Spinning Plates: Film Review

Episodic doc could use more focus on food preparation, but vividly captures the human element involved.

Joseph Levy’s foodie film profiles both professional chefs and self-schooled cooks.

A multiple audience-award winner on the domestic festival circuit, documentary feature Spinning Plates demonstrates how straightforward it can be to seduce a willing audience lulled into susceptibility by endless Food Network shows and celebrity-chef entertainment coverage. If its strategy exploring both everyday and Michelin-starred cuisine pays off in limited release, a modest run could ensue, predictably followed by home entertainment and broadcast formats.

Weaving together threads from three disparate styles of contemporary regional cuisine, filmmaker Joseph Levy attempts to demonstrate the rather obvious conclusion that they’re all equally a part of the crazy quilt of American gastronomy. The clearest candidate for recognition is star chef/restaurant owner Grant Achatz of Chicago’s revered Alinea and more recently opened eatery Next. A protege of culinary superstars Thomas Keller (Napa Valley’s French Laundry) and Charlie Trotter (Chicago’s Charlie Trotter’s), Achatz is an avid practitioner of molecular gastronomy, with a distinctly upper-Midwestern perspective.

Achatz’s bold, innovative style is contrasted with the down-home cooking of Tucson’s Gabby Martinez, who learned the art of Mexican cuisine from her mother and grandmother. Cheered on by her doting, boundlessly optimistic husband and La Cocina de Gabby restaurant co-owner, Francisco, Gabby works long hours replicating her family’s recipes for a meager trickle of customers.

Middle-of-the-road American comfort food is represented by Breitbach’s Country Dining, a Balltown, Iowa institution since 1852, now run by the sixth generation of the family, headed by Mike Breitbach. Specializing in steaks, seafood, fried chicken and homemade pies, Breitbach’s is a beacon of regional cuisine for both local residents and out of state visitors as well.

Besides Achatz’s overly arty creations, there’s really nothing exceptional about the food prepared by either of the other cooks. What the chefs and their restaurant staffs do have in common is a desire to express themselves creatively through their dishes and menus, but aside from Alinea, the film doesn’t focus much on the originality of the chefs’ recipes or the actual creation of individual dishes.

Engaging, although sometimes distracting, human interest is generated through the charismatic subjects, however -- Breitbach patriarch Mike Breitbach is an exemplary model of civic service and the Martinez’s family’s financial struggles make for a compelling immigrant allegory. Achatz’s contention to earn Alinea a coveted three-star Michelin Guide rating and dramatic struggle with a critical medical condition almost hijack the proceedings at one point, but the chef is low-key enough to underplay the drama.

With such a divergent group of cooks and restaurants, first-time feature documentary director and writer-editor Levy (a former producer for the Food Network’s Into the Fire reality series) appears to cast about a unifying theme, tentatively proffering the rather banal observation that “food is family.” Without a strong thematic throughline, Levy relies on a highly episodic structure, letting the subject matter lead him along, rather than shaping the material into a compelling package.

On a technical level, the film consistently delivers -- as much as when nimbly capturing often complex food preparation activities in crowded kitchens as it does when Levy coaxes refreshingly candid interviews from his varied subjects.

Opens: Oct. 25 (The Film Arcade)

Production company: Chaos Theory / Ambush Entertainment

Director-writer: Joseph Levy

Producers: Jacqueline Lesko, Miranda Bailey, Matthew Leutwyler, Joseph Levy

Executive Producers: Taz Goldstein, Philip Rosenthal, Sim Sarna

Director of photography: Erin Harvey

Music: Edward Shearmur

Editor: Joseph Levy

No rating, 93 minutes


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