“Spinning Plates” enjoyably profiles a disparate trio of U.S. eateries ranging from the loftiest emporium of gastronomical innovation to the humblest mom-and-pop operation. There’s plenty of human interest in the owners’ personalities and travails, which, rather than any foodie focus, doubtless won the pic the Santa Barbara fest’s docu audience award. Indeed, those elements are so involving that one might not notice until afterward that little in the way of a unified theme emerges to turn Joseph Levy’s feature into something more than a semi-random survey of restaurant life. Nevertheless, niche theatrical is possible, with wider placements assured in ancillary.
The businesses chosen are nothing if not diverse. Chicago’s Alinea is chef Grant Achatz’s vision of food as art, in which he hopes each meal is a “life-changing” experience like nothing the diner has ever tasted (or seen) before. The ultimate in nouvelle cuisine experimentation, its wildly eccentric, sculpturally arranged plates are proportioned such that one can reasonably have a 24-course meal — a culinary voyage into previously uncharted territory.
Alinea hasn’t gone unnoticed. It’s already received numerous honors, including being named the best eatery in America by Restaurant magazine; staffers are seen anxiously waiting to hear if they’ve been awarded the coveted Michelin three-star rating. Meanwhile, ever-ambitious Achatz and his business partner, Nick Kokonas, prepare to open a second establishment that will change its historical/geographical menu focus every few months.
By contrast, familiarity is king at Breitbach’s Country Dining in tiny Balltown, Iowa — a town that rose up around the restaurant rather than vice versa — for which it’s a de facto community center as well as a visitor magnet. (Balltown’s population is about 70, but the business can serve up to 2,000 on a busy weekend.) All-American comfort food (fried chicken, mashed potatoes, pie) is the name of the game 365 days a year, and the Breitbach family is as involved in daily operations as it was when the joint opened 151 years ago.
La Cocina de Gabby, a Mexican restaurant in Tucson, Ariz., opened by emigre Francisco Martinez, is a more intimate family affair — one established to showcase the home cooking of his wife, and hopefully grab one small slice of the American Dream. But the establishment struggles to stay afloat, with the couple’s heavily mortgaged home hanging in the balance. While the very different types of fame Alinea and Breitbach’s enjoy provide a certain insurance, the Martinez venture illustrates just how difficult it is to launch and sustain a restaurant, or any other business, in today’s roiling economy.
Superficially, there are overlaps in the subjects’ extreme dedication, exhausting long hours, and trouble fitting in normal family time. (Without funds for daycare, Martinez’s 3-year-old daughter is a restless prisoner of the kitchen.) There are vague correlations drawn between food and “community,” although that means something very different at an event destination like Alinea (where dinner for two might cost $800) than it does at a neighborly mega-diner like Breitbach’s. Also, since we seldom hear from customers, and only Alinea has a high-profile culinary rep, the pic leaves curiously blank the question of whether the food at the other two establishments is anything special — or even whether that matters.
Providing “Spinning Plates” with narrative glue, if not a distinct overall focus, are the personal dramas that arise. The Martinez family’s precarious financial situation is one source of suspense; others include a principal figure’s serious health crisis and a couple of business-shuttering fires. (It’s a bit of a cheat, however, that some of these incidents are presented as if they were unfolding oncamera, though we later learn they happened several years earlier.)
Making his feature debut 14 years after the wildly popular short “George Lucas in Love” (with various TV projects in between), Levy weaves his strands into a slick package that’s accomplished on all tech/design levels.