There’s little to suggest the restaurant industry needs a champion, but director Joseph Levy took on that mantle anyway.
His feature debut is the splendid and engrossing documentary Spinning Plates, a love letter to that singular intersection of artistic innovation, cultural legacy, community pride, and family-sustaining (or -straining) commerce known as the restaurant. Framed as a profile of three eateries, Spinning Plates is most satisfying as portraits of three very disparate families in the same line of work.
The undisputed star is renowned chef Grant Achatz, owner of Chicago’s Alinea. With the anxious eagerness of a grade-grubber, the wispy-goateed wunderkind describes his ongoing efforts to make his molecular gastropub the “best restaurant in the country.” Sounding every bit as pretentious as someone who places his dishes on pine-scented pillows, he describes his ideal customer: “You’re here to experience something you’ve never felt before, but something you recognize in yourself.” Achatz’s loftiness is grounded by the story of his diagnosis of stage-four tongue cancer at the peak of his career, as well as the much humbler backgrounds of the other two subjects.
The proprietors of 161-year-old Breitbach’s Country Dining in rural Iowa speak with Midwestern reserve, but the candor of the owners of failing La Cocina de Gabby in Tucson makes their scenes riveting. Facing the foreclosure of their home, Gabby’s husband considers extending delivery times to 2 a.m. for a few extra bucks. It’s a classic immigrant tale—one that’s wrenchingly, saltily real.