Movie Review

‘Spinning Plates’: three restaurants, several reservations

Clockwise (from top left) Cindy Breitbach, Gabby Martinez, and Grant Achatz in “Spinning Plates.”
Film Arcade
Grant Achatz in “Spinning Plates.”

Hi, my name is Peter and I’ll be your reviewer for this movie!

Today we have Joseph Levy’s documentary about restaurants and their owners and how they are different, but somehow the same. It includes three main courses chopped up and tossed with a dressing of sappy music. I must warn those of you who are sucrose intolerant that it might get cloying at first, or even dangerous to your health. But for those who can handle it, the piece de resistance is worth the wait.

Our first course profiles Grant Achatz, an elfin fellow who looks and sounds like Ethan Hawke and who is one of the country’s greatest young chefs. His Chicago restaurant, Alinea, has been named the best in North America and is listed as seventh best in the world. A practitioner of nouveau cuisine, he works with his white-coated assistants in a kitchen that looks like a high-tech laboratory. There they engage in arcane food preparation, like extracting the essence of tobacco by means of a centrifuge, or employing forceps to apply garnishes to slices of prosciutto as thin as circuit boards. Sounds kooky, I know, but Achatz says his goal is to challenge his guests as much as satisfy them, and that cooking, like any other art form, is a medium of personal expression. Being a famous auteur chef is his dream come true and the restaurant seems like the happiest workplace in the world.


Unless Breitbach’s Country Dining, in Balltown, Iowa, is even happier. It’s as traditional as Alinea is nouveau, a family-owned fixture that has served the community for 150 years. Nothing fancy, just piles of home cooking, deep-fried chicken, mountains of mashed potatoes, and juicy raspberry pies, a cornucopia of cholesterol-rich delights. People from as far away as Nebraska pile in, and the Breitbach family, now in its seventh generation of ownership, is beloved by everyone and they love everyone in return.

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But lest we neglect the ethnic fare that spices up the national cuisine, there’s Francisco and Gabby Martinez, owners of La Cocina de Gabby, in Tucson. They offer “casa”-style cooking, too, the Mexican favorites that Gabby remembers being served as a child by her mother. And now mom is in the kitchen helping out, too, along with Francisco and Gabby’s mischievous 3-year-old daughter, Ashley. They’re one big happy family, doing what they love to do, working for their piece of the American pie.

It doesn’t look like “Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares” needs to visit these places any time soon! But wait, is all this fluff starting to leave a bad taste? Did somebody say “Check, please”? Perhaps you want a little sour with your sweet, a little meat with your fixin’s. And that’s when the film releases its secret ingredient, a kind of whine-reduction sauce of genuine conflict, pathos, and irony.

Achatz, it turns out, grew up in a broken home. But he worked hard at his craft, and then, on the brink of professional success, he fell victim to stage four tongue cancer. Now he’s holding steady in fragile remission. Not to be outdone, the Breitbach’s Country Dining restaurant burned down not once, but twice, and was rebuilt by a community effort both times (was there no insurance?) And as for Francisco and Gabby — well, at a certain point it becomes clear that about the only ones dining at the restaurant are Francisco, Gabby, Gabby’s mother, and little Ashley.

So here’s a tip: Don’t desert this film before giving it a chance. You might not want seconds, but eventually it dishes up a satisfying slice of life.

Peter Keough can be reached at