Jeremiah Tower: The Last Mag­nif­i­cent

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Once upon a time, be­ing a chef was not con­sid­ered an en­vi­able job, and food and restau­rants weren’t reg­u­larly the sub­jects of ma­jor news sto­ries. Then along came Jeremiah Tower, one of the first celebrity chefs, who ush­ered in the con­cept of din­ing as en­ter­tain­ment. An­thony Bour­dain ex­plains that peo­ple dined at Tower’s restau­rants sim­ply be­cause “they wanted to be in his or­bit.”

That said, you’d be for­given if you’d never heard of Tower: He is largely un­fa­mil­iar to the av­er­age per­son — and even to self-pro­claimed food­ies for whom Bour­dain and Batali are house­hold names. In the open­ing mo­ments of her vary­ingly pen­sive and gos­sipy doc­u­men­tary, though, direc­tor Ly­dia Te­naglia as­sumes you know who Tower is. As he wan­ders through dusty ru­ins, he ru­mi­nates in voice-over on change, ag­ing, and “great ex­pec­ta­tions.” Te­naglia then shifts her tone, in­tro­duc­ing us to the culi­nary pi­o­neer and shed­ding some light on his life and ca­reer.

Be­fore he strolled into the kitchen of a lit­tle place called Chez Panisse, Tower didn’t have grand culi­nary am­bi­tions. The ne­glected child of so­cialite par­ents who trav­eled of­ten and widely, he read and was fas­ci­nated by restau­rant menus on cruise ships and in high-end hotels. Te­naglia re­counts this part of Tower’s life through drama­ti­za­tions, fam­ily pho­tos and videos, and in­ter­views with the brood­ing gray-haired man him­self, paint­ing a pic­ture of a lonely boy who grew up to be a lonely, enig­matic man.

Te­naglia then out­lines the ups and downs of Tower’s ca­reer. With Tower co-helm­ing the kitchen along­side Alice Wa­ters, Chez Panisse rose from hip­pie out­post to in­ter­na­tional din­ing des­ti­na­tion. The menu and guest list evolved, and Wa­ters and Tower even­tu­ally parted ways — not ex­actly am­i­ca­bly. While Tower was in­stru­men­tal in the cre­ation of the dishes for which restau­rant is now widely known — at least to hear him tell it — Wa­ters gar­nered fame, and all he got was a brief ac­knowl­edge­ment in the first Chez Panisse cook­book. Tower re­turned to no­to­ri­ety with the open­ing of Stars in San Fran­cisco, a highly es­teemed restau­rant and celebrity hotspot un­til its clos­ing in 1999. Since then, he has been bid­ing his time in the shad­ows, scuba div­ing and ren­o­vat­ing prop­er­ties in Mexico.

Te­naglia’s film is heavy on the celebrity and light on the chef, so if you pre­fer “food porn” or de­tails about recipes or tech­niques, ad­just your ex­pec­ta­tions. While early re-en­act­ments are treated art­fully — scenes in­volv­ing his par­ents have a dreamy ve­neer — many feel over­wrought. The chronol­ogy jumps around con­fus­ingly in the fi­nal third, as Tower comes out of re­tire­ment to help re­ju­ve­nate New York’s no­to­ri­ous “chef killer,” Tav­ern on the Green. Some threads are left dan­gling: What re­ally hap­pened be­tween Wa­ters and Tower? Why did Stars close? The meat of the film lies in Tower’s own rec­ol­lec­tions — grounded in de­light­ful pho­tos and videos from the Chez Panisse days — and in in­ter­views with mod­ern food-world lu­mi­nar­ies. Martha Ste­wart, Ruth Re­ichl, James Villas, Jonathan Wax­man, Mario Batali, and Bour­dain (an ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer) in­sist on Tower’s revolutionary role. Once you know more of his story, you’ll be in­clined to agree, and you’ll be glad for Te­naglia’s film. As Bour­dain says, “We should know who changed the world.” — Lau­rel Glad­den

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