'Spinning Plates' review: Three restaurants, three cuisines, three juggling acts
Three restaurants with three wildly different agendas make for three generally compelling stories in "Spinning Plates," a documentary that plays like a very good pilot for a Food Network series that never was.
Writer-director Joseph Levy tells the tale of one of the finest restaurants in the world, Alinea in Chicago, with its storied "molecular gastronomy" pioneer chef Grant Achatz and its pursuit of that treasured three-star Michelin Guide rating. Levy also hangs out in Balltown, Iowa, where Breitbach's Country Dining has been in the same family for 150 years, and is an anchor in the tiny community it calls home.
And Levy follows the week-to-week struggles of the Martinez family, Latin-American immigrants whose American dream is to open a Mexican restaurant (La Cocina de Gabby) in Tucson's crowded Mexican restaurant market.
Achatz, whose story is dramatic enough to have warranted a New Yorker profile, worries about his "legacy," showing off a kitchen filled with gadgets that allow him to flash-freeze this or that, or fill scent pillows with the essence of pine needles and whatnot to heighten the frozen or seared delicacies he and his ingenious crew of food inventors concoct.
Mike Breitbach, whose down-home eatery is such a fixture in town that lots of locals who don't work there have keys to the front door, worries that his daughter, Annie, will have to take over Breitbach's without siblings joining her in the Herculean task. He remembers the tests that this big-scale buffet-oriented restaurant passed in surviving, since 1861, in a town of 70.
And the Martinezes do what immigrants have always done -- work insane hours, enlist the whole family, babysit their 3-year-old in the kitchen (dangerous, maybe illegal) and strain to stay above water. Gaby's Cocina is not the only place, Achatz notes, where "the lifestyle" of restaurant work includes 16 hour days, seven days a week.
There aren't a lot of outside voices vouching for the food of these three groups of dreamers. Alinea, which changes its cuisine, decor and motif every few months to keep things fresh and new, may be acclaimed. Testimonials about the less famous restaurants are missing.
But "Spinning Plates" is a surprisingly affecting juggling act, with each story having its compelling revelations of the extreme obstacles each eatery and its owners have faced and will face. The stakes are raised and what had been a loosely connected trio of tales of passion, commitment and food becomes something deeper and meant to last as long as the memory of an unforgettable meal.
Cast: Grant Achatz, Mike Breitbach, Annie Breitbach, Thomas Keller, Gabby and Francisco Martinez
Written and directed by Joseph Levy. A Film Arcade release.
Running time: 1:35
MPAA rating: Unrated
Photo/Video credit: Film Arcade
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