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Chicago International Film Festival Review: For Grace

Chicago International Film Festival Review: For Grace
Curtis Duffy. Original illustration: Paul Brewer

Who is Curtis Duffy?

In foodie circles Duffy is a rock star. He has worked with the best of the best from Charlie Trotter to Grant Achatz. He is chef and owner of the Michelin 3-star rated Grace Restaurant--Three Michelin Stars in the Chicago 2015 Guide, AAA's Five Diamond Rating, Forbes Travel Guide's 5 Star Rating, Robb Report's Best Restaurant in the World 2013, Chicago Magazine's Best New Restaurant, and Eater National's Chef of the Year.

This I knew.

Now after screening "For Grace," Chicagoans Kevin Pang and Mark Helenowski introspective profile of Duffy, I know a lot more.

Ostensibly, the documentary is about the building of a restaurant from the ground up by a talented and ambitious chef named Curtis Duffy who has aspirations of becoming the best in the country.

The documentary opens with a snapshot of Duffy as seen through the eyes of some the city's best chefs. We watch him working in some of the top kitchens in Chicago. We feel his drive for perfection--to be the best he can be. We see his emotional departure on his final day at Avenues as he prepares to head out on his own to realize his dream of opening a restaurant which all along he knew would be called Grace.

Duffy was the number two chef at Alinea, the Chicago restaurant once named by Gourmet magazine as 'the best restaurant in the country.' At Avenues in The Peninsula Chicago hotel, Duffy garnered two Michelin stars. Now he wants that elusive third and final star, a designation Alinea has already earned, and Duffy believes he can only achieve this by building his own restaurant from the ground up.

The camera follows Duffy's painstaking search for the perfect spot for his restaurant, we see him agonize over the smallest details. We applaud his decision to go with the best when he spends $1000 per chair (bargained down from the retail price of $2600) to get just the right feel for his restaurant.

Another beautiful presentation by Duffy.

Another beautiful presentation by Duffy.

About halfway through, the documentary takes a 90 degree departure. The camera zooms in on a sign reading Johnston, Ohio. We see Duffy's sister talking about him, their childhood, their family and the tragedy. Curtis got in fights with neighborhood kids, and he would steal for the thrill. We learn how a certain home economics teacher named Ruth Snider at Adams Middle School became his saving Grace.

duffyfamilygrace-whole-family

The Duffys, circa 1984. From top right clockwise: Robert, Curtis, Trisha, Robert Jr. and Jan.

We learn about his struggles as he pursues his dream at a difficult time of his personal life. His 11-year marriage has crumbled due to his 18-hour days, working with his "restaurant family."  He only sees his young daughters when he walks them to school each morning.

We feel his pain when he says, "This will be the first Christmas I won't wake up to see them running around the house, opening up their presents. It's going to be painful," he admits.

But he must continue.

CT Grace28.JPG

And continue, he does. Even though Duffy and his business partner and best friend Michael Muser thought the restaurant would take nine months to construct it took 18 months with numerous delays and snafus along the way.

When Grace finally opened on December 11, 2012--it was all he dreamed it would be.  It was and is who he is.  And his "saving Grace" Ruth Snider was there to see it all.

The documentary which has won accolades at Film Festivals across the country will be shown Monday October 26 at part of the Chicago International Film Festival at AMC River East 21 at 5:30 pm. It will also be shown on Wednesday, October 28 at 8:45 pm.

About the Filmmakers

Kevin Pang

Co-Director, Producer
Kevin Pang is a filmmaker and features writer at the Chicago Tribune. He is a three-time nominee for the James Beard Foundation Award, including a 2010 win for his television series “The Cheeseburger Show.” Kevin also writes for Vanity Fair, Lucky Peach magazine, and has contributed to "This American Life."

Mark Helenowski

Co-Director, Producer
Mark Helenowski is a Chicago-based filmmaker. He received a Student Emmy from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, and he has created commercial content for Gatorade, Nike, Virgin and United Way. This is his first feature-length film.

For Grace won the AUDIENCE FAVORITE AWARD at the 2015 Chicago International Film Festival.
Country: USA
Director: Kevin Pang, Mark Helenowski

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