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'Spinning Plates' Asks Why We Eat Out

By Melissa Wiley in Food on Oct 31, 2013 7:00PM


Not until the very end of Spinning Plates does Grant Achatz reveal that he grew up working in his parents’ Michigan diner, washing dishes poorly while paying close attention to the ideas surfacing on customers’ faces. He realized then, he says, that restaurants do more than feed people what they might conceivably prepare equally well at home. Through artfully and not-so-artfully plated meals, restaurants unmask certain aspects of human nature itself. They grant us the potential to leave as full of self-knowledge as blueberry pie, though we also suspect surviving stage-four tongue cancer provides its own share of insight.

While Achatz waxes philosophical, the camera shifts to the harder-scrabble proprietors of the Tucson cocina and Iowa country kitchen the film profiles in equal measure. As Achatz trains his dreamer’s perspective on a Heartland meal of meatloaf and mashed potatoes of yore, we know he has more avant-garde things in mind as the camera cuts to Alinea’s red-lit foyer of vanishing lines. But coming as it does at movie’s end, his sentiment feels true, because we’ve now seen something of ourselves in the struggles of the diverse restaurateurs. We also wonder how many children reared in Midwestern diners grow up aspiring to advance molecular gastronomy—and whether the world needs much more of that business anyway.

As early as 10 minutes into the film, you can’t help but be keenly aware that art is a privileged kind of impetus to enter the industry and that Achatz is the only one of the three who has that luxury, largely because of his exceptional talent and fierce ambition. Separating the restaurateurs far more than geography or bill of fare are their vastly different motives for keeping on keeping on.

Achatz’s raison d'ĂȘtre, it goes without saying, is pure creative passion. Like Picasso with his paint brush, he’s an archetypal artist at work if still not immune to some friendly competition. We personally loved it when, pacing along North Halsted in 2011, he quietly says he left Charlie Trotter’s on not the best of terms, then more loudly admits he wants to crush him, indulging in a jaunty little fist pump. We loved it even more when the 2011 Michelin guide verified he had.

But for the good Breitbachs of Balltown, Iowa, reliable source of income that their restaurant has been throughout its 160-year history, their enterprise feeds far more directly into the social good, something Michelin doesn’t bother to consider. And Breitbach’s Country Dining feels propelled by a more human motive as a result, because most of us have to save our pennies for quite a while to visit Next or Alinea but can easily pony up for a chicken dinner guaranteed to warm those heart cockles. As many of the town’s denizens as Breitbachs appear in the interviews, partly because the people of Balltown personally funded and powered the restaurant’s resurrection when it burnt to the ground twice within 10 months. Their story feels eerily It’s a Wonderful Life-esque, only with raspberry pie and fried chicken buffets rather than loans for ranch houses in Bailey Park.

Like the Breitbachs, most of us also aren’t geniuses, culinary or otherwise, but enjoy smiling at strangers and seeing them smile back. And for all intents and purposes, this restaurant is the communal living room in this pretty stretch of American Corn Belt country, where Mike, the paterfamilias, personally shovels snow and mows lawns for many of the town’s elderly residents. Several neighbors also have keys to the restaurant so they can make their own coffee and scramble some eggs before the doors open to the public. And yes, they all know each other’s names.

The couple at the center of La Cocina de Gabby, meanwhile, aren’t pursuing artistic expression or stitching together a town’s social fabric but fighting for basic survival, working to fend off foreclosure while hoping to someday afford daycare for their 3-year-old daughter, who makes for some adorable footage while also keeping her parents, who often work as long as 20-hour days, on double duty at the cocina, where business is slow and faltering. Watching Gabby knead flour tortillas, her hands look strong but her shirt is stained. Of all the people in the film, these are perhaps the most deserving of success but most precariously placed to achieve it. Their eyes are often watery as they speak into the camera, and too many prayers of supplication are uttered for comfort.

Gabby cooks her customers, she confides, the same food her mother made for her, saying that working in her kitchen helps bring her back to childhood—a sentiment we couldn’t help but associate with a certain iteration of Next, reinforcing Achatz’s notion, however lofty, that food illuminates as much about us as it sustains us. Trenchant insight as that may be, the fact remains that art doesn’t protect against naked economic necessity and perhaps only Michelin-fĂȘted chefs such as Achatz can afford to sound such statements.

Spinning Plates is currently playing at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema at 2828 N. Clark.