By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 16, 2013)
I have a porn addiction. Food porn, that it is…thanks to those pushers who run the Food Network and The Food Channel. If I’m channel-surfing and come across Graci in the Kitchen, Giada at Home, Peaches en Regalia, whatever…I’m compelled to stop and stare, like a cat fixating on a goldfish bowl. Funny thing is, I mostly dine on takeout and don’t cook (unless boiling pasta or microwaving instant oatmeal counts). While we’re on the subject, when did we become Foodie Nation (as an ever-escalating portion of the world goes hungry)? And how and why have ‘celebrity chefs’ become the new rock stars?
Not that any of these questions are addressed in Spinning Plates, the debut documentary from Joseph Levy (whose previous credits include exec-producing a season of Food Network’s Ultimate Recipe Showdown). I just wanted to explain why I approached his film with trepidation (I’ve been so inundated by foodie docs that I was afraid that if I took one more bite I’d explode like Mr. Creosote in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life). However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover here a genre entry that is not so easily pigeonholed, filled with unexpected twists and turns…but imbued with heart.
The premise is very simple, a portmanteau interlacing three restaurateur profiles. And yes, one of them is a “celebrity chef”, Grant Achatz of Chicago’s 3-star Michelin eatery Alinea. Achatz is known for being at the forefront of “molecular gastronomy” (a cutting-edge cuisine way above my head…and pay grade). As the affable and boyish Achatz demonstrates some of the improvisational techniques and Rube Goldberg gadgetry he utilizes to create new food presentations, he doesn’t vibe a world-class chef so much as Bill Nye the Science Guy. Still, his passion and dedication is genuine (although he doesn’t go into specifics, it’s intriguing to hear him allude to a falling out with early mentor Charlie Trotter, who passed away just 2 weeks ago).
Passion and dedication also figure prominently in the stories behind the two very different family-run restaurants that round off the trio of profiles. “Family-run” is almost an understatement when describing Balltown, Iowa’s Breitbach’s Country Dining, as the business is a 120 year-old heirloom. Owner Mike Breitbach and his family work morning noon and night to keep their customers happy. Their tale is straight out of a Frank Capra movie. Their regular customers are so dedicated that many of them are entrusted with front door keys; frequently pitching in on their own volition to help with opening and closing duties at the huge facility (which also doubles as an unofficial community center).
And finally, while much smaller in square footage and staff size but no less a labor of love, we follow the story of La Cocina de Gabby, a modest Mexican restaurant in Tucson run by Francisco and Gabby Martinez, a couple with a 3 year-old daughter. Everything on the menu is a family recipe handed down to Gabby by her mom (who pitches in to help with the cooking). There are occasional hiccups having the whole family involved, especially when young Ashley decides to “act out” in the kitchen, fully audible to the customers (the joys of having a 3 year-old underfoot at work). But there’s enough love and support in this family to trump any downsides.
So then what separates this film from the plethora of docs and TV reality shows that bang away at the challenges and travails of running a restaurant? It’s the Behind the Music element of Levy’s film that ultimately grabs you by the heartstrings. Granted, while that is a bit of a hackneyed formula, I like the way that the director slowly serves up the back story of his subjects like a multi-course meal, in carefully weighed portions. And for dessert, Levy ties it together in one of the most beautifully nuanced denouements I’ve ever seen in a documentary. Cynics might scoff, but I was left feeling pleasantly full.