Spinning Plates may inadvertently be one of the year’s best films about class differences in America. While director Joseph Levy aims to reveal similarities between the people behind three very different restaurants, his heavy-handed juxtaposition of these eateries creates unsparing contrasts that highlight differences regarding opportunities, values, and personal narratives.
Each of the restaurants profiled by Levy represents a different socioeconomic stratum: the Chicago-based Alinea, which has innovatively used art and science to earn three Michelin stars; Breitbach’s Country Dining, a sixth-generation community-focused diner in Iowa; and La Cocina de Gabby, a Mexican restaurant in Arizona run by a financially struggling immigrant family. The differences between the people behind these restaurants becomes the sharpest when Levy depicts them facing major obstacles: Grant Achatz, Alinea’s esteemed chef, selects a group of elite doctors to treat his tongue cancer for how they reflect his own team’s excellence and paradigm-shifting approach to fine dining; the Breitbachs lose their restaurant twice to fires, but because of all the good karma they’ve built up through helping their neighbors, their community chips in to rebuild the establishment on both occasions; and the Martinez family, who are barely keeping the door open at La Cocina de Gabby, can only pray to God to prevent their home from being foreclosed on.
Levy eventually ties these threads together to sentimentally suggest that, since Achatz has some commonalities with the proprietors at the other restaurants (he, like the daughter of La Cocina de Gabby’s owners, worked for his family’s restaurant when he was a child), they somehow all share Alinea’s success. This specious and offensive reach for a happy ending aside, the doc offers a rare candidness about class that’s trenchant, even if it’s not totally aware of it.
Spinning Plates never intentionally draws attention to the often awkwardly different lives of its subjects, and that’s partly why the film is so effective at exposing what’s usually difficult, or at least uncomfortable, to acknowledge up close about class. Mirroring how in everyday life the differences between us are often out of focus while work or play take up our time, Levy always has his eye on the strained, heartwarming story of food bringing people together, not, say, how class divisions have made the American dream an impossibility for people just starting out in this country. When Spinning Plates contrasts Achatz’s confessed goal of “crushing” his former mentor, Charlie Trotter, who he considers one of the greatest chefs of all time, with the Breitbach family’s goal of helping those in need within their local community, and with the Martinez family’s goal of basic survival, the film incisively speaks to the institutionalized classism that’s wreaking havoc on this land founded on the principle of equality.