Interview: Director Joseph Levy talks Spinning Plates
Joseph Levy wanted to find three very different restaurants across America for his first feature length documentary. However varied on the surface and in the kitchen they were, Levy knew there was a tie that bound them all.
“I had a desire to tell, pardon the pun, a more organic story of life and drama in a restaurant,” explained Levy during a phone interview ahead of the release of Spinning Plates. “I always had this reverence and respect for restaurants and what food can mean to someone.”
It’s that meaning, that purpose and passion for cuisine, that is at the heart of this documentary. Even though one restaurant is a Michelin-rated high-end marvel in Chicago, the other a community eatery in small-town Iowa, and the last a cozy Mexican diner in Tuscon, they are all driven by love and commitment.
“It’s about storytelling,” said Levy, adding he set out to make a film that was “the most affecting, personal, and intimate look at this world as possible.” Shot across 18 days, Levy takes viewers into the kitchens and dining rooms of these locales, while exploring the past behind their owners, chefs, and even some of the patrons.
“The movie is not really so much about restaurants as it is a celebration,” continued Levy, who dedicated the film to his father, a man who recently passed away and had a wonderful love of food himself. “I was trying to make a movie that showed how meaningful food can be and how it can surpass expectations.”
“It’s really about my feelings, and how I have this reverence. It is a personal film; it’s the most personal project I’ve done.”
Levy’s love of the world of food is shown clearly, as he lets the people he interviews explain their world in detail, using a patient and curious camera. Each story he tells, too, has a melancholic side to it amid the delectable excitement.
The most trying story would be that of Francisco and Gabby Martinez, who run La Cocina de Gabby in Arizona. Their restaurant struggles to stay afloat, an enterprise at the heart of their relationship and family. It was their world that Levy was least familiar with beforehand.
“It emotional from the outset, and I wasn’t asking what seemed like emotional questions,” he said. “It almost seemed like someone had asked them to tell their story and tell their hardship for the first time, like they were waiting for someone to do that and like they wanted a shoulder to cry on. They’re in a tough position.”
While their problems are more recent and in fact ongoing, hardships faced both Grant Achatz, the master chef at Alinea in Chicago, and the owners and community of Breitbach’s Country Dining in Iowa, which holds 400 and will serve up to 2,000 in a single day, despite residing in a town with a population of 68.
Levy explores their tough times with sensitivity, demonstrating just what these restaurants and a love for food can do.
It is, ultimately, a celebration for the both the viewer and Levy. And lucky for the director, those 18 days were filled with some of the tastiest meals, from dining at Alinea, which serves a 24-course meal, to delicious homemade traditional Mexican cuisine in Tuscon, to the greatness that is Breitbach’s most sought after dish.
“The fried chicken is not over billed,” concluded Levy. “They have some magic going on there.”