Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent
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