Every restaurant prides itself on its distinct vibe. But Joseph Levy’s surprisingly moving documentary Spinning Plates discovers a mutual truth: whether you’re running a taqueria with a drive-through or an expensive restaurant gunning for a Michelin star, there are similar motives and emotions behind and on the table.
The three restaurants Levy profiles are Alinea, a fine-dining establishment in Chicago that specializes in the experimental wizardry of molecular gastronomy; the modest, homey Breitbach’s Country Dining, which has been a gathering place in Balltown, Iowa since the 1860s; and La Cocina de Gabby, a Mexican eatery in Tucson, Arizona that can’t find its footing. Wildly different in size, shape and price, what all three share is the way the cooks put their heart and soul into each dish.
The staff at Alinea equates dining “with a great performance,” and that perception has served head chef Grant Achatz well. Alinea was recently rated the #1 restaurant in North America and #7 in the world and has a reputation for inventive, painstaking cooking that makes diners think anew about familiar tastes and sensations.
Some find great affectation in such Alinea techniques as the amputation of every nodule of a blackberry for a novel dessert or freezing drops of olive oil into lozenges. Others may consider it silly or outrageous to have five people spend twelve hours for one bite. Yet Achatz is highly creative and passionate and, when he suffers a tragically ironic medical diagnosis late in the film, there’s a sense of what his loss might mean to the food industry.
Breitbach’s is a restaurant so embedded in the community that several locals have keys to the front door; it’s not unusual for people to let themselves in before the owners arrive to get the coffee started. It’s known for its raspberry pie and steaks as big as hubcaps, as well as lines out the door nearly every Sunday. The Breitbach family has deep roots in Balltown and open hearts, perhaps explaining why the town wouldn’t let them retire the joint when the restaurant burns to the ground not once but twice in ten months.
Gabby, the Martinez matriarch of La Cocina de Gabby, cooks soulful Mexican food for several hours a day yet the family can’t get a break. A tearful Gabby relays her fears about their finances and, when a brainstorm about breakfast tacos isn’t the elixir she’d hoped, one hopes for her that something else will materialize.
Director Joseph Levy is less obsessed with the actual ingredients of menu options than he is with the question about what makes a restaurant special. His subjects are good, decent people and the movie’s a tribute to their aim to please.
Spinning Plates | Dir. Joseph Levy | 101 minutes | Playing at Tivoli Cinemas in Westport, 4050 Pennsylvania, Kansas City, Mo.