The Food Network has made all of us familiar with terms like molecular gastronomy and chefs like Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis. Through “Beat the Clock” style competition shows and instructional stuff on how to make a meal in thirty seconds, it makes everyone feel like a restaurant insider.
“Spinning Plates,” a new documentary from director Joseph Levy cuts through the Food Network’s simplistic food-family-and-feelings with a tagline that sums up its philosophy: “It’s not what you cook. It’s why.”
Weaving together three stories from a trio of very different restaurateurs, the film shows the personal and professional side of the food biz as well as the connection to the community that so important for success.
In Chicago Grant Achatz is the chef at Alinea, a three Michelin molecular gastronomy resto frequently cited as one of the best in the country.
Brietbach’s Country Dining has been an Iowa staple since 1861, now run by third generation restaurateur Mike Brietbach.
Meanwhile newbie restaurant owner Francisco Martinez struggles to keep the doors of his Mexican joint La Cocina de Gabby open in Arizona.
Each of the stories shows a different approach.
Achatz is a serious up-and-comer, a young ambitious chef with his eyes on Michelin stars and leaving behind a legacy. His story deepens with a sense of urgency when he is diagnosed with tongue cancer, a condition that will certainly impair his ability to taste the food he so proudly serves in his establishment.
In small town Iowa Brietbach is a community leader, a man who knows all his neighbors and selflessly volunteers to feed those in need. The goodwill he earns is paid back when his restaurant burns down (SPOILER ALERT) not once but twice.
Martinez may not only lose his restaurant to slow business, but his house as well.
There is drama to spare in “Spinning Plates,” but it never feels manipulative. On the Food Network these stories would be baked into feel good tales, wedged into an hour format with Guy Fieri raving about the food and hugging customers while the real story happens behind the scenes in the kitchen.
Unlike the surface approach of the Food Network, this movie uncovers the humanity of the back of the house and does so in a deliberate and interesting way.