Flamboyant, demanding, and temperamental, Jeremiah Tower was at the vanguard of farm-to-table in the 1970s.
Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent
Rated R, 102 Minutes
In a media universe saturated with 24-hour food networks, event dining, and reservation apps on our smartphones, it’s hard to recall a time when the idea of a “celebrity chef” was obscure, when cooks were not seen as tattooed, hard-partying, renegade artists, but unglamorous drones anonymously toiling in the sweat and heat of the kitchen. True or not, it’s a notion today’s famous foodies love to breathlessly remind us of, and to truly sell the mystique you need a fallen hero, one who rose, quickly flourished, changed the game then quietly and inexplicably vanished.
Jeremiah Tower fits that bill: a legendary, flamboyant and star-crossed culinary lion of the ’70s and ’80s who had massive influence, which was later eroded by the same waves of fame that elevated the profession to rock-star status. Raised by wealthy but neglectful parents, Tower got a crash course in global cuisine as his family tramped about on ocean liners, where the elegant dining rooms and busy galleys became his sacred refuge. After a stint studying architecture at Harvard in the late ’60s, Tower wandered his way across the country, landing the kitchen of the already celebrated Chez Panisse in Berkeley, were Alice Waters was pioneering the “farm-to-table” ethos of seasonal, regional cooking that favored freshness and purity. There, Tower married classical French technique to uniquely Californian ingredients to create something thrilling and new. His imaginative, meticulously crafted menus became the stuff of lore, surrounded by a contentious relationship between the chef and proprietor (they’d had a brief romantic affair), especially when she began publishing lucrative cookbooks and taking bows in the press.
Is it possible to claim absolute authorship of something as organic, mutable, and dynamic as a restaurant, which to truly thrive must exist as a buzzing hive of pulsating activity from staff and patrons? This is just one of the provocative questions director Lydia Tenaglia poses, and never comes close to answering, as she tries to peel back the onion layers on a subject who has cultivated his image as fastidiously as his cooking.
A stream of familiar faces — from Mario Batali to Martha Stewart to the film’s exec producer Anthony Bourdain — first sing encomiums that border on hagiography. But eventually, as they always do, complications arise: After years of incredible success at his own innovative San Francisco restaurant, Stars, Tower ran into financial, personal, and legal issues, and abruptly vanished sometime in the ’90s.
It’s not really clear how he spent those long years in exile — scuba diving, sailing, building houses in Mexico. It’s all presented as a glamourous, mysterious haze. Tower finally did reemerge in 2014, and to the food world’s astonishment, took the reins of New York’s mammoth, decaying landmark Tavern on the Green, on a doomed mission to revive the dining relic to its former glory. It’s here that the movie’s lingering tone of tragedy and intrigue finally develops real tension, though the subject remains fascinating but slightly remote throughout. Grayed yet still roguishly handsome (men and women alike desired him), with an affected English accent adopted from his boarding school days, Tower casts a grandiose, pretentious, and romantic figure, a persona the documentary itself can’t help but adopt, which also keeps the man at a bit of a distance. For all his charisma and flair, Tower can be inflexible and insufferable to work with, and, as with so many tortured geniuses, can demand a lofty level of quality and precision that maybe even he himself can never attain.