The documentary Spinning Plates interweaves the stories of three vastly different restaurants and tries to find some common ground among them. To that end, it’s not particularly successful—the only things they really share are food and adversity of one sort or another—but as separate snapshots of three fascinating businesses, it’s vivid and engaging.
Director Joseph Levy gives the most attention to his most famous subject: Grant Achatz, the wunderkind chef at Chicago’s Alinea, which is widely regarded as the best restaurant in America. Not only is Achatz a compelling character, he’s got a doubly intriguing story: During his rapid ascent to the top of the food world, he was diagnosed with stage-four tongue cancer, threatening both his sense of taste and his life. Given multiple dire diagnoses, Achatz was ready to throw in the towel when his business partner, Nick Kokonas, dragged him to the specialists who used experimental drugs to save his life. (The kismet of forward-thinking doctors saving the forward-thinking chef isn’t lost on Achatz, either.) Through it all, the chef remains almost maniacally engaged with his life’s work—if he’s going out, he’s going out fighting. (Achatz and Kokonas wrote a book about the experience, Life, On The Line, which is well worth a read; these two guys are like the Radiohead of the food world.)
The other two stories in Spinning Plates play out on decidedly smaller stages, and with smaller stakes. Breitbach’s Country Dining, in Balltown, Iowa, appears to be heaven on earth. The big restaurant has served as the center of a tiny town for more than 100 years—the same family that started it still runs it, and they’re helped along by a community that considers the space sacred. Cindy and Mike Breitbach offer celluloid proof that hard work and dedication to family will lead to happiness—even when the unthinkable happens and their business burns to the ground. Twice.
Or maybe it’s all luck: The food world isn’t as kind to Francisco and Gabby Martinez, whose Tucson-area Mexican restaurant is barely scraping by. Like the Breitbachs, they’re presented as phenomenally good, honest people whose lives center around the food they present. It strikes a bit of a melancholy note against the other two stories, drawing into sharp relief the economic spectrum of the restaurant business. (It’s possible to eat every meal for a week at La Cocina De Gabby for the cost of one dinner at Alinea.) If it wanted to be a triptych, Spinning Plates could have done a better job of drawing its subjects together and making more plain the ideas it hoped to put forward; as journalism, though, it does an excellent job of simply—and often beautifully—presenting its subjects.