up so he could scream at the guy just to make a point, that a standard is important. This was the first week. Another time, they’re on a road trip. My dad sits in the very front seat of the plane like most managers do. It’s 11 o clock at night, and they’re loading the team bus after they land. It looks like all the luggage is loaded, but they’re not moving. My dad asks the driver what’s the problem. He says we’re waiting for the players’ golf clubs. My dad gets out and starts throwing golf clubs thirty feet in every direction. He’s like you’re not bringing golf clubs on a road trip. We’re here to focus on baseball. It’s all about standards, even in the restaurant business.

I read that story about how your obsession with standards and design came from the first time you had a ride in your neighbor’s Mercedes when you were a kid, how you loved the sound the door made when it closed. Is that just a fun story, or is that literally where it stems from?

The Gail Rosetti story. It’s true. A lot came from working at the Peninsula too.  I mean I didn’t even know how to use a spa when I started there. The lobby is filled with stunning furniture and art, and that’s why people pay so much money.  I remember I scheduled a massage, we got a discount, and I showed up 10 minutes before my appointment. My friend working the counter said, what are you doing? I’m like I’m here for my massage. She’s like you should have been here 3 hours ago. We have these showers, steam rooms, saunas. You’re supposed to lie around and drink cucumber water. 

I’m also lucky that I have the partnership with Christopher Lawton and Micah Stanley. I mean these are two heterosexual males who somehow know how to build refined timeless stuff, which is rare.  It’s easy to do something sexy, but will it still be relevant when you come back in 6 years? Their stuff is.

You have joked on your podcast about how your gay best friend says sometimes you’re gayer than he is.

My best friend Aaron can’t stand how gay I am. I’ve been obsessed with John Cameron Mitchell and Hedwig and The Angry Inch. I’ve always said I will do anything for that guy. Aaron is like, would you make out with him? I think I would. I love him that much. That car door shut moment on the Mercedes was real though. My dad had a 1977 Chevy Stepside. My brothers called it the whaler. I got that truck eventually, but I’d never been in anything like the Mercedes. The woodgrain dashboard, the way your shoes sank an inch into the floorboards. These cars were not normal.

And now you have a BMW motorcycle.

Because I’m in hospitality, I’ve never made a lot of money, so I can never afford brand new cars.  But I did finally buy what I call a brand spanking new 2014 Audi SQ5. I now have a German car which I never thought I’d have in a million years. I brag about how badass that car is and then two of my chefs tell me their moms drive that same car and I need to shut up.

You’re this fancy wine guy, but you’re also known for your hardcore motorcycle trips. Do you stick to the bad ass motorcycle character and just drink beer, or are you guys strapping a case of white Burgundy on the back of the bike when you ride?

We take longer trips and drink at night. Sadly, I probably won’t be able to go this year because of COVID-19, but we usually go to the Smoky Mountains, the Cherohola Skyway, the Blue Ridge Skyway, and the tail of the dragon. We end up in this armpitty spot, Robbinsville, North Carolina, near the border of Tennessee. I usually have Craig Perman ship us some good wine to wherever we’re gonna end up.