Spinning Plates

By Di Golding

Mailed on June 30, 2014

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Dear Leon Levy
Director's Dad

Dear Leon,

In the end credits of Spinning Plates, your son writes "In loving memory of my father Leon, who would have loved eating at these restaurants". I'm guessing you passed your love of dining out to your son, who gives us a behind-the-scenes look at people who devote their lives to the food service industry. My dad was the chef in our house, and I got my love of cooking from him. Throughout high school, I worked as a short order cook. I learned how to poach the perfect egg (secret: tiniest splash of vinegar), and that it's impossible to be vain when forced to wear a hairnet. I learned that the best restaurants understand the value of hard work and dedication to people. The restaurant owners in Spinning Plates certainly live by that edict, knowing that it's not the amount of money in the till at the end of the night that is the true barometer of success.

Joseph couldn't have chosen three more different restaurants to profile in his documentary; one's classic middle-American, one's Mexican, and one is so exclusive you don't make reservations, you buy tickets. They are so different in fact, that I wonder which one you would have liked best. Brietbachs Country Eatery in Balltown, Iowa, existed before the town itself. Built in 1852, it's been owned and operated by six generations of the Brietbach family and is as much a community centre as it is a place to get killer black raspberry pie. Cucina de Gabby in Tuscon, Arizona, on the other hand, is struggling to find its footing after only eight months. Gabby's husband Francisco has fallen behind on house payments in an effort to support his wife's dream of cooking traditional Mexican food. Together, they work 20 hour days at the restaurant with their demanding three-year-old daughter underfoot. And then there's Alinea in Chicago, IL. Run by Chef Grant Achatz, it's a foodie's wet dream. Known for pushing the boundaries between food, science and art, a wallet-crippling meal at Alinea is considered by many to be a life-altering event.

Your son films each restaurant respectfully, giving equal weight to Brietbach's buffet line, Gabby's tamales and Achatz's myriad of mind-bending concoctions, but something seems a bit off. The flavours, though lovingly prepared, don't always compliment one another. Perhaps it's because when we get to the 'and then the unthinkable happened' portion of the documentary, the lack of balance left an odd aftertaste. On Christmas Eve 2007, Brietbach's burned to the ground and the entire community rallied around the family to rebuild the beloved restaurant -only to have tragedy strike again. Grant Achatz, wunderkind of molecular gastronomy, was told he had Stage 4 tongue cancer and that 75% of it had to be removed. The irony of one of the world's greatest chefs losing his sense of taste was not lost on Achatz, who said he would rather die than not be able to prepare food. Comparing those stories to the relatively mundane reality that Gabby's might not make it through it's first year seemed like Joseph was spreading the pathos on a bit thick. The fact is, most restaurants don't make it - that's not conflict, that's just fact.

As a foodie, you would be pleased to know that if Joesph hadn't chosen a career as a filmmaker, he would have made a great restaurateur. The similarities between making a documentary and working in a restaurant are almost eerie; the long hours, the almost insane level of dedication, the disappointment when something doesn't turn out the way it was supposed to and there's no time to dwell because you have to keep pushing on. Directors and cooks literally put their blood, sweat and tears into their professions. One day while cooking, I sliced the tip of my little finger off but finished my shift out of some demented sense of duty over a tour bus rush. As your son knows, all of the frustration, exhaustion and pain is worth it when you have a finished product that not only makes you proud, but puts smiles on people's faces.

No doubt, you would have loved the cinematic feast he prepared in your honour.

Gratuity included,


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