Cable TV cooking shows notwithstanding, big-screen movies on culinary matters are consistently popular. Most are harmless, a few are annoying, but once in a while comes something like Spinning Plates that proves there are no exhausted topics, only skilled (or the obverse) storytellers.
Writer-director Joseph Levy’s feature-length profile visits three completely different restaurants, two in the Midwest and one in the desert Southwest. Alinea, a world-class destination for “personality cuisine” in Chicago, is built around the “molecular gastronomy” of exec chef Grant Achatz. Breitbach’s Country Dining, a 163-year-old establishment located in tiny Balltown, Iowa, (population 50, or 70, depending), is the epitome of a family-style community rallying point, specializing in such made-from-scratch down-home dishes as fried chicken and raspberry pie. Meanwhile in Tucson, Gabby Martinez and her family turn out homemade Mexican antojitos, with one eye on the bill collector, at La Cocina de Gabby.
Levy is smart enough to avoid the foodie stomping grounds of California and New York, but he can’t resist talking to chef Thomas Keller, at whose celebrated French Laundry in Yountville Achatz once apprenticed. Keller and seemingly everyone else on Earth admire Alinea’s geometrically arranged, microscopic portions, a modernist marriage of “art, craft, and science.” The pricey resto ($210 for the set 25-course presentation) is as much a lab as a kitchen. Frozen olive oil? Smoked oak leaves? Squab inspired by Miró? Pine-aroma plate pillows? “Twelve hours’ work, five people, for one bite. That’s absurd,” observes Achatz wryly.
Compared to that, the pork tenderloin sandwiches and deep-fried catfish that customers wait in line for at Breitbach’s seem like an outtake from a Depression-era Frank Capra movie, and, indeed, owners Mike and Cindy Breitbach’s dedication to their community — Mike’s ancestor started the business in 1852 — is as beloved as their food. The Breitbachs have already achieved what celebrity chef Keller aspires to: longevity and legacy. The Breitbachs and the struggling Martinezes of Tucson have more than one thing in common with high-flying Alinea. Not only do all three restaurants embrace the concept of hospitality, they all have had their challenges. And every day, someone gets hungry and makes a choice.