These days, it seems that most food documentaries are exposés of the food production industry or cautionary tales about harmful substances in what we eat. “Spinning Plates” is not one of those. Centering on a trio of restaurants and the people behind them, it’s a celebration of the pleasure food brings and eating as a communal experience.

“This documentary isn’t a call to action, an injustice to write your senator about,” says filmmaker Joe Levy, who aimed “to show the beautiful nuance and texture and aspects of a world we can walk into every day and know nothing about. Food can be so meaningful to those who are cooking it and eating it. It’s a life-affirming story about characters and legacy and perseverance and mortality that gives dimension to a world you weren’t aware was there.”

Levy narrowed his subjects down to the award-winning Chicago restaurant Alinea, run by molecular gastronomy master Grant Achatz, on the high end (24-course meals easily cost more than $200 per person) and the small, struggling La Cocina de Gabby, a homestyle Mexican restaurant in Tucson, on the low end, with Breitbach’s Country Dining, a family run establishment in Balltown, Iowa, in the middle.

Levy has known Achatz since the chef ran the kitchen at Trio in Evanston, Ill., 10 years ago, and appeared in an episode of Levy’s Food Network TV show “Into the Fire.” He followed Achatz’s culinary rise — and personal struggle with cancer, “and knew I wanted to come back to his story at some point. The other two represent archetypes that I wanted to portray, restaurants I grew up with in south Texas where everyone knows your name, the same people eat breakfast there every morning, a place where community happens around food,” explains the Corpus Christi native.

In search of an ethnic eatery with owners who had come to the U.S. seeking the American Dream, he found La Cocina de Gabby in a tiny newspaper blurb and flew to eat there the next day. He found the owners’ struggle to hold onto the restaurant and their home “exactly the story I wanted to tell, with people who were open enough to tell it.”  As for the 161-year-old Breitbach’s, not only does it draw hundreds of diners from miles around, it’s so integral to its tiny community that the residents pitched in to rebuild it after fires burned it down — twice. “The town wouldn’t let the restaurant die because it felt that the town would die.”

Levy spent only 18 days shooting in 2010 and 2011, divided between the three restaurants and a bit on the chef of a fourth, the renowned French Laundry’s Thomas Keller, aiming “to tell the story in the most organic way possible. I wanted to take a camera into the kitchen and show what was exciting about life there, instead of creating excitement like a lot of food shows do. I think the world is dramatic without quick-fire competitions and mystery baskets. I didn’t feel like anything needed to be augmented. I thought it could just be shown.”

He found the short production schedule both “a strength and a challenge. Shooting in an abbreviated time makes you sharpen your storytelling and know what you want to tell going in, but you really have to be on your toes and you have to have a little bit of luck on your side too,” notes Levy, who served as the film’s editor as well as director and producer. He’s kept up with his subjects, two of which are doing well: Achatz’s health is good and Alinea and his revolving-theme restaurant Next are thriving, and so is Breitbach’s. Gabby’s closed, but Levy hopes to raise funds to help the owners open another place soon. 

'There's so much meaning in a meal'

Levy’s love of food and restaurants developed early. The son parents who were in a gourmet club and chemist father who brought home chemicals for him to experiment with, he “realized the same chemical principals apply to food. I’d pour a bottle of wine over chicken in a pot and was fascinated to see what happened.” He has fond memories of eating with his family at restaurants and celebrating Jewish holiday feasts. “There’s so much meaning in a meal. It can be a first meal with your future spouse or a Passover seder with your grandparents,” he notes.

He also happily recalls two early culinary successes, his first attempt at Coq au vin at 10, and the 500 chocolate-chip cookies he made for a grade-school party. He went on to perfect the recipe over the years but was determined to share it only with the person who introduced him to his future wife. One friend did just that, and when Levy marries his fiancée, Lisa, next September, “I will hand off the cookie recipe to my friend.”

These days, Levy favors cooking Italian food and family-style dinners. “The older I get, the more simple I like to do everything,” he says. As for favorite restaurants, “Alinea is the single greatest dining experience I ever had in my life,” he proclaims, but is also partial to Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. He had a childhood fantasy of one day opening a restaurant with his mother, “but it’s not one I still have. It can be fun if you have a lot of money to invest, but it’s a very hard business.”

Levy, who majored in music at USC, thought he’d become a film composer, but after he made friends in and got a job at the cinema school, found that he was more suited to another aspect of film production, “something less solitary.” Having worked on many TV and film projects including the acclaimed short “George Lucas in Love,” Levy calls his restaurant film, “the ultimate articulation of what I wanted to say about food,” explaining why there won’t be a sequel. He does have an idea for a feature film related to food, but “from a different perspective, from the outside looking in rather than from the inside.”

Meanwhile, he’s still promoting “Spinning Plates,” which is opening in several cities across the U.S. Visit the "Spinning Plates" website for more information.

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