MRR Review: "Spinning Plates"

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A documentary about three unique restaurants and their respective owners.
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MRR Review: "Spinning Plates"

Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Length: 93 minutes
Release Date: October 25, 2013
Directed by: Joseph Levy
Genre: Documentary

"Spinning Plates" is a documentary that explores the lives of three different restaurant owners and their businesses, which are located in three very different areas of the US. The film spends the most of its running time on Alinea, a Chicago-based eatery owned by Grant Achatz and deemed the best restaurant in the country by some restaurant critics. Achatz is a chef who isn't afraid to experiment, making it all the more ironic when he is diagnosed with tongue cancer and initially balks at the thought of taking experimental drugs as a treatment. During this risky treatment, Achatz seems more concerned with potentially losing his sense of taste than losing his life, because the former would render him unable to be a chef.

Next up is a down-home country restaurant in Iowa called Breitbach's Country Dining, which is owned by Cindy and Mike Breitbach. The diner has been family business for over a hundred years, and Cindy and Mike have become pillars of the community. They have built up so much goodwill over the years that when their establishment burns down, people from the local community happily pitch in to rebuild it without being asked. When it burns down a second time, the townspeople happily pitch in again. It's a heartwarming story about good people and has a seemingly happy ending.

The final restaurant is a Tucson-area Mexican restaurant called La Cocina de Gabby, which is run by a large family of immigrants headed up by Francisco and Gabby Martinez. Unlike Alinea, the establishment is not a three-star Michelin eatery that can charge high prices for small portions of food. The Martinez family has tried everything to make La Cocina de Gabby profitable, but the business is barely staying afloat. Worse yet, the family members are in danger of losing their house and, with it, their American dream.

Director Joseph Levy is no stranger to filming movies or television shows that center on food. In the past, he created "Into the Fire," a documentary about some of the nation's top restaurants and all the challenges their owners face in a typical night of service. He also was an executive producer of "Ultimate Recipe Showdown," a Food Network show where two chefs make the same dish from their own distinctive recipes and let a panel of judges decide which one is best. "Spinning Plates" stays in Levy's food comfort zone yet is vastly different from the director's previous work. It is a documentary that focuses on the people behind the three restaurants rather than on the work that goes into the restaurants on a daily basis. There is no competition or showdown; the documentary is just a very bare-bones look at the stark reality of owning a restaurant in today's economy. It's a great departure from the Levy's previous work and shows he has some range as a creator and director of documentaries. As food and food justice become burning issues in the United States, food-themed films such as "Spinning Plates" may begin to get more prominence in theaters, which means Levy probably has a bright future if he continues to make films about food.

Many documentaries focus on more than one person or group of people, but they are usually tied together in some way. For example, the fantastic 2012 documentary "The Waiting Room" told many different stories, but each of them was about a patient being treated at the same hospital. In "Spinning Plates," the only real tie that each of the three restaurants shares is food. Each restaurant features a different style of cooking, a different way of running its business, and a vastly different future. The comparison and contrast between all three is the best part of the film because it really makes the audience think about the owners' backgrounds and the ways they got to where they are today.

The film wisely opts not to make any kind of social commentary about the very different socioeconomic backgrounds of each of the three restaurant owners. It is almost as if Levy wants to just present facts and let audiences choose to make their own commentaries based on their impressions of each of the three owners. There is almost no way that viewers won't draw some kind of conclusions, because the stark contrast of the three restaurants is simply too jarring to be ignored or overlooked. "Spinning Plates" may not be trying to be a documentary about race, class, or privilege, but it borders on becoming exactly that at some moments. Luckily, it is still entertaining enough not to have the stories at the heart of the film overwhelmed by any of the underlying social issues. Levy does a fantastic job of leaving the film open to interpretation, which helps set it far apart from most other food documentaries.

Rating: 4 out of 5