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‘Spinning Plates’ serves up complex portrait of American restaurants

Trying to see the big picture is a terrible task to take up on an empty stomach. This is the paradox of Spinning Plates, a documentary whose heart risks coming second to its audience’s appetite.

It’s okay if you’re distracted at first. The film, which is the first feature from serial Food Network producer Joseph Levy, opens to whimsical Liar Liar-era strings and mouthwatering action shots from three different American restaurant kitchens.

Nov14_alinea_WEBAt Chicago’s Alinea, the seventh highest rated restaurant in the world, dinner is entertainment, and food both confuses and innovates. At Breitbach’s in small Balltown, Iowa, the community comes together like it has for the past 160 years. At La Cocina de Gabby, Francisco and Gabby Martinez cook up family recipes for diners along a quiet desert highway in Tucson.

If the three seem completely different, it’s because they are — Plates spends most of its 90+ minutes cycling through the three stories, folding in additional details that lend volume to each, but establish no connection between them. Grant Achatz, executive chef at Alinea, shows off his anti-griddle (a concept he himself developed, it turns out) and distills the essence from tobacco leaves. Achatz walks by a past employer’s restaurant and vengefully vows to outrank him when the Michelin Guide is released. Meanwhile, the folksy Iowans wonder how people can mow through their buffet fried chicken so quickly, and Francisco Martinez worries about keeping his home out of foreclosure and his daughter fed.

The first half prematurely gives the dangerous impression that the restaurant business is one of several ‘ors’— food is art, or it’s community or it’s everything you have to lose.

But before it’s too late, sensitive palates will notice notes starting to mix. In addition to the Martinez family and their impending foreclosure, both the Breitbachs and Achatz recount amazing hardships resolved through food. Balltown residents reunited after their country restaurant/community center burned down. Achatz tried to keep cooking through a serious — and, in retrospect, depressingly ironic — bout with malignant tongue cancer. The message here though is cloyingly obvious: the restaurants are an inseparable part of the people who love them, and for some food can heal any wound.

Troublingly, however, the film comes too close to sticking with that message — warm, yet very boring, and certainly nothing anyone who’s ever eaten out doesn’t already know. At one point, the film pulls the scope back, tying the three separate stories together at the last second with the perfect anecdote from Achatz. Though much needed, it’s either too surprising or too forced to have much effect, as if Levy forgot what he meant to say and then ran out of time.

Even though it’s awkward, Spinning Plates still tells a story worth hearing. Those who sit down to see it already have some thought of a memorable meal sizzling in their heads, and this works to the movie’s advantage.

The heart is in there, too — it might be too familiar to stand out, but it is worth finding. Just make sure to have dinner plans set beforehand.

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