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Zero-star 'Spinning Plates' review: This doc can go fork itself

Zero stars (out of four)

The associations that director Joseph Levy makes in the outrageously insulting documentary “Spinning Plates” can’t be deliberate. No filmmaker would correlate a family restaurant burning down to a world-renowned chef battling cancer and chalk it all up to adversity. No decent person would salute the University of Chicago hospital in saving Alinea wunderkind Grant Achatz’s life and then parallel the chefs at struggling Tucson restaurant La Cocina de Gabby as they decide to make breakfast tacos to entice additional customers. And no self-respecting documentarian should let Achatz (also of Next and the Aviary) claim that there’s no difference between his ultra-expensive, endlessly acclaimed restaurant and a humble diner simply because they both have the same core goal.

In fact, I’m almost surprised Levy didn’t capture the good ol’ folks of 8-month-old La Cocina de Gabby or Breitbach’s, a country dining restaurant so old it pre-dates its Iowa hometown, feebly attempting to pronounce molecular gastronomy. “Spinning Plates” may as well be “Apples and Oranges: The Movie,” but it
unfolds as if it’s not both absurd and condescending to align a Michelin-starred boundary-pusher that considers its meals a performance with buffet-offering establishments that exist on a completely different economic and cultural plane.

But wait, you could be saying, maybe this doc exists to challenge the subjective notion of “the best” restaurant. Maybe the film addresses the mundane but legitimate point that food means a lot to many different people. No. Achatz emphasizes his father’s rural restaurant and salutes the community that comes from a group folks coming together, knowing each other and each other’s orders. So why did he depart from a place that feels like home to a restaurant that very deliberately wants to feel like nothing you’ve ever experienced (and insists on presenting food like a tree)?

Other than letting Achatz note his father’s alcoholism, Levy neglects to probe for the answer. He attempts shots that speak to the art of food, but the (potentially unintentional) implied judgment dwarfs everything on screen. Achatz enjoys creating olive oil lozenges and delivering pine needle aromas in a pillow under a plate; an employee at Breitbach’s claims raspberry pies have a mind of their own and she just can’t nail their preparation.

Somewhere in “Spinning Plates” could be a few separate nightly news human interest pieces or “Top Chef” expositional material. As a documentary full of restaurant owners raving about themselves, it should make viewers sick and angry—the exact opposite of Achatz’s goal of leaving people with full stomachs and a smile on their faces. 

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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