"For Grace": A Movie About the Pursuit - and Price - of Excellence

A cautionary tale for aspiring chefs

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By David Hammond

The first time I saw Chef Curtis Duffy was maybe six or so years ago at a dinner we enjoyed at Avenues, a Michelin two-star restaurant. We dined with Michael Gebert – now editor of Fooditor – and his wife. About mid-way through the meal, which was spectacular, I got up and walked by the kitchen, and there right by the pass was Duffy; he looked up and smiled with an expression that seemed to say, "I'm having fun. You?"

Years later, I ran into Duffy and Tribune food writer Kevin Pang at Facets, where we'd gone to see a movie about, what else (?), food and chefs. I didn't know it at the time, but Duffy and Pang and co-director Mark Helenowski were at that time working on a movie about the chef, his life, and Grace, his restaurant.

Months before the restaurant actually opened, Gebert himself had done a fine series of videos about how the restaurant came together through design, menu development, and artistic vision. Pang, on the other hand, is just as interested in how Duffy himself became one of the world's great chefs, and it's fair to say that he is that now, having lead Grace to become one of only two Chicago restaurants to have received three Michelin stars (the maximum amount any restaurant can receive).

 A big part of "For Grace" is the examination of Duffy's life, past and present.

Every review of this movie will likely mention the central tragedy in Duffy's life (his parentss violent deaths), so I feel that raising it here requires no spoiler alert. What I would like to mention is the deft presentation of this biographical bombshell in the movie: Pang/Helenowski foreshadow this dark event early on during a discussion of marriage, family, and other relationships when Duffy's sister vaguely mentions a "tragedy" that's not fully explained at that point. The movie continues on other themes, and then when the emotional theme of relationships comes up again, we're ready to hear the story, which is shocking and sad and requires the strategic narrative buffering that Pang/Helenowski provide.

"For Grace" talks bluntly to chefs about their personal relationships: forget all that stuff. Grant Achatz, who worked with Duffy at both Evanston's Trio and Lincoln Park's Alinea, does a very sincere, direct to camera plea to chefs to understand: when you're working as a chef, if you have a wife or girlfriend, you will never see her; if you want more than a few hours of sleep, forget it; if you have a dog, find someone else to walk it; "you won't have time. 

"For Grace" takes us into the kitchen of the restaurant, as it's being built from a dilapidated shell on Randolph, but it also follows Duffy home to his humble apartment, to his un-fancy car, and it becomes clear that this chef, like so many other exceptional practitioners of his craft, is not in it for the money (at least not yet). Duffy mentions that when he worked at Trio, one of the most acclaimed local restaurants at that time, he made $400/week. It's likely that many diners at Trio dropped more than that on a single dinner or even a single bottle of wine.

The expenses of starting a restaurant like Grace are briefly explored, and they are appalling. When you're shooting to be the best restaurant in the country, as GM/partner Michael Muser explains, expense is almost not a consideration: you're going for the best, whatever the cost.  If you've ever visited Grace, you've seen the comfy chairs; they cost $1,000 each. When you're working to push excellence to the limit, you swallow that expense. If those chairs cost twice as much, and if you thought they were definitely the right chairs for the restaurant, you would have to pay it.

One cannot but be moved by Muser's passionate address to his staff on opening day. This is a man who reviews with his staff, before every meal, a thumbnail dossier on every customer who's visiting that night {"he likes ginger ale," "he's a conductor," etc.) so that service will be personal and tailored to the individual.  As Duffy himself pointed out early on in the film, when people are spending so much for dinner (conservatively, I'd estimate on average maybe $300 each, and many times much more than that), they expect and deserve to get seamless, superb service.

There are a number of subthemes in this movie, fascinating for those follow the restaurant industry. For instance, there's a chilling psychodrama that plays out when Duffy and Muser attempt to have one last dinner at Trotter's, where Duffy once worked in the kitchen. Here's the Cliff Notes version: Trotter to Duffy, "Get the F*ck out of here."

On a more gracious note, Chef Grant Achatz of Alinea explains why he wants Duffy, his former employee, to do better than he himself has done: "If the protégé doesn't surpass the mentor, then the mentor didn't do his job." That sentiment is, indeed, grace personified, and it suggests the attitude of the current generation of chefs who are more collaborative and collegial and less like the angry gods of old school kitchens.

"For Grace" is also, of course, a cautionary tale for any aspiring chef because it gets to the heart of what it means to be a chef (hint: expertise, passion, sacrifice) while stripping away a lot of the glamour that many young chefs seem to be seeking once they've achieve a culinary arts degree. Receiving a degree from the Culinary Institute of America or Kendall College is no doubt hard work.  But it's just the beginning: you'd better love what you do and be driven by almost monomaniacal passion for excellence, because it's very likely you will never make it, and even if you do, it will hurt.

We saw "For Grace" as part of this year's Chicago Film Festival, and Pang announced that it will be available through various streaming services. If you come across it, and you care anything about food and the pursuit of excellence, stop and look.





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