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‘Spinning Plates’: Culinary passion from Alinea to Iowa

Grant Achatz artistically driven chef behind Chicago’s Alineis profiled documentary “Spinning Plates.”

Grant Achatz, the artistically driven chef behind Chicago’s Alinea, is profiled in the documentary “Spinning Plates.”

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The Film Arcade presents a documentary written and directed by Joseph Levy. Running time: 92 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Friday at the Landmark Century Cinema.

Updated: November 26, 2013 6:10AM

Foodies are almost certain to be nourished by “Spinning Plates,” a surprisingly personal and moving documentary about three very different types of restaurants — including Alinea, Chicago’s world-class standard-bearer of molecular gastronomy.

Even if your idea of fine dining is a microwaved burrito at the neighborhood 7-Eleven, you’re likely to find much to admire in “Spinning Plates,” which is at least as much about passionate commitment, extraordinarily hard work and coping with extreme adversity as it is about making and serving food.

The film’s linchpin is Alinea and its artistically driven chef Grant Achatz, during the time leading up to the restaurant being awarded Michelin’s ultimate three-star ranking in 2010 and being ranked first in the nation in the international S. Pellegrino awards. (Since then Alinea’s standing has slipped to No. 15 worldwide and No. 3 in the US, but Achatz won S. Pellegrino’s Chef’s Choice Award and the restaurant retains its three-star Michelin rating.) Yet writer-director Joseph Levy (who also created the 2003 Food Network reality series “Into the Fire”) gives near-equal attention and respect to two far less rarefied operations: 150-year-old Breitbach’s Country Dining in tiny Balltown, Iowa, and the startup mom-and-pop Mexican eatery La Cocina de Gabby in Tucson.

Long, hard hours are the standard for all three restaurants. It’s not unusual for Achatz to devote 12 hours to the preparation of one tiny detail of a meal at Alinea, which is as famous for its scientifically transformative cooking techniques as its avant-garde presentation. Or for the Breitbach family (now in its sixth generation of family ownership) to draw crowds on a busy day that are larger than the population of Balltown. Or for Francisco and Gabby Martinez and their preschool-age daughter to spend 20 hours daily trying to keep their dream business alive.

But how do you handle it when your restaurant burns down, not once, but twice — as Breitbach’s recently did? Or when you have to choose whether to lose your home or take a last gamble on that dream, like the Martinez family? Or when you learn, like Achatz, that you have stage 4, seemingly terminal tongue cancer just when it seems your most ambitious professional goals are within reach?

Make no mistake, Cindy Breitbach’s homemade pies certainly look scrumptious, and so do Gabby Martinez’s breakfast burritos. And there’s no denying that Achatz’s Jackson Pollock-like tabletop creations are ... spectacular. But the answers to those questions above are really what make “Spinning Plates” worth watching. Plus the revelation that while in some ways the three restaurants being profiled in it couldn’t be more different, there are also unexpected similarities, such as the fact that Achatz grew up working in the kitchen of a family-owned diner not unlike Breitbach’s.

They don’t serve fried chicken at Alinea, apparently. Even so, when he gets right down to the essence of why people go to restaurants in the first place, Achatz says he doesn’t see much distinction between the service he and his family provided back then and what he does now.

Bruce Ingram is a local freelance writer.

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