The final SIFF screening For Grace, a documentary by first-time directors Mark Helenowski and Kevin Pang, a Seattle-area native whose day job is food writer for the Chicago Tribune, is today Sunday, May 17 at 3:45 p.m. at Pacific Place I loved the film. I don’t want to go into too much detail (because spoilers!), but I found myself so moved (almost haunted) by Duffy's story that I wanted to talk to Pang, who will be in attendance this afternoon to introduce the film and do a Q&A session.
For the first third of For Grace I worried briefly that I wouldn't be able to last through the whole thing. Even for someone interested in food and restaurants, there's only so much footage of meetings with architects and contractors that you can take. I also struggled to connect with the film's main subject, Curtis Duffy, a masterful (Duffy came up through Chicago's Charlie Trotter and Alinea restaurants) but stoic chef who's obviously reticent to open up about much more than his singular goal to open the "best restaurant in the world." We see Duffy, who is even handsome in the most boring way imaginable, working out at the gym at 4 a.m. and expressing almost zero emotion as he talks about how his dreams have led to a separation from his wife and daughters.
But then—suddenly—everything changes. The nuts-and-bolts restaurant opening stuff gives way to on one of the most affecting, emotionally riveting scenes I’ve ever witnessed, which allows the rest of the film to unfold quickly—and for viewers to become attached to Duffy himself.
When I admitted all this to Pang, he told me he understood. "It's kind of boring to just see carpets being purchased," he said. And Duffy, he said, when not talking about food, "is super reserved, not very emotive.
"We actually had very, very low expectations for the project," says Pang. "Originally this was supposed to be for our website—a fifteen-minute video about the mechanics of opening a restaurant."
Because Duffy's restaurant was delayed so much (from six months to a year-and-a-half), Pang and Helenowski found themselves spending almost seven months straight with Duffy. An unexpected trust and bond developed. "Only after spending so much time with us every single day, he starts opening up," Pang says.
It turns out that pivotal scene in the middle of the film—the "Holy Shit" moment I had—is the same moment Pang and Helenowski had. The film's storytelling is so powerful because it's the directors' own experiences. "That scene was the first time we found out [about Duffy's past] as well. We had no idea.
"That was an interesting day," Pang recalled. "We started filming at 3:30 that morning. By the end of the day, sixteen, seventeen hours later, we just started talking about his family. That was all one take."
After filming, as he and Helenowski drove back home, says Pang, "We thought, 'What the hell just happened? Did he really just say that?' It was at that very moment that we realized it couldn't be a twenty-minute short video. It had to be something else. The story is just so incredible we had to tell people."
Now that the film is completed—four years after it began—Pang will show his film at SIFF. "If I had one festival to choose that I really wanted to go to, it was SIFF," said Pang. "For sentimental and emotional reasons, SIFF is the one I dreamed about getting into."
Pang grew up in Kent ("Meridian High, Class of '99") His parents live on Queen Anne and his sister lives on Capitol Hill. He says he tries to make it back to Seattle two or three times a year to visit them. But this trip is especially meaningful, as a bunch of local friends whom he hasn't seen in a long time are coming to the screenings. "To be able to show this film to my friends and my family and to colleagues is absolutely astonishing," he says.
Since Pang is a food writer (he's a three-time nominee for James Beard Foundation journalism awards, and a 2010 winner for his multimedia food feature The Cheeseburger Show), I couldn't resist asking him where plans to eat while he's in town.
In high school Pang took the 150 bus from Kent on Saturdays to get to his job at the magic shop in Pike Place Market. "Now, every single time I visit Seattle, I always go to the market first," he says. He goes to the same places: Daily Dozen for doughnuts, Emmet Watson's for oysters, and Chicken Valley for fried chicken. "It's almost this ritual for me."
Pang also plans to check out Capitol Hill newcomer Nue. "Any place that has a global eclectic menu of street food, that's ballsy enough to try it, I want to check out," he says. He'll also head over to Capitol Hill's the Old Sage because, "when I was there two years ago, I had these smoked duck wings and it was one of the most delicious things I had all year. Here's a place that does smoked meats but not in a barbecue or Southern way." If time allows, Pang will hit up another sentimental favorite, Kau Kau in the International District, for Cantonese roast pork.
"Seattle is an amazing food town," says Pang. "I have this deep, emotional connection to the city."