Kevin Pang, “For Grace”
Kevin Pang, co-director of the documentary film “For Grace,” talks about the challenges of following around renowned chef Curtis Duffy for more than a year as he struggled to launch his own restaurant. For more information and Indy Film Fest showtimes, click here.
How did you meet Chef Duffy and how did the project get started?
On my desk is a dry-erase board of project ideas. One of those is a series of short films about how 4-star chefs conceive dishes. Like, what would compel them to pair surf clams with chamomile, pineapple and zucchini? That high level of thinking — chefs talk about “flavor triangulation with the mind’s palate” — I thought would be interesting for laypeople. When I pitched this idea to Curtis Duffy, he said, “Well, you know I’m opening my own restaurant, right?” And that’s the germ of the idea. I reached out to Mark Helenowski, a young local filmmaker who I’ve worked with on some Tribune projects. We agreed to collaborate on this project … not knowing this would swallow up our lives for the next 40 months.
Tell me about producing this in association with the Chicago Tribune, how did that work with a legacy media company and do you see this as a new model for documentary filmmaking?
So I’m a food writer at the Chicago Tribune, and I’m lucky my bosses give me a lot of creative latitude. Originally the project was conceived as a 15-minute short film for the website. And honestly, anything more ambitious than that, my superiors likely wouldn’t have given me the time or freedom to work on the project. But as filming progressed, it became evident that this was a story that needed to be told, so much so I worked on this on my own time. As for the newspaper, we turned the story into a front-page feature that ran on five open pages of the paper (chicagotribune.com/curtisduffy). The paper got what they wanted out of the story; I got to make a full-length documentary with their moral support.
How long did you shoot? Any particular challenges or notable events in the course of production?
Principal shooting lasted about 15 months. We were present at every important moment from the last dinner service at Avenues to opening night at Grace. There were moments of revelation where Mark and I looked at each other and went, “Did that just really happen?” Like the time we sat in the lobby of WBNS-TV in Columbus, Ohio and saw footage of “The Raid” on a laptop for the first time. Or the time Curtis revealed the circumstances of his parents’ death … that didn’t happen until eight months into filming. Beyond his immediate family, he kept details of the tragedy to himself for 18 years. We drove home that night in complete silence, gobsmacked. But that was also the moment of realization that we had earned Curtis’ trust. Now there were no secrets. As filmmakers and journalists, that level of candor is vital.
Please talk about the photography of “For Grace,” especially of the food, and how instrumental that was to your vision.
We’ll be honest: We had very little to do with how beautiful the food looked. Yes, we did hit record, we did use slider dolly shots, we employed the best lens our budget could afford. But most of the credit goes to Curtis Duffy and his artistic sense. So we can’t take full credit for that — that’s about the most collaborative thing Curtis and we did throughout the film.
Curtis Duffy is an interesting guy. He seems reluctant to talk about himself, yet over the course of the film we get a vivid portrait of him. How’d you do it?
Time + trust = access. It was a trust that developed and strengthened over many months. As I said, it wasn’t until eight months into filming that he revealed to us the details of what happened to his parents. Besides my wife, there wasn’t a human being I got to know more deeply these last four months as Curtis.
How much of an effort did you make to speak to those closed to him, aka his surviving family, ex-wife, close friends, etc.?
We approached this as a work of journalism, with all the ethics and morals and due diligence as a reported newspaper story. We contacted as many people in his social and family circle as we can. Some were happy to speak with us. Some needed convincing. Some weren’t ready to talk.
After going through this process, what’s your view of what it takes to be a great chef?
Well there’s different genres of cooking. Just like there’s a difference in writing between, say, Hollywood bloggers (quantity, frequency of posting) vs. Cormac McCarthy (a landmark novel every decade). Cooking is a blue collar profession for many. It’s long hours, it’s about productivity and volume. A chef like Curtis might be judged on a different level, from a creative and philosophical standpoint. Chefs of his ilk are about pushing the art forward. It also requires dedication on an obsessive, all-consuming level. But that’s expected of all artists, right?
What’s next for you?
I’d be lying if I told you the filmmaking process was all sunshine and lollipops. What did Dorothy Parker say: “I hate writing, but I love having written?” Making a movie is that times five bajillion. It was a death slog, exasperating and exhausting, especially the moments when you don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. That being said, Mark and I would both tell you this documentary is the proudest thing we’ve ever done. But speaking for myself, I just don’t see another commitment like this in the foreseeable future. I’d be happy sticking to writing. My next project is a book I’ve been dying to write about Cantonese food.