We rely on food to live. When we go to a restaurant, we exchange money for life-giving sustenance, paying someone to help us nourish ourselves. Can the transaction be that simple and mercenary? Or does the relational contract between restaurateur and eater touch on deeper questions of expression, connection and community? The documentary Spinning Plates is the story of three very different restaurants and the common thread of what it means to feed a community.
Alinea is a molecular gastronomy restaurant in Chicago, vying for a coveted Michelin three star rating. It can take twelve hours to prepare a single appetizer for five people. Head chef Grant Achatz does time consuming, intense and unusual work in which cooking is an art form, a way to express himself. After a twelve course meal, guests may visit the kitchen and say to him, “I feel like I know you.” His team of cooks is passionate about pushing the envelope, doing what no one has ever done before, and moving ever higher in international rankings. Meanwhile, Achatz is already looking for the next restaurant, the next opportunity to do something different. Yet he faces a life-threatening obstacle.
Breitbach’s Country Dining in Balltown, Iowa, dates back a century. It has become a community centre and regularly serves many times more people than the entire population of the town. Regulars have their own key, come in and make coffee and sit down to breakfast together. The family, led by Mike and Cindy Breitbach, all puts in long days making comfortable, familiar food for the people who visit – fried chicken, mashed potatoes, pie. Food, and the shared space, become a unifying force in the community, as well as bringing customers from all over the Midwest. Members of the community, interviewed for the film, testify to how integral the restaurant is to the small town surrounding it – and when tragedy strikes, they step up to help.
La Cocina de Gabby is a Mexican restaurant in Tucson by a first generation immigrant family passionate about food but struggling to make ends meet. The little daughter spends her days in the kitchen, helping a little, rebelling against not being able to run and play as she might in a day care. The mother cooks, sometimes with help from her sister and mother. The father serves the food. He puts in 20-hour days, determined to work hard to make a better life for his daughter. He says his wife “cooks like an angel”. He feels that people eating in his restaurant are like guests in his home and he wants to make them feel welcome, enjoying delicious food prepared with love. But there are heartbreakingly few customers. Most shots of the restaurant show only one table occupied, and no one from outside the family speaks to the documentarians about the restaurant.
But whether a restaurant is a cutting-edge three-star art experience, a thriving community centre or a struggling startup, they all share a commitment to the idea of food as a means to express, to connect with people and to help them feel welcomed, inspired, challenged, even loved.
Joseph Levy has created a film that is an homage to the best that a restaurant can be, whatever its genre. Even with money in the equation, it is possible for a passionate cook, living out their purpose, to create an experience that nourishes. The movie trailer closes with these words: “Life is what we make it. Let’s make it a feast.”
Pranada Devi is a communications professional living in Toronto, Canada. She is the Managing Editor of Parvati Magazine, and serves as an advisor on marketing communications for Parvati’s various projects. Recently, she edited Parvati’s new book “Confessions of a Former Yoga Junkie”, which has gone on to sell out its first printing run.