“Spinning Plates” is a foodie phantasmagoria and something more. On one level a series of mini-docs on a trio of wildly different eating establishments, it becomes a group portrait of the restaurant business as well as an involving look at personal dramas that go well beyond the kitchen.
This is the first documentary feature for writer-director Joseph Levy (who previously produced the Food Network series “Into the Fire”), and he has been shrewd in the three restaurants he profiles — places that have passionate, articulate key personnel who would all agree that, as one of them puts it, “This is not just our job; this is our life.”
The highest-end place, not just in the film but according to fans throughout the country, is Alinea in Chicago, whose chef, Grant Achatz, is a charismatic and volatile culinary visionary.
A veteran of four years at the French Laundry, Achatz is a kind of scientist/chef, a leader in a trend called molecular gastronomy who puts hours of experimentation into dishes so complex the man himself looks on them as absurd. Among the culinary challenges on his mind is the first visit to Chicago by Michelin Guide judges and his determination to get the maximum three stars.
It’s not Michelin stars but Mother’s Day that concerns Mike and Cindy Breitbach, owners of Breitbach’s Country Dining in the hamlet of Balltown, Iowa. The town may have only 70 inhabitants, but the restaurant can serve more than 2,000 people on a major holiday.
The oldest restaurant and bar in the state, the place has had Breitbachs owning and operating it for six generations. More than that, it serves as a community center — half a dozen customers have keys of their own and can be counted on to open the place themselves if the owners are running late.
Humbler still is a Mexican restaurant in Tucson called La Cocina de Gabby. Open only eight months as the film begins, with no employees outside of family, it is the culmination of a lifetime dream for Francisco Martinez, who thinks his wife, Gabby, “cooks like an angel.” Gabby was so passionate about wanting to open a restaurant featuring her mother’s and grandmother’s recipes that she sold her jewelry to help get it off the ground.
Given the widely varied cuisines and customer bases of these three places, it comes as a fascinating surprise when interviews reveal how much the spirit and energy behind these establishments have in common.
Not only do all the chefs and owners share the desire and the dream of expressing themselves through food, no matter how humble or exalted, they also understand that each and every restaurant experience has to be a treat of some kind for the customer.
“Every restaurant exists to entertain people,” says Nick Kokonas, Alinea’s owner. “No one needs to eat out.”
“Spinning Plates” offers enough tantalizing footage of food being prepared to turn this into one of those features that should not be seen on an empty stomach. But what raises this film to a more interesting level is that in addition to the food, each segment presents a personal drama that extends beyond the table.
For Alinea, the crisis involves chef Achatz’s health, for Breitbach’s it’s what could be called acts of god, and for La Cocina de Gabby the problem is financial. In each case, what French Laundry owner Thomas Keller calls the “total dedication and total commitment” that restaurants demand is very much put to the test.
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Playing: At Landmark, West Los Angeles