Doc about famous local chef premieres at SXSW Friday

For Kevin Pang and Mark Helenowski having their first documentary accepted for a world premiere at SXSW Film, Music and Digital Festival after more than three years in the works, was like winning the lottery, says Helenowski, sounding still awed at their unexpected good fortune.

Their feature-length doc, “For Grace,” is one of many “Made in Chicago” artistic and innovative technology presentations being made at SXSW, March 15-21 in Austin, Texas.

“For Grace,” about how Chicago Michelin star chef Curtis Duffy’s intense focus on making his new West Loop luxury restaurant Grace, the best in America cost him his marriage and family, screens Friday, March 13 at the Alamo theatre.

Chicago Magazine hailed the doc as “Sweet and brutal and smart and beautiful … Every emotion it provokes … is earned the old fashioned way: through great storytelling.” 

Pang, the Chicago Tribune’s food writer, and filmmaker Helenowski, 24, who’s been shooting content since he was in high school, first got together to produce an “interesting take on a super dining restaurant in 2011,” says Helenowski. “We thought maybe we’d make a 20 or 30 minute piece and put it on the website,” Helenowski says.

While they were mulling over the doc’s subject, Pang was hearing rumors about master chef Duffy leaving Avenues, the Peninsula hotel restaurant, to open his own place. Duffy previously had opened Alinea with Chef Grant Achatz and before that he worked at Charlie Trotter’s.

“We reached out to him and Curtis said yes, it was happening and yes, we could film it,” Helenowski recalls.  

Starting in 2011 when Duffy began working on Grace, the doc became a two-person project, just Helenowski and Pang sharing production duties. “We shot for 100 days, on a 50-50 basis, all-in-all, and we’re still on speaking terms,” Helenowski says.

Editing was completely collaborative as each would concentrate for a period of time and then trade off the work. Chicago band The Hudson provided the music.  

The team finished shooting in December, 2012, and held the first preview in October, 2014.  “But after that, Curtis received three Michelin stars for his restaurant and we went back and picked up the camera after 18 months and recorded the moment he received the stars.”

The producing partners, who first connected on a pilot for WGN/9, entered “For Grace” “completely cold” into SXSW’s highly competitive film section, Helenowski says.  “We put it in the wind.  We had no hopes for it scoring.  We sent in a lottery ticket and we won.”