Spinning Plates: Three Restaurants and Their Struggles

Spinning Plates

Runs Fri., Nov. 15–Thurs., Nov. 21 at Varsity. Not rated. 93 minutes.

While the idea of a food documentary about three extremely varied places—a 150-year-old small-town country kitchen, a mom-and-pop Mexican joint, and a three-star Michelin restaurant—seems interesting, the delivery here is surprisingly sluggish.

That’s not the chefs’ fault. What comes across in Joseph Levy’s film are the different yet equally compelling connections that these cooks have to their food. The family-run Breitbach’s in Iowa serves as the backbone of the community, a social hub where locals gather as much for the company as for the fried chicken and homemade pies. At Tucson’s La Cocina de Gabby, cooking is what binds a family together; while at Alinea, it’s the artistic outlet for Chicago chef Grant Achatz, who’s risen from the kitchens of Thomas Keller and Charlie Trotter to become a kind of Howard Roark-ian figure. But also like Roark in The Fountainhead, Achatz ultimately comes across as a caricature. Here’s the culinary renegade creating nitrous-frozen olive-oil lozenges; throwing spices and smearing fruits onto tablecloths with Jackson Pollock-like flourishes; building fork sculptures on which to serve his esoteric creations. When things turn against him, sadly, we almost don’t like him enough to empathize.

Though Spinning Plates tries to establish a cohesive thread among these three restaurants and their proprietors, our attention is sliced too thin. Also, to manipulate our heartstrings, Levy too-carefully edits the catastrophes, emotionally ambushing us in the film’s final third. You haven’t gotten to know these people well enough to genuinely feel their losses or cheer their victories.

To its credit, Spinning Plates isn’t as bombastic and unrealistic as the Food Network. Still, I left this quiet documentary feeling hungry for more.


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