Home Video Hovel: Spinning Plates, by Chase Beck
Joseph Levy’s Spinning Plates is a documentary presenting three seemingly disparate restaurants in America. Throughout its 93 minutes, the film is constantly switching, as if possessed with the attention span of a 5-year-old with undiagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, between three restaurants: Alinea in Chicago, Illinois; Breitbach’s Country Dining in Balltown, Iowa; and La Cocina de Gabby in Tucson, Arizona. The film eventually settles down. When it does, it not only provides an impressive view of the inside of American restaurants but insight into the lives of the people who run American restaurants, whether it’s through the intensely laborious molecular gastronomy of Alinea, the German-inspired home-style cooking of Breitbach’s, or the traditional Mexican cuisine of Gabby’s.
Each of the restaurants are as different from each other as possible, yet they all face serious challenges. For Grant Achatz, executive chef at Alinea, it’s the pursuit of perfection, or at least international recognition as one of the top restaurants in America. Francisco, at La Cocina de Gabby, is just trying to earn enough money to pay the bills, keep the doors open and pay for his house. Breitbach’s initially appears to be worry and challenge free but we quickly learn from owner Mike (Breitbach) that he feels a strong responsibility to his community, often shovelling snow and delivering food to older members of the community. As an audience, we are not immediately told why this is. But, as the film progresses we are slowly filled-in.
I was drawn to this film because I remembered hearing that Achatz had at one time lost his senses of smell and taste, a huge impediment for a chef, due to treatment for stage 4 squamous-cell carcinoma of the mouth. I assumed that it would be a large part of the story. It’s certainly an interesting enough concept that in its own right could be the stand alone subject of a film. Unfortunately, Levy does not get to that topic until an hour into Spinning Plates. In Levy’s defense, there are countless articles on this exact topic and Achatz has even written a book on the subject. Perhaps Levy’s decision was spurred on by the fact that Achatz has a tendency to come across as douchey and perhaps a bit pretentious. Maybe it’s that completely unnecessary and functionally useless scarf that he insisted on wearing during his interviews, or perhaps his justified but nevertheless cocky attitude. Regardless, the Alinea segments are saturated with impressive and delicious looking modern cuisine creations and the straight-from-a-chemistry-lab devices used to make them. Perhaps the most impressive moment of the film was watching Achatz assemble (or disassemble?) Alinea’s famous Chocolate Finale.
La Cocina de Gabby seems to be the weakest link of the three restaurants in the film. While the owners and staff are interesting enough, it’s no real surprise that a Mexican restaurant in Tucson, Arizona is struggling. Francisco, his wife, and their family are working hard but, but compared to Brietbach’s and Alinea, the food is visually unimpressive and the story, heart-wrenching as it is, is less dynamic. The struggle of Francisco and Gabby was touching, but watching Grant Achatz cooking with his young sons was perhaps my favorite moment of the entire film.
Mike Brietbach and Breitbach’s also had monumental challenges to overcome but perhaps I’ll let that one be a surprise (at least for anyone who can refrain from Googling) and incentive to watch this visually appealing and engaging film. All-in-all Spinning Plates is a feast for the eyes and features well-told stories of ambition, community, and struggle to succeed in the restaurant business. I highly recommend this film to everyone.