SXSW Film Review: For Grace (USA, 2014)

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For the love of food. For Grace is a documentary that follows world-acclaimed chef, Curtis Duffy as he embarks on a journey to open his dream restaurant called Grace. The film is an insightful look at the highs, lows and the meticulous and determined attention-to-detail that is required in opening a fine dining establishment. It also describes Duffy’s turbulent past and shows how these events shaped him so that he could become one of the most successful chefs in the world.

For Grace makes its silver screen debut at SXSW and is by filmmakers, Mark Helenowski and Kevin Pang (who is also an award-winning food writer at the Chicago Tribune). The film weaves together many different elements like a complex dish. We see how the restaurant is planned to an almost minute level of detail, from Duffy looking at around 100 spaces in Chicago to the chef and his business partner spending $1000 a piece on comfortable chairs.

Then there are the mouth-watering food shots of Duffy’s creations like the salmon meyer lemon red cabbage, oyster blueberry sea bean, scallop huckleberry liquorice and golden beet black garlic strawberry, among others. There are lots of talking head interviews with executive chefs from prestigious restaurants as well as journalist, Mark Caro. It is good to hear from Duffy’s former mentor, Grant Achatz from Alinea Restaurant (which has earned itself three Michelin stars). Achatz hopes Duffy will surpass his accolades and success, as the former believes this is the measure of a good teacher.

The most insightful interviews however, are with Curtis’ sister, Trisha Duffy and his home economics teacher, Ruth Snider. The latter was a huge influence on Duffy’s life. She introduced him to cooking and recognised his natural ability. She would also be the last diner at Grace’s opening night and has been a strong sounding board for Duffy over the years, after he encountered lots of personal tragedy including his own marriage breakdown as he worked hard to get his dream restaurant opened.

There are some scenes in this film that work better than others. A confrontation with one of Duffy’s early mentors, Charlie Trotter, who is bitter with some of his former staff who had previously brought a class action against him over pay issues (Duffy doesn’t remember signing anything with relation to this) seems melodramatic, hostile and unnecessary. Getting to watch the detail that goes into the final meal and service was interesting, if not a bit repetitive at times. It will give viewers a new appreciation as to the lengths that go into executing culinary perfection, elegant fine dining and progressive American cuisine. Duffy is generally poker-faced but he is at his most charming and best when he is being disarmingly honest and talking about how his professional ambitions have had a disastrous effect on his personal life.

For Grace is all about a charismatic, type A personality’s love of cooking as well as a chronicle of a small town recalcitrant who went on to achieve success and Michelin stars at various Chicago eateries before his latest crescendo, his own restaurant. This documentary is inspiring and while it does contain some drama, it is ultimately uplifting. It’s a story about the ingredients to life and it should prove to be essential viewing for any self-respecting foodie.

Review Score: THEE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Runtime: 93 minutes

For Grace premiered at SXSW in Austin over the weekend – additional screenings will be held on March 20th. For more information and tickets please visit: the official SXSW schedule