Restaurants, food, family and legacy: all are part of Spinning Plates, a new film opening in the Bay Area on Friday, November 8 at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinemas in San Francisco, and Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley. This documentary explores three different restaurants: Alinea in Chicago run by chef Grant Achatz (with a few good verbal morsels on restaurant life from Thomas Keller—a coupe); Breitbach’s, a 150-year-old family restaurant in Balltown, Iowa that has endured much turmoil only to continue to be the literal living room for a small community; and La Cocina de Gabby, a Tucson, Arizona Mexican restaurant run by a family trying to break even, hold onto their home, and make a better life for their young daughter. Themes around food and dining are explored in able fashion from start to finish onscreen, and viewers will come away with a strengthened sense of why we want to eat together... it is often about wanting to be taken care of at the most basic level.
Filmmaker Joseph Levy is the film's writer, director, producer and editor who worked on the highly acclaimed short film George Lucas In Love. Levy has also created, written, produced and directed numerous series, pilots and specials for television networks. He produced the independent feature film Last Man Running as well as the reality/documentary series Into The Fire for the Food Network. Bay Area Bites caught up with Levy recently and his comments have been edited for clarity.
Bay Area Bites: What was it like to research this documentary? It has such a personal feel and covers restaurants and themes around family, legacy, passion and survival.
Levy: Most of the research happened throughout the course of my life. I looked for three restaurants that were very familiar to me -- a fine dining restaurant, a community restaurant, and a small ethnic restaurant struggling to stay open. They're all types of restaurants I've loved and I thought these incredibly different snapshots would allow me to show something greater than any one alone would. Alinea was a choice for the film from the start since I had featured Grant in my first Food Network show, Into The Fire, back in 2003. Breitbach's was a relatively quick find since they had made news about the fire and the community coming together to rebuild. But Gabby's was a difficult find that took many eating trips and many hours of searching.
Bay Area Bites: What are some of the different reasons people go out to eat?
Levy: Dining experiences can be so different from person to person or meal to meal. Reasons can vary from convenience and necessity on the one end to wanting to have a memorable experience and be entertained on the other. Some meals are an afterthought, some meals are unforgettable, but I think almost all meals out involve an aspect of being nurtured and taken care of.
Bay Area Bites: What are the different reasons folks open and run restaurants—even knowing it means long days, and missing things like weddings and sports games with their own families?
Levy: Again, I think the reasons for opening a restaurant are numerous and incredibly varied. In Spinning Plates alone, we show a chef driven to elevate food into art, a family in the business because of a six-generation legacy, and another family who does it to survive and keep the family fed. In all cases, there's a passion and perseverance evident -- it's never easy.
Bay Area Bites: The economy, illness and foreclosures are shown here—further highlighting the tough reasons for running a restaurant as well as the customers who support it. What are your thoughts on this?
Levy: Food shows on TV can sometimes make you think that being a chef is all about balancing restaurants, cookbooks, TV shows and celebrity cooking challenges. There aren't a lot of stories about people struggling to save their homes and restaurants, or even chefs fighting for their lives. There's a big difference between a reality show and reality, and when you take a look at the latter, every aspect of life is on the table -- even the ones that don't necessarily make for a good television series.
Bay Area Bites: Charlie Trotter is mentioned -- all the more poignant given his passing this week. What do you think Grant Achatz would say about that?
Levy: I think Grant would say the same thing I and many others are saying about Charlie Trotter: he was a giant figure in the culinary history of America and paved the way for so many others. He truly leaves behind a legacy that will long be remembered.
Bay Area Bites: The topic of legacy comes up from high-end restaurant folks: Grant Achatz and Thomas Keller, but the other two restaurant families seem to have that in mind as well. How does legacy and family play out in this film?
Levy: It's everything in this film. And it might be a surprise that issues of legacy, family and mortality play out in a movie about restaurants, but that's a very important aspect of Spinning Plates -- food can mean so much and this movie is about people for whom it couldn't mean more.
Bay Area Bites: What was the biggest surprise for you doing the project?
Levy: How moved people are by the film. That, of course, was my hope, but you never know if the emotions you have as a filmmaker towards your subject are shared by others. I think these three stories really resonate with people because they're tied together by universal threads that are common to us all.
Bay Area Bites: How does the chef as artist and food as art work for Grant Achatz? Do you think that is exclusive to fancier spots?
Levy: Grant uses food to convey flavor, aesthetic, story and emotion. It becomes a means of expression. I think it might be more common to find that thoughtfulness and artistry in a high-end restaurant, but I've certainly found it in other unexpected places.
Bay Area Bites: Breitbach’s is a phenomenon that is all the more surprising given how small the town is. Why do you think they are able to remain so strong?
Levy: Because the restaurant is more than restaurant to the town -- it's a community center and in a way it belongs to the town. When the restaurant was in danger of going away, the town wouldn't let it die because they felt the town would die with it. It's really a beautiful relationship.
Bay Area Bites: What's next for you?
Levy: Despite the fact that I've been proclaiming for a year that Spinning Plates is my last statement in the world of food, I'm now actually developing a scripted feature (fiction film) that takes place in the food world, but from a very different perspective. I guess I feel there's still more for me to say.