creativity · film · food · the arts

Spinning Plates: A Documentary About Restaurants and Community

Spinning PlatesSpinning Plates (2012) is a powerful documentary which follows three very different restauranteurs and shows how passion, adversity, and love are at the heart of each. The power of each story and real respect for the art of dining–no matter the locale or type of cuisine–make for some deeply compelling storytelling in this film.

The first restaurant is Alinea, rising culinary star Grant Achatz’s Chicago temple to modernist cuisine. Alinea constantly innovates, using scientific techniques, rethinking every aspect of restaurants and menus, in order to produce audacious creations which must be described as works of art. Achatz is a striking figure not only for his culinary skill, imagination, ability to articulate deep meaning in his chosen art form, but also for his battle with devastating stage IV cancer which nearly left him without his tongue and which, while in remission, is in need of constant monitoring. Despite his battle with adversity, Achatz continues on, driven by his passion to perform at the height of his field and to literally change people’s lives through his restaurant.

Breitbach’s Country Dining, the second restaurant, is in Balltown, IA. It features down-home food and functions as a community center for the town. It is Iowa’s oldest food and drink establishment, established in 1852 by the original Breitbach immigrant family. The compelling underlying drama of this restaurant is that in a period of less than a year, it was completely and utterly destroyed by fire not once, but twice. Each time, the community rallied behind their beloved Breitbachs and provided countless man hours and donations to help them rebuild. The second fire so devastated Mike Breitbach that he almost didn’t rebuild, but ultimately his heritage and community pulled him through.

The final restaurant, La Cocina de Gabby, is a small Mexican restaurant in Tuscon, AZ. This labor of love is run by Francisco and Gabby Martinez. Everything in the restaurant (which Francisco describes as his “home”) is done by he and his wife and his wife’s mother. The care and devotion of this little family to each other and to their customers is deeply moving, as is their constant hard work despite so little to reward them. The family cannot afford daycare, so their toddler daughter must follow them around the restaurant all day. In the course of the film, we see them lose their dearly-beloved house. Ultimately, they are not able to make enough money to survive, so the restaurant closes its doors by the film’s end. This family dreams not of great wealth, but simply to make a living and to give their daughter a brighter future. Modest goals combined with love and hard work. (By the way, those who wish to help the Martinez family can give to them here.)

Toward the end of this moving documentary, Achatz makes some profound statements about the art of dining. He talks about how his father began a diner in a small, farming community when Achatz was a kid. It was a family operation, with his dad doing most of the cooking and his mom baking pies and doing accounting. Their whole life belonged to that restaurant, and the parents put in 90 to 100-hour days. As a young preschooler, he was brought him into the restaurant to help out and so the whole family could spend more time together. He says:

“I was there and I was with them and I was learning a sense of community, not only with them and my aunts and uncles and my cousins. But I watching this town convene on a restaurant on a daily basis. We would have people walk in the front door at 6 in the morning. And we knew who they were. They sat in the same spot every day. And they became friends, in the restaurant. They didn’t have to order because every day they ate the same thing. That was comfort. They knew what to expect. They knew themselves. You had people that are surrounding themselves with everything that they feel safe with.

“And then, you come to Alinea. And the moment you open the front door, you’re confronting something that’s not normal. The hallway is this false perspective. You’re not really sure where you are. The food comes out. It challenges you. It’s different than anything you’ve ever seen. Why? Well, you’re here to experience something that you’ve never felt before, but something that you recognize in yourself. You’ve already said to yourself: I’m going to figure out who I am, in a way, by experiencing something that I might be uncomfortable with. You’re basically stripping away all the armor and you’re saying, here’s who I am.

“And that’s the same thing those guys were doing. They were, you know, patting each other on the back and drinking coffee and talking about local politics and their wives and their kids and exposing themselves, you know. And that’s what people do here, because we force it on them, you know? So, people say, how do you come from a diner to this? And it’s the same….You’re, at the same time, making people feel comfortable and exposed. And that’s a restaurant.”

To be comfortable and exposed at the same time is a profound statement of what it is to be in relationship, of what intimacy looks like. Think of your closest friendships; think of your family members. You know each other. You know almost everything about each other. There are few surprises because of the depth of that knowledge.

But to know and be known so intimately is also frightening. You’re emotionally exposed to those who know you well. That’s why most of us choose very carefully to whom we expose ourselves emotionally. That’s why some of refuse to be in deep relationships at all, jumping from surface relationship to surface relationship. That’s why people church hop. That’s one reason people divorce.

But how beautiful when we are in a safe place to reveal ourselves as we are, warts and all!

That’s not just a restaurant. That’s a real relationship. That’s a real community.

And from a faith perspective, that’s a real church!

Spinning Plates is more than a documentary about the culinary world. It’s the story of how the art of dining–or any art form–can bring us together in true community. I highly recommend it. (You can view this film on Netflix streaming.)

Photo source:, Spinning Plates.