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Review: Ambition, Alinea, and the American Dream Rule Spinning Plates

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Spinning Plates

Do you like food? Do you like movies? Do you like movies about food? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you might enjoy Eater at the Movies, a column by Joshua David Stein which examines eating and drinking on screen.

Successful documentaries usually fall into three categories. 1. Those that confirm what you already know, like the world is going to shit (An Inconvenient Truth) or Paul Simon is awesome (Under African Skies). 2. Those exploring worlds unknown to you, like sans serif typography (Helvetica) or backup singers (20 Feet from Stardom). And 3: Those exploring a world you thought you knew but turns out you didn't. These are my favorite. They include recent films like Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell, which confounds both the idea of family and documentary, and Errol Morris' The Fog of War.

Into this happy family comes Spinning Plates, the moving new feature documentary about restaurants by director Joseph Levy.

Documentaries about auteur chefs often suck... off those auteur chefs. A Matter of Taste, Paul Liebrandt's hagiography, and El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, a film about Ferran Adrià, are good examples of this silly myth building. Spinning Plates heavily features Grant Achatz, the virtuosic chef and co-owner of Alinea, the country's "best restaurant," but Mr. Levy avoids breathless pandering. He need not dust off his knees as the credits roll.

Instead Levy toggles his focus and the film among Alinea and two more obscure restaurants: Breitbach's Country Dining in Balltown, Iowa and La Cocina De Gabby in Tucson, Arizona. Breitbach's Country Dining is the oldest restaurant in Iowa and the cornerstone of Balltown (pop. 68). It serves fried chicken, steaks and German specialties. It is still run by the seventh generation of Breitbach, a kindly gnome named Mike Breitbach. La Cocina de Gabby is a newly opened Mexican restaurant in Tucson. The titular Gabby Martinez is the chef, the wife of Francisco, who works in both the kitchen and the dining room, and the mother of Ashley, the couple's three year old daughter who, because they can't afford daycare, spends most her time raising hell at the restaurant.

Spinning Plates is very schematic. Alinea and Achatz represent the best mind of this generation's restaurant; Breitbach's Country Dining and Michael Breitbach its mighty heart; and La Cocina de Gabby's Gabby, Francisco and Ashley, its heartbreaking tragedy. There are three stories, two are happy and all compelling.



The story of Alinea has already been told in Achatz's book Life, On The Line, which he co-wrote with his business partner Nick Kokonas. As anyone in the food world is, I was familiar with its contours osmotically. It's the story of a relentless drive towards innovation, inverting the traditional power dynamic between chef and customer, three Michelin stars, tongue cancer and recovery. Mr. Levy does a nifty job retelling it tidily.

There are the usual shots of gadgetry, things done with tweezers and a lovely sequence of Achatz performing his tableside sundae. The majority of the Alinea sections take place in his kitchen. This may be due to the difficulty of obtaining image release forms from patrons paying $265 but, more likely, is because the bonds of community play only a marginal role in the life of Alinea.

Achatz is a man at ease talking about himself in front of the camera. He is cocky and competitive, but to both his credit and Levy's, Achatz never seems pretentious. Pretension involves affectation which Achatz doesn't have. He's a passionate true believer. Once one recognizes that, how one feels about Alinea — reactions range from awe to derision — becomes irrelevant.


Smooth as he is, Achatz does reveal himself in all his monomaniac mortal frailty. When he was diagnosed with cancer and it appeared he would lose his tongue, he said, "If I can't taste and I can't smell, then I don't even want to be here. What's the point?"

Also troubling, but enlightening, is something Achatz said about the experience of dining at Alinea. He was comparing it to a place like Breitbach's or to his parents' small-town diner where he worked growing up:

[At Alinea] you're basically stripping away all your armor and saying, here's who I am. That's the same things those guys [at small-town family focused restaurant] were doing. They were patting each other on the back and drinking coffee and local politics. They were exposing themselves. That's what we do here because we are forcing it on you.

Forcing someone to strip is much different, though, from creating a safe warm community wherein they feel comfortable taking off their armor. The former is an act of aggression; the latter of love.



Balltown is a small town in Dubuque County, Iowa. In the 2010 census, the population was pegged at 68. 95.8 percent of the town is white and 100 percent eats at Breitbach's. Breitbach's was founded shortly after the town was founded. It is a restaurant but it is also the heart of the community. Breitbach's is Balltown and Balltown Breitbach's. On the Wikipedia page for Balltown, there is a picture of the restaurant. Mike Breitbach, his wife Cindy and most of his seven children work at Breitbach's. Cindy makes pie. Michael manages. Business is booming and has been for the last 161 years. They serve nearly 1,400 people on Mother's Day. In the mornings, a group of between 6 and 20 men, which constitute between 10 and 30% of the entire town population, arrive at Breitbach's before the doors open. They have keys, let themselves in, make coffee, and wait.

On Christmas Eve 2007, Breitbach's burned to the ground. The community rallied to rebuild it. Carpenters donated their time; companies their materials. The phoenix had risen. In October 2008, the restaurant burned down again. After taking some time to decide, Mike rebuilt again. Now Breitbach's is in good shape and always full. This is the second happy story of the movie.


La Cocina de Gabby

The unhappy story belongs to Francisco Martinez, a Mexican immigrant who settled in Tucson, Arizona. His wife, Gabby, he says, "cooks like an angel" and so they opened a restaurant to showcase her cooking. Who wouldn't want to eat angel food?

The couple have a daughter, Ashley, who was three at the time of the film was shot, for whom, Francisco says, he wants a better life. In due time they poured their savings into opening a modest Mexican restaurant called La Cocina de Gabby. Francisco spends 20 hours a day at the restaurant.

The Martinezes are poor. Their house, filled with porcelain figurines and crucifixes, is in foreclosure. And their restaurant has mostly empty tables. This is terrible. Among other things Gabby Martinez seems to be a tremendous cook, as much as that can be communicated on film, and a passionate one too. Francisco is deeply in love, a devoted father and a devoted husband. He is deeply religious and very hardworking. But it isn't enough.

Over the course of the film, the Martinezes struggle to attract customers. They open for breakfast and serve burritos. They struggle to raise a restless three year old while cooking at a restaurant. Eventually they lose their home to foreclosure. They lose their restaurant as well. They are utterly vanquished though, through restraint or timing, Levy does not chronicle the closure of La Cocina de Gabby, and the last days of their American dreams.


So great stories briskly told unfold in Spinning Plates. But that doesn't make it a great documentary. It's outstanding because Levy manages to tell three very different stories with very different tenors without marginalizing, trivializing, lionizing, or patronizing any of them. Even more importantly, Spinning Plates fulfills the highest function of a documentary — or any film — it is irreversibly consciousness-raising.

As part of the food media, I tend to focus on the Alinea's of the world. I buzz about the buzzed about restaurants. What am I overlooking? As this film shows, a lot, nearly everything. The movie changed my perspective and, I think, it will change yours and not just about restaurants but about the society in which we live.

Even more bracing than my profession's blindness and my personal myopia is the realization that the story of Gabby and Francisco Martinez is by far the most common of these three stories told. The stories of the dispossessed and the struggling are manifold as more people are dispossessed and struggle. This in no way diminishes the gut punch of every family like the Martinezes but strengthens it in force. These are small stories often untold and they are love stories, though not lovely stories. It's the sound of plates breaking, not spinning, that is most arresting.

Rating: 5/5 Stars

· Spinning Plates [Official Site]
· All Eater at the Movies [-E-]

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