Most recent culinary documentaries focus either on how the food made by specific iconic chefs has changed the industry or on food based competitions. But what about the actual art and emotion that goes into making a dish and what that art says about the person? In many ways, a great parallel can be made between the three vastly different types of cuisine and families being profiled in Joseph Levy’s crowd pleasing and generally well done feature Spinning Plates. Whether it’s simple family fare, product produced for mass consumption, or challenging and innovate art, I could be just as easily talking about the food on display or the types of movies that I watched this week. They all certainly have their intended audiences. It also ties back to the first lines of this very film when a subject states that restaurants exist solely to entertain people. Levy taps into these same parallels with restaurants of three different backgrounds that all share similar passions and heartaches.
Chicago’s heavily touted Alenea, run by still fairly young head chef Grant Achatz, specializes in molecular gastronomy and modernist cuisine that blends art, craft, and science. In the small town of Baltown, Iowa, Mike Breibach has been carrying on a legacy by managing a busy down home restaurant that’s been in his family for over 150 years. Gabby and Francisco Martinez from Tucson, Arizona have a similar familial connection to their authentic Mexican recipes, but they’re new to the industry and can’t afford to have any more slow business days.
While the problems of Gabby and Francisco are mostly tied to the dire economics of their situation, the other stories also have their share of human drama that informs the food and the businesses that have been created and maintained by these personalities. Achatz had a rough upbringing, a massive falling out with one of the first people he ever idolized in the business, and he lives his life knowing that a past cancer diagnosis that nearly killed him could come back at any time to claim his sense of taste. Mike and his family have to deal with an economy that doesn’t guarantee business all the time, and they’ve also been shaken in recent years by tragedies that nearly destroyed the business twice.
And yet, through it all, what makes Levy’s look at what makes someone want to run a restaurant work is that all three owners want to share something really close to their hearts. Their intentions go deeper than a list of ingredients or preparation instructions. Grant handles food like a writer or an artist would handle dealing with an unshakable emotion, and he has the drive and determination to strive for the impossible even if some might think he looks silly doing it. The Breibach family are pillars of their community running an operation that functions almost more like a community centre than a small town greasy spoon. Gabby wants to share the meals she loved so much with a larger community, but she’s having troubles getting people to take notice.
Levy never harps on the actual technical artistry or even quality of the food outside of the admittedly pretty neat mad scientist vibe given off by Grant. Instead, he shows perfectly why food is art and he lets the artists speak for themselves. If true or honest art is the extension of one’s soul, then it doesn’t matter if it’s a flash-frozen olive oil lozenge or a steamer tray of fried chicken. These are restaurants that exist not to make money, but because the food and the sense of giving a patron what they want matters to these personalities who earn the right to be called entertainers. It’s beautifully human and heartfelt, and it should go without saying that it will probably make viewers extremely hungry.