By Justin Dolezal, Foodable Contributor
The best restaurants, from the most humble burger joints to the most renowned eateries on earth, make the process of producing great food and enjoyable experiences seem easy and natural. As anyone who has worked in food can tell you, however, the road to operating a successful restaurant is fraught with peril. Simply getting a concept from idea to opening is incredibly difficult, with space to be found, funding to be secured, and menus to be crafted. Once a restaurant has opened, surviving the initial period while maintaining consumer interest often proves fatal. If it survives and experiences success, can it integrate into its community and offer more than just a place to eat. And if it rises to the pinnacle of culinary acclaim, what comes next?
The challenges that restaurateurs face, and the way that these challenges impact restaurateurs' lives, are the central themes of “Spinning Plates,” Joseph Levy's 2013 documentary that manages to be both intellectually and emotionally captivating. “Spinning Plates” examines three very different restaurants, exposing the challenges and triumphs of each. Though obviously a film about the dining industry, food itself feels like a bit player, in much the same way that it would feel incorrect to call “Hoop Dreams” a film about basketball.
Though the narratives of each concept covered in “Spinning Plates” are interwoven, with scenes that quickly cut from one restaurant to the next, examining them one by one is the easiest way to take the film apart. The film succeeds by finding the relatable aspects of each eatery, making them all easy to connect with. By interweaving the stories of three very different restaurants, “Spinning Plates” provides what feels like a complete and intimate view of what it takes to exist in the food industry.
La Cocina de Gabby
The youngest and smallest of the three restaurants profiled in “Spinning Plates,” La Cocina de Gabby none the less makes a big impression by focusing on the struggles associated with getting a concept off of the ground. La Cocina de Gabby was a small Mexican restaurant owned and operated by Francisco and Gabby Martinez. In the opening sequences of the film, Francisco speaks passionately about the care and love that Gabby puts into her recipes. The film also focuses on the couple's young daughter, who her father fears spends too much time in their restaurant, instead of growing up like a normal child. The family dynamic is central to La Cocina de Gabby's story, as is the idea of food and the restaurant as a gateway to a better future.
This future doesn't come easy, however, and the scenes in which Francisco describes the couple's struggles paying their mortgage and other bills are especially poignant. Both Francisco and Gabby also describe the sacrifices that they had to make in order to open the restaurant in the first place, including draining their savings accounts and selling material possessions. “Spinning Plates” director Joseph Levy said of the inclusion of La Cocina de Gabby in the film, “I knew the story I wanted to tell, an ethnic restaurant run by owners who came to the U.S. in search of the American Dream,” and the idea of the Martinez family making a better life through their restaurant is a focus of their various vignettes.
Editor's Note: Since filming "Spinning Plates," La Cocina de Gabby has shuttered.
If viewers of “Spinning Plates” are likely to recognize any of the film's three restaurants, it's Alinea, the Chicago staple founded by culinary superstar Grant Achatz and long standing Foodable Top 25 restaurant. Alinea opened in 2005 and quickly became one of the most decorated restaurants in the country, with critics and consumers alike awed and delighted by Achatz's ability to use cutting-edge molecular gastronomy techniques to express personal stories and emotions through food. Much of “Spinning Plates” focuses on Achatz's both personal and scientific approach to cooking, as well as Alinea's quest to gain a coveted third Michelin star.
The story of Alinea shows how, for chefs like Achatz, no prize or recognition counts as a final accomplishment. Rather than having to deal with the trails of opening a restaurant or maintaining its place as a community pillar, Alinea's segments show an incredibly successful, decorated restaurant, and its owner, pushing past the accolades to reach for another summit. The creative drive and ambition that have made Achatz so successful produce some of the most entertaining scenes in the film, as Achatz describes the methods used to deconstruct and reconstruct staples of both classic cooking and his personal life in order to create something truly unique. Achatz's story is not all triumph, however, as the end of the film focuses on an almost Shakespearean tragedy that threatens to destroy everything that has made Achatz and Alinea great.
Breitbach's Country Dining
If the stories of La Cucina de Gabby and Alinea feel narrative ascensions, with protagonists who are striving for something greater, the segments of “Spinning Plates” that focus on Iowa's Brietbach's Country Dining feel like a survey of a place that's accomplished all it ever set out for, with no ambitions beyond maintaining itself. Breitbach's was founded in the tiny city of Balltown Iowa in 1852, making it the oldest continually operating restaurant in the state. Though the town's population is less than 100 people, Breitbach's regularly serves up to 1,500 people on a single weekend. The film focuses on Breitbach's as a pillar of the Balltown community, with the restaurant serving as a restaurant, gathering place, community center, and more.
Like La Cucina de Gabby and Alinea, the story of Breitbach's is not without its trauma. After focusing the the film's roll as a centerpiece of the Balltown community, “Spinning Plates” shifts to the story of dual fires that destroyed and caused the restaurant to have to be rebuilt on separate occasions. As is expected, Balltown rallies around Breitbach's, and the audience is treated to the kind of feel-good comeback story that would be hard for even the most cynical moviegoer to deny.
“Spinning Plates” is a successful film because it humanizes the restaurant industry, reminding audiences that behind each and every place that they go to eat, there are people striving for something better. Equally intriguing, heartfelt, sad and uplifting, “Spinning Plates” will provide a delightful experience to anyone who has ever sat down and ordered a meal.
Make sure to check out Foodable's upcoming Film Festival, where similar food documentaries will be showcased.