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'Spinning Plates': Documentary about 3 restaurants and a love of food

October 18, 2013|By S. Irene Virbila

Had your fill of brutally competitive cooking shows? Ready for a more thoughtful take on food and restaurants? Then the documentary "Spinning Plates" which opens at the Landmark on Oct. 25, is for you.

Directed by Joseph Levy, the film interweaves the stories of three very different restaurants, taking the time to really understand what each is about and why the chefs and cooks of each are so dedicated to their places -- and to the customers they serve.

The first is the high-profile Chicago restaurant Alinea, one of the top restaurants in the nation -- and the world. Chef Grant Achatz talks about arriving at the French Laundry on Oct. 28, 1996, when the excellent Napa Valley restaurant had only been open a year and a half. He asked for Thomas Keller. He turned out to be the guy mopping the floor and the chef who Achatz reveres more than any other.

For Achatz, food is art, craft and science. Extravagantly creative and obsessive about detail, Achatz says, "We're going to do things that nobody else has done. We look at things that are impossible as a point of inspiration." And it is fascinating to look behind the scenes into his kitchen and his menu-planning sessions.  

But this is not just another documentary about high-end restaurants. The second protagonist of the film is Breitbach's Country Dining, a 150-year-old restaurant in Balltown, Iowa, where a handful of faithful customers have their own keys to the place and one or another of them will open up, answer the phone, put the coffee on and sometimes make breakfast for the regulars.

First opened in 1852, the country diner has been owned by the Breitbach family since 1891, and people come from miles around for the fried chicken and juicy pies.

In Tucson, Francisco and Gabby Martinez run a simple place called La Cocina de Gabby, and the film follows the couple through their long days at the restaurant. Gabby is the cook, who says “It's very special for me to know how to cook my mama's food, because I love my mama's food."  

And as Francisco makes a big pot of tamales, it brings back good childhood memories. With only Gabby’s frail mother or his sister-in-law to help out, food, he says, has also been "the source of survival for us, the way to pay our bills." And they do struggle. The scenes of his wife cooking with her mother ground this film in something basic and true.

Three very different restaurants, and yet each is imbued with the love of food, a generosity of spirit and a very genuine concern for the people who come to eat there. This is the hard thing: keeping going and paying attention each and every day. 


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Twitter: @sirenevirbila

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