You want a documentary about food, restaurants and the earnest, driven chefs in the kitchen to be special, as special as the filmmakers consider their subjects. With "Spinning Plates," writer-director and Food Network alum Joseph Levy settles for breezy generalities and lots of talk about pushing boundaries and the importance of community. But the three restaurants taking center stage, including Grant Achatz's "molecular gastronomy" Chicago superstar, Alinea, are interesting enough to compensate for the heavily promotional vibe.
The score card here: two affordable and down-home, one not. Interwoven with the story of Alinea chef Achatz's 2007 mouth cancer diagnosis, "Spinning Plates" takes us to Balltown, Iowa, home of Breitbach's Country Dining, a family joint dating to 1852. The Midwest legend with the intergalactically famous pies survived not one but two devastating fires, rebuilding with the help of the small town the restaurant serves so warmly. My favorite detail: the story of how many Balltown regulars carry their own keys to the place, so they can open up before hours and get going on the coffee.
In Tucson, Ariz., La Cocina de Gabby serves as the third prong on the fork. Like Breitbach's, it is family-run, and the family at the center faces serious financial challenges. Levy swings from close-ups of tamales or fried chicken to a hushed appreciation of one of Alinea's 25 courses.
The contrast is often amusing, though if "Spinning Plates" has any theme, it's that we're all part of the movable feast, low, medium or highbrow. Achatz, heard here saying, "Every aspect of my life is about being creative," asserts that his mission is simple: Leave you, the diner, with "a full stomach and a smile on your face."
Levy putters around with scene-setting in the first half-hour, and only around the midpoint does "Spinning Plates" investigate the behind-the-scenes dramas that bring these restaurants to life. (All the food looks yummy, though.) Composer Edward Shearmur's music never shuts up, larding every interview and prettily composed close-up of a full plate with feel-good generica designed to soothe. There have been some remarkable food docs in recent years, among them "Jiro Dreams of Sushi." This one's similarly drool-worthy without ever asking, in metaphoric terms, what's off the menu.
"Spinning Plates' - 2 1/2 stars
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1:33
Opens: Friday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema