The restaurant business is the subject of “Spinning Plates,” Joseph Levy’s documentary about what it takes to keep a dining destination afloat. Featuring three very different restaurants, from a mom-and-pop Mexican joint in Tucson to the Michelin-rated Alinea in Chicago, the movie doesn’t always feel cohesive, but the stories are unexpectedly touching.
The movie’s most high-profile subject is Grant Achatz, the culinary prodigy behind Alinea, a restaurant where food is more about art and science than mere sustenance. The tasting menu, which costs more than $200, features 25 courses with ingredients such as essence of pine needles and frozen olive oil drops. One course might take five people 12 hours to make, Achatz explains.
That approach to cooking doesn’t really resemble what’s happening at Breitbach’s Country Dining in Balltown, Iowa. The 150-year-old family-run establishment is the town’s community center, though it’s famous beyond city limits for its fried chicken and pie. Then there’s La Cocina de Gabby, named for owner Francisco Martinez’s wife, who does all of the cooking. Only months old during filming, the Mexican restaurant is struggling to attract diners.
Levy tries to bridge the gap in the stories of these very different establishments, and some of the restaurateurs share similar philosophies. For one, all are passionate about their work, and each subject mentions the grueling schedule. Running a restaurant is a seven-days-a-week kind of job, and you have to be okay missing weddings and baseball games, Mike Breitbach cheerfully relates. This is more than a vocation; it’s a way of life.
Despite some of the common themes, the dramatic elements of the stories are quite divergent. While the dining room at Alinea is at capacity, down in Tucson, Francisco is struggling to pay his mortgage and worries about his young daughter, who spends her days at the restaurant rather than learning and playing with other children. Achatz, meanwhile, is stressing about getting a three-star Michelin rating. The chef has had other adversity, in the form of a terrifying health scare, although that detail isn’t revealed until quite late into the movie. Likewise, Levy doesn’t focus on a couple of unfortunate events that might have doomed Breitbach’s until close to the end of the film (which is why it seems wrong to offer more details).
Organization is one of the film’s challenges. During the final scenes, voice-over from Achatz, in which he discusses having worked at his father’s diner as a child, seems to bring some unity to these disparate stories. Perhaps if the movie had started with such a tale, the documentary might have felt more tightly assembled.
Regardless, there are some fascinating moments in “Spinning Plates,” especially when Achatz gives a tour of some of Alinea’s crazy food-making contraptions. And there are emotional moments, too. Gabby’s isn’t just a place to eat tacos. It represents a better life for the Martinezes’ daughter. And Breitbach’s is more than a spot for Mother’s Day brunch; it’s where members of a community get to know each other. These tales may not weave together into an impeccable braid, but each thread is worth examining.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains nothing objectionable. In English and some Spanish with subtitles. 93 minutes.