Film Review: Spinning Plates

Outstanding documentary about three very different American restaurants engages on many levels, especially because of the intimate focus on the people and families behind these operations and their personal challenges. There’s much more than food

There’s no doubt that filmmaker Joseph Levy is fond of good food and dining out, but it’s his attention to the people behind dining establishments and the access afforded him that make Spinning Plates so worth a big-screen spin and even a second helping. Also gorgeous to behold, the film is a fine fit for theatrical engagements.

Building interest and suspense with expert intercutting, Levy gives us Chicago’s famous high-end Alinea, a palace of molecular gastronomy and its young star chef owner Grant Achatz; Breitbach’s Country Dining in Balltown, Iowa, and owner Mike Breitbach, whose ancestors founded the down-home establishment in 1852 and whose family still runs it; and La Cocina de Gabby, a struggling Mexican restaurant run by immigrants Francisco and Gabby Martinez.

The food at all three places looks lovely. Less lovely have been some of the lives depicted here. As Achatz nervously awaits word about whether Alinea gets the coveted three Michelin stars he wants (also his way of sticking it to rival Charlie Trotter, the venerable Chicago chef who once employed him), he shares the amazing story of his horrific bout with the tongue cancer that nearly killed him and made him the subject of a New Yorker piece. Even Sloan-Kettering had given him a death sentence.

Breitbach, with the help of his large family, runs his impossibly popular and bustling restaurant that also serves as the community center 365 days a year. (Mother’s Day dinners are especially packed.) He shares the tragedies of two recent fires that destroyed the restaurant and the rallying of the people of Balltown and other areas to help in the rebuilding.

Francisco and Gabby, who struggle to get their Cocina off the ground, also struggle with keeping their home. The room that serves as the restaurant looks painfully empty, but they have plenty of love in the kitchen where Gabby cooks with gusto and their beloved three-year-old daughter Ashley runs around. Like the Breitbachs, the Martinezes magnificently convey the importance of family, love and hard work as survival tools of the kitchen trade.

Levy leavens his testimonies from the owners with considerable footage related to the stories they share. Even world-famous chef Thomas Keller takes time on-camera to talk about his trade and his protégé Achatz.

Spinning Plates is rich indeed, but it’s Levy’s human subjects that are at the film’s considerable heart.