Joseph Levy is the director of Spinning Plates, a documentary that interweaves the stories of different restaurants—Alinea, Grant Achatz’s Michelin-starred restaurant in Chicago; La Cocina de Gabby, a family-owned Mexican restaurant in Tucson Arizona; and Breitbach’s Country Dining, a 150-year-old restaurant in Sherrill, Iowa—exploring the passions and struggles that connect them. Levy is also, it turns out, a long-term SAVEUR reader. We spoke with him about his film, which opens in theaters today.
What was the inspiration for this film?
So much of how we see restaurant kitchens is through reality TV, where it's all quick fire competitions and mystery basket docusoaps. You don't see the struggle of people trying to save their homes or barely making a living. I wanted to show the real stories that can unfold when you walk into a restaurant, where sometimes a taco is just a taco. And actually, SAVEUR was also a shaping factor. I've read every issue since #8—I instantly loved the culture of personalities, the emotional connection to food, and the snapshots of history. In 2008, I was sitting around deciding what restaurant stories I wanted to produce next when the breakfast issue came out. It opens on two farmers sitting at their breakfast table saying grace, just a quiet mediation on food, followed by a waiter with a breakfast tray, then a men's group in Germany; an amalgam of snapshots around the world but unified by the idea of breakfast, and it suddenly made the whole world collapse into one space that felt familiar and related. I got the idea of taking my Spinning Plates subjects and ultimately crashing them into each other in the same way the photo essay does in that issue.
Where did the title come from?
While shooting at Commander's Palace for Into the Fire [a television documentary series that Levy created which showed famous restaurants on their busiest nights] owner Ti Martin told me that because they serve so many meals, it's like spinning plates. And isn't that metaphoric, too? Especially when it involves children, family, health: the balancing act of all those things we deal with in the film.
I was really moved by the Mexican couple behind La Cocina de Gabby, who keep cooking their hearts out, even under incredible duress. Is Francisco Martinez, the husband, always so cheerful?
He has the most resilient, unbreakable spirit. It's gotten him through a lot. He came from rural Mexico to San Diego, where he worked in a Greek restaurant called Aesop's Table. His boss sponsored him for citizenship and he brought through the rest of his family and finally settled in Tucson. But when the political climate changed, especially regarding undocumented immigrants, apartments emptied and businesses sank. Francisco and his wife Gabby walked into this Mexican restaurant about to be foreclosed in a bad luck location. They consider it a blessing that the restaurant keeps the family together even if their kid has to play among the pots and pans.
What are your own favorite food films?
Is it okay to admit that Ratatouille is my favorite? And I loved the anticipation leading up to that amazing meal in Big Night.