The renowned chef Thomas Keller talks about nouvelle cuisine as "personality cuisine" in the new documentary "Spinning Plates," which goes into the kitchens of three distinct American eateries to reveal the personalities behind the menus.
The film (which opens this weekend at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema) takes a humanistic approach to our culinary obsessions. It's not the food; it's the people. Hence: Personality cuisine.
Director Joseph Levy travels to Tucson, Ariz., where he checks in on La Cocina de Gabby, a struggling mom-and-pop Mexican eatery run by a motivated immigrant couple who can't seem to catch a break. They are forever under a cloud of imminent doom, and yet beneath those furrowed brows they remain optimistic and delightful cinematic company, their 3-year-old girl an adorable, restless presence at the restaurant.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Alinea, chef Grant Achatz's high-end temple to gastro-artistry here in Chicago. All the minute obsessions that define the restaurant's output are ingenious and strange, but all is not charmed in Achatz's world. He had an unsettled childhood. And most Chicagoans will be familiar with the recent health issues that nearly ended his career.
The third restaurant featured is also in the Midwest. The scenes at Breitbach's Country Dining (located in rural Balltown, Iowa) work as a palate cleanser to Alinea's mannered sophistication: fried chicken, mac and cheese, homemade pie. The restaurant dates back to 1852 and has always been a family operation, currently owned by Mike Breitbach, a short, trim, kinetic man with bright blue eyes and a shaved head.
Roughly 70 people actually live in Balltown ("depending what day it is or who's having a baby") but on Sundays the restaurant might see 1,500 people come through the door. Regulars (some are farmers, some work at neighboring John Deere plants) are there for breakfast every day during the week. The restaurant is their second home. It defines the town. It is the "Cheers" of Balltown, a place where everybody knows your name. Which is why a series of recent catastrophes nearly brought the Breitbach family — and by extension the entire community — to their knees.
Different as each restaurant is, the similarities are hard to ignore. The hours are onerous. The owners obsessive. "I've always been fascinated by how much meaning food can have," Levy said by phone from Los Angeles.
Levy will be in Chicago for post-show discussions Sunday (along with a "caravan of 10 Breitbachs" in tow), and his resume features work for the Food Network, including "Ultimate Recipe Showdown" and "Into the Fire." It was the latter show that brought him in contact with Achatz 10 years ago; Levy filmed an episode at Trio, the Evanston restaurant (closed since 2006) that helped launch Achatz's career.
"Grant was clearly an amazing person, and I knew in the back of my mind that I wanted to come back to him at some point. There are certain stories you just can't tell in 22 minutes. With TV, you're always having to deal with the issue of the viewer who turns on 13 minutes into the program. It's tough. You can't go too deep. And I think, in a way, 'Spinning Plates' is the fully realized version of the story that I wanted to tell back then."
Achatz and Alinea were an obvious choice, and it's a nice to see this local chef (who has mostly eschewed TV celebrity) talk through his ideas. He is also frank about the low period following his tongue cancer diagnosis.
Breitbach's was a location Levy selected when he searched for the oldest restaurants in America. Gabby's was tougher to find.
"I knew that I was looking for a restaurant that was struggling because I wanted to tell a story that was different, since most of what's on TV tends to revolve around competitions. I wanted to tell a story of people who had come here in search of the American dream and were having a hard time making it happen. And I realized I was looking for the wrong thing — instead of looking for a restaurant that's almost about to close, look for the restaurant that has just opened because every day is a challenge. So I arbitrarily picked Tucson."
He chose Gabby's because it had garnered just a single blurb online. "I got on the plane the next day, had lunch there, introduced myself to Francisco and within five minutes he was baring his heart and soul to me with his daughter at his side."
The coda to their story is a tough one to swallow. Lacking the community support that Achatz and the Breitbach's enjoy, you worry for their future.
"Spinning Plates" opens Friday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema. Tickets to VIP after-parties this weekend hosted by Achatz and his business partner Nick Kokonas at Aviary are available for $125 at spinningplatesmovie.com (click on "news").
The 30th Annual Chicago International Children's Film Festival (through Nov. 3) includes the German coming-of-ager "Cause I Have the Looks," about a confident teen from Colombia living in Berlin illegally when her tourist visa run out (based on a true story). Also on the schedule: The Dutch film "Mike Says Goodbye," a quirky story of a preteen boy abandoned at a hospital, and the documentary "Dragon Girls," about the young female students who attend a martial arts school in China. Go to facets.org/kids.
Chicago native and local theater actor Joe Sikora has been cast in the new Starz drama "Power," about a nightclub owner and drug kingpin (played by Omari Hardwick). The rapper 50 Cent is executive producer. Sikora (a veteran of Shattered Globe and the Goodman, and most recently seen on the Adult Swim Southern Gothic comedy series "The Heart, She Holler") will play Hardwick's childhood friend and business partner. The show is expected to air next fall.
Real cowboys of the prairie
The Chicago Film Archives will screen short docs about rodeo and ranch life next week, including 1954's "Corral" (about a cowboy who rounds up a herd of wild horses), 1975's "Rodeo Clown: The Daring Breed" and 1985's "Cowgirls: Portraits of American Ranch Women." 8 p.m. Tuesday at Comfort Station Logan Square. Go to chicagofilmarchives.org.