The face of the modern chef is a familiar one: worn, determined, driven, and unhinged. Entering the kitchen of high class restaurants around the world means dealing with personalities that are ruthless and demand nothing short of perfection, no matter what the cost. Climbing the rungs means long hours and little pay in an environment that breeds its share of vices, and leaves little opportunity to sustain successful relationships with those who don’t understand the world of haute cuisine. Reality television and documentary films have certainly played into that narrative, and “For Grace” also underscores some of those same tropes you might’ve seen before. What elevates the film from directors Kevin Pang and Mark Helenowski into something unique in the food doc genre is a broader narrative that isn’t just about professional success, but a journey of personal growth that goes beyond the meticulously crafted meals at Chicago’s celebrated Grace.
When the movie kicks off, Chef Curtis Duffy is about to take the boldest risk of his career. He’s closing the celebrated Avenues at the Peninsula Chicago Hotel, because even though it was well received, with two Michelin stars to show for it, the constant battle for space and resources left him frustrated and feeling like he couldn’t expand his skills or vision. So with close friend and business partner Michael Muser, he lands a space all his own, guts it, and plans to fully design, build, staff, train, and open a new restaurant within a year. It’s an ambitious schedule, and Duffy soon finds out that opening a restaurant might be even harder than working in one, with delay upon delay beginning to mount. Where most documentaries would take viewers every step of the way in watching Duffy see his dream come true, “For Grace” fascinatingly diverts in the middle third to share the wrenching story from his past that is clearly the driving force in helping shape the man he has become.
It’s hard to know how much to give away about what’s revealed, because while it’s not exactly a spoiler in the traditional sense, it is probably best not knowing too much about the tragedy that rocked Duffy’s life. But the incident, which in many ways capped off a childhood spent in poverty, with parents who fought constantly, and in an environment that could be said was unstable, only pushed Duffy to focus even more intensely on the culinary path he had already started on. While the filmmakers would’ve been wise to perhaps pursue the psychological impact a bit further, it doesn’t take much to connect Duffy’s drive as a partial way to escape emotional pain. But he wasn’t operating in isolation either, both professionally and personally, he had support from those around him.
“For Grace” is peppered throughout with input from past employers, like Chef Grant Achatz (profiled in the documentary “Spinning Plates“), and colleagues who are bracingly honest about the challenges Duffy faces in starting his own venture, but are also admiring of his skills and talent. Perhaps the most moving presence in the film is from Ruth Snider, Duffy’s home economics teacher from his small town junior high school, who first glimpsed his passion for cooking and encouraged him. Still cheerleading for him, their bond is deep, genuine, and rare. Watching her face light up when she steps into Grace on opening night, coupled with her unreserved affection for her former student, reveals exactly what makes Snider such a special person and important confidante for Duffy. If the film has one minor flaw, it’s that the filmmakers can’t manage that same kind of openness from Duffy. His default position is an introverted, almost frighteningly calm demeanor. Even when discussing his divorce and the fact that he no longer lives with his daughters, Duffy maintains a stoic facade. There are some cracks here and there throughout the film, but his steely resolve can be distancing on occasion (though it should be noted that Muser does make up for some of it with a handful of touching moments in the leadup to the launch of the restaurant).
However, to make too much of it would be like faulting a meal because the lighting in the room was slightly too dim. “For Grace” isn’t just about the cost of achieving excellence, or a hymn for the sacrifices of working in the culinary field. While that’s part of it, the film is also about the making of a man, the ability to overcome disaster, and exceeding the expectations that the surroundings you’re born into might set you up for. “Grace is the beauty of form, under the influence of freedom,” Duffy has tattooed on his left forearm. And with each passing day, it seems he’s striving ever closer to reach the definition of that word. [B+]