This Sunday, October 26 marks the premiere of Chicago Tribune writer Kevin Pang and filmmaker Mark Helenowski's full-length documentary For Grace, centered on chef Curtis Duffy. Screening at the Portage Theater, the film begins at Duffy's exit from Avenues at the Peninsula Chicago, through the build out and opening of Grace. Duffy's acclaimed West Loop restaurant.
After pitching a different idea to Duffy and finding out he was opening his own restaurant, Pang reached out to Helenowski, whom he had worked with on other projects for the Tribune. The film "is about relationships, sacrifice, family, teachers, all through the prism of super expensive food," Pang says. Neither he nor Helenowski knew "this would swallow up our lives for the next 40 months."
For Duffy he only had one stipulation, that the film be "very raw, very real." He didn't "want people to think that opening a restaurant is so easy and that anyone can do it."
As filming progressed and as construction dragged on at Grace, Duffy began worrying if the process would come off as too "mundane" or "monotonous" to those not in the restaurant world. The extremely private chef decided to open up to Pang about the terrible tragedy he experienced years before that led to the death of both of his parents.
Pang, who covered the entire story in a Tribune piece last year, said he and Helenowki were "gobsmacked" after Duffy told them. Before that moment, Pang says, beyond immediate family, he kept those details to himself for 18 years. "That was the moment of realization that we had earned Curtis' trust," Pang says.
"Talking with Kevin was almost like a therapy session in a way," Duffy says. The Tribune article prompted Duffy to "sit the entire (Grace) staff down and tell them what the story was about, because I didn't want to shock them." "I was very hesitant about it, but I had already dealt with it. I've done my share of therapy, mostly in my adulthood. I think it was just me letting it go."
For Grace also features a short scene that will no doubt cause tongues to wag in the food community.
Not long before the closing of Charlie Trotter's, Duffy, Michael Muser (Grace's general manager / partner), Graham Elliot and food blogger Bonjwing Lee (Ulterior Epicure) made plans to have dinner there. Captured cinéma-vérité-style, the group is met at the door by Trotter himself, who proceeds to tear into Duffy, telling him to "get the f**k out of here" after asking him if he has sued anyone lately. Duffy remembers being "shocked," adding that Trotter "was pretty heated up. I took myself out of that situation and walked away."
The reason for the outburst was Duffy's inclusion in a lawsuit against Trotter back in 2003, which he received a settlement for, but it wasn't something he had pursued or been involved with. At the time, he had taken a $500 pay cut to leave Trotter's to work for Grant Achatz at Trio and that money gave him the "opportunity to go to Spain and go to France and all these places I had read and dreamed about."
No matter how things were left that night between he and Trotter, who passed away nearly a year ago, Duffy still praises him. "My time spent there was three of the best years I've ever spent cooking in my career. I still talk positively about Charlie (and) I'll never forget what he's given me. Without that restaurant I don't know where I'd be."
As for where he is today, Duffy has, in Grace, a restaurant that has earned numerous acclaims, including 2 Michelin stars as well as recently being named among the world's 50 best restaurants by Diners Club.
But resting on his laurels is not something he plans on doing. "Decisions made in the beginning are right now being analyzed. How do we refine it even more to make it a tighter restaurant? A more controlled environment? One that's more organized and more efficient?"
Dismissing the idea of another restaurant, Duffy wants to make sure "that we have a solid foundation to build off of. It's about making sure that the mother ship we built stays afloat for the next fifteen years."
He does have aspirations beyond Grace, in the form of a book that he's working on. "We've been documenting every single dish we've done all the way back to Avenues with the same photographer." His plan is to inspire both the "ambitious home cook" as well as other chefs.
"I'm blessed every day. There's not a day that goes by that I'm not thankful for what I have. It's about surrounding yourself with the right people and I was lucky enough to have a few of the right people in my life at the right time," Duffy states.
Pang and Helenowski's film shows the struggles and the sacrifices Duffy has made to get to the highest level of the culinary world. For Grace will screen at the Portage Theater on Sunday, October 26 at 7:00 PM, purchase your tickets here.