If food is your passion, Jeremiah Tower is a name to conjure with. A venerated chef who writer and critic Ruth Reichl calls “a game changer who defined what a modern American restaurant could be,” he was a legend who vanished from the scene only to reappear years later to attempt one more act of culinary magic.
As directed by Lydia Tenaglia and executive produced by Anthony Bourdain — no mean chef himself — “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent” is a documentary understandably in awe of its subject, a film that finally fascinates despite some initial bumps in the road.
In the 1970s and ’80s Californian Tower was at the pinnacle of the Bay Area restaurant world because of his central role in Berkeley’s Chez Panisse and his founding of Stars in San Francisco. Martha Stewart calls him “a father of American cuisine,” and the many food writers interviewed here can’t help but agree.
Handsome, charismatic, the man who pioneered the concept of the open kitchen and perhaps the first of the modern celebrity chefs, Tower also had so imperious a personality even he has to admit “I seem to piss people off a lot.”
But when “The Last Magnificent” introduces Tower, a craggily handsome individual with something of a haunted look, there is not a restaurant or a set of chef’s whites in sight.
Instead Tower is seen climbing through deserted Mayan ruins (Mexico is where he currently lives) as we hear his voice-over reading gnomic pronouncements from his journals. Things like “I have to stay away from human beings because somehow I am not one,” he intones, followed by, “everything that is real to me is what is hallucination for others.”
So when friends like Bourdain say “there is a locked room inside him, I haven’t been there, I don’t believe anyone has,” it certainly rings true.
It’s the thesis of Tenaglia, whose credits are largely food-related television documentaries, that the key to unlocking that room is to investigate Tower’s childhood. It’s a fine idea, but it proves difficult to convey effectively. Not that Tower isn’t candid about his memories of being a poor little rich kid, taken around the world by wealthy parents with more money than sense who neglected him everywhere they went.
Spending a lot of time in hotels, he became fascinated by their kitchens and claims to have read menus before he read books because they spoke to him in a language of their own.
Aside from a bit of home movie footage, there isn’t a lot to illustrate all these memories, and Tenaglia has made the unwise decision to overindulge in awkward and off-putting re-creations of Tower’s early days. Re-creations have become a pernicious trend in docs, and these are especially lacking.
Fortunately, those pre-restaurant days are soon over and things pick up noticeably once Tower, whose considerable interest in cooking had always been personal, not professional, is hired in 1972 to work in Alice Waters’ recently opened Chez Panisse.
Though much about their tempestuous relationship is a matter of dispute, what all agree on is that the electric culinary collaboration between them was great for Chez Panisse specifically and a new wave of American cooking in general.
In 1976, in Tower’s telling (Waters appears in the film only in archival footage), he wrote the menu for what was to become a legendary dinner to celebrate California cuisine, the first time local ingredients and named farmers were given credit for their role in this kind of a feast.
The rest, obviously, was history, and as the restaurant got grander, with diners flying in on Lear jets, tensions rose and Tower left. The rift between he and Waters widened when the Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook was published in 1982 and Tower felt his contribution was slighted. “I can still feel the outrage,” he says now, and clearly he can.
Tower opened Stars and its pioneering open kitchen in 1984 and took his concept of restaurant as theater to another level. The place hosted everyone from Mikhail Gorbachev to Run DMC and made Tower such a celebrated figure he appeared in a Dewar’s Profile advertisement.
Towers does not talk about the multiple reasons for Stars’ eventual demise, though others do, and the film initially catches up to him living in Merida, rescuing and flipping old houses and cooking delicious meals for himself.
Then, unexpectedly, comes a chance for a last hurrah, the opportunity to take on the traditionally thankless task of being the executive chef of New York’s mammoth Tavern on the Green. Can Tower do great food for 700 diners without driving everyone crazy? “The Last Magnificent” takes us behind the scenes for this enigmatic individualist’s possible final act.
“Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent”
Rating: R for language.
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.
Playing Landmark, West Los Angeles.