“Grace is the beauty of form under the influence of freedom.”
“For Grace” is a movie about a restaurant, and also about the man who dreamed it up and made it happen. But mostly, this insightful documentary from Kevin Pang and Mark Helenowski is about greatness: what it takes to achieve it, and what toll that exacts upon us.
Made in association with the Chicago Tribune, this outstanding documentary explores the laborious process of the opening of the restaurant Grace in the Second City’s West Loop. Curtis Duffy, already one of the nation’s most renowned chefs while still in his 30s, tells the filmmakers at the start of the project in 2011: he wants to create the finest restaurant in Chicago, and America.
People love to boast about becoming the best there is at something, but few are willing to undertake the sacrifices and perseverance to do so. The reason they fail, the film seems to suggest, is not that that they lack ambition or talent but because they don’t have the sufficient quota of ruthlessness to focus on their goal to the exclusion of all others.
As we first meet him, Curtis seems anything but merciless. He’s young, fit, movie-star handsome, friendly, eager to please, even. Doesn’t talk a whole lot, at least not about himself. But he’s worked for some of the best chefs around, and is determined to join their ranks.
The filmmakers follow Curtis around for more than a year, as he closes down the restaurant, Avenues, where he earned a coveted two-star rating from Michelin’s as a mere employee. He’s upfront about his dissatisfaction: the kitchen was too small, the staff limited, the ownership too unwilling to invest in something to turn it from good to excellent. He wants to build a restaurant from the ground up, and with the backing of investor and friend Mike Olszewski, they’re about to make that dream happen.
Directors Pang and Helenowski wisely don’t spend too much time on the actual outfitting of the place that will be Grace, sort of letting that happen in the background while they step back and more closely examine the background of their subject. Curtis grew up in tiny Johnstown, Ohio, a troublemaker kid in a dirt-poor family where abuse and violence were common.
But he lit up during home economics class, where he was embraced by a teacher named Ruth who gave him the limitless acceptance he found wanting at home. She helped him keep things together when unspeakable tragedy visited upon the Duffys, and nurtured the drive that led him to work in the kitchens of people like the legendary Charlie Trotter.
Speaking of Trotter…
That leads us to the film’s overarching theme: the drive to reach the top of the game in the culinary field. It requires tremendous hard work, inspiration, and cut-throat zeal to reach the top. The filmmakers interview a number of other famous chefs, who speak glowingly of Curtis. But it’s also clear they guard their own reputations and turf religiously.
At one point Curtis goes to eat at Charlie Trotter’s, the first time he’s walked through that door since leaving as an employee a dozen years earlier. And lo! Who happens to be standing at the threshold to greet patrons as they arrive, but Trotter himself. The filmmakers capture this auspicious moment, the shaking of hands, and then… well, you’ll just have to see for yourself.
Also making an appearance is Grant Achatz, head chef at Alinea — the only place in Chicago to receive the highest honor, three stars, from Michelin’s Red Guide. Achatz, who apparently mentored Curtis at one point, praises him effusively. But he also displays the quietly raging ego inherent to top chefs, commenting that even if the student one day surpasses the master, the glory still reflects on the teacher: “I still win.”
The competition aside, it’s a brutal business that regularly requires 14-hour days, mostly on nights and weekends, a situation that essentially forbids a normal family life. The movie short-shrifts the dissolution of Curtis’ marriage — one gets the sense his estranged wife refused to appear on camera — instead using that energy to focus on his enduring relationship with his former hometown teacher. It’s not an even exchange.
I was struck at one point to witness Curtis leaving for work in the wee hours: he drives a crappy old Honda Civic. It’s a bleak reminder that even practiced at its premier level, the restaurant game is a high-wire act of frequent failure and generally tiny fiscal rewards.
“It would be nice to understand happiness, sure. I mean I’m happy, but… balance is what’s missing. In this lifestyle, there is no balance,” Curtis muses. “You can’t be great at something and put 100 percent into everything without sacrificing something else.”
The film ends with the opening of Grace, and we get to witness the dedication and precision that goes into presenting meals that average around $250 per person. Curtis recognizes the investment a meal at his place represents to most people, and coming from living in a trailer, he appreciates the need to give his patrons the highest quality experience as a result. Never be snobby or condescending, he instructs his staff.
Now, let me just say this: the type of cuisine practiced at places like Alinea and Grace is, to me, absurd. I would never go there because I would never wait weeks for a table or spend a month’s grocery bill on a single meal. Furthermore, even if I did I don’t think I’d like the food; it’s too fussy and precious. Foodies seem to worry more about how an entree looks than how it eats. They fetishize food and render it pretentious, seeking out bizarre ingredients and coming up with ever more “creative” ways to cook it, like dehydrating it or preparing it with dry ice so your meal breathes vapors at you like some slumbering dragon.
I just don’t care to invest that type of physical and emotional currency in what is, in the end, fuel.
But what great documentary films like “For Grace” can do is take you out of your own world and mindset and immerse you in that of people for whom food is of unsurpassed significance. I understood Curtis Duffy’s drive to make a great restaurant in his own vision, even if I don’t identify with it.
Here is a man willing to give all of himself to achieving a goal. Whether you or I embrace the same goal, that act is profoundly admirable, and sad. There can be no greatness without regret.