TV shows portraying the food world have proliferated in the past decade, giving viewers across the country the chance to tune into a highly dramatized version of what goes on behind the scenes in some of America’s best restaurants. What those series seem to miss, director Joseph Levy noticed, was the human story–the emotional and personal elements that bind restaurateurs together, despite the fact that the kinds of places they run vary greatly.
Those stories are what Levy set out to portray in Spinning Plates, a documentary premiering at the Landmark Sunshine (143 Houston Street, 212-260-7289) on Friday. “The film is about three very different restaurants: Alinea–the No. 7 restaurant in the world–a 150-year-old restaurant in Iowa, and a restaurant in Tucson,” he explains. “It explores everything that goes into food and beyond–the legacy and story of survival that you don’t see when you walk in, order your dinner, and don’t give a second thought to the place. You see three different and fascinating stories, and you see how they line up. You see how food is this medium of emotions, and it can run as a common thread to incredibly dissimilar elements.”
See also: Our review of Spinning Plates
Levy says the seed for the movie was planted when he met Grant Achatz 10 years ago. “He was cooking at Trio in Evanston, which was his first job after French Laundry,” he explains. “You could see that he was this phenom. He won the Rising Star James Beard award a couple of months later, and I knew I wanted to do more with him.” A few years ago, Levy started playing with the idea of going deep into restaurants, telling stories that don’t come out on Bravo and Food Network, where, he says, there’s “not really intense storytelling about the drama and struggles. I wanted to show three worlds and look at life and food through three lenses.”
Achatz had recently won his battle with tongue cancer, so Alinea was Levy’s first stop. Next, he looked for a country kitchen along the lines of restaurants he’d grown up with in Corpus Christi, Texas, the kind of small town spot, he says, that people would eat at five times a week. He found one in rural Iowa. “Balltown is a town of 70 people that has a restaurant that holds 400, and on some weekends, it serves 2,000,” he explains. “That’s already a mystery worthy of a film. What’s going on there? Then I hear that there are seven local guys who open the restaurant every day and make the coffee before the owner gets there. I think, oh, I’m in.” That restaurant–Breitbach’s Country Dining–burned down in 2007, another piece of the story Levy wanted to tell. “When the restaurant burned down, it was like a test to show how committed the town was to the restaurant,” he explains. “It was amazing. They wouldn’t let it die. It was the beating heart of the town.”
Levy wanted his third subject to tell the story of a family in search of the American dream via food, and it took him awhile to nail down a restaurant with the right elements. “I wanted a restaurant that was fighting that everyman struggle that never gets told or publicized,” he says. “I had to search through many cities, because if a place hasn’t been written about, how do you find it online?” He uncovered a small blurb on a Tucson restaurant that seemed promising, so he jumped on a plane and had lunch there. The owner, a patriarch of a family of Mexican immigrants, poured his heart out to Levy, discussing the challenges of having a home in foreclosure while he tried to make a restaurant work. “It was exactly the story I wanted to tell,” says the director.
Levy set to work, spending some time in each restaurant before he actually began shooting. When the camera started rolling, he says, he had just four or five days in each spot. And when he sat down to edit, he saw a number of themes emerge, including a revelatory sequence that he puts together at the end. The result, he hopes, is a film that is not so much about food as it is about humans. “People come to this movie thinking it’s about food and leave saying it wasn’t about food at all–it’s about a lot of things,” he says.
Spinning Plates rolls out on Friday here in New York, and goes into more cities in a couple of weeks. Hit the next page for an exclusive clip.