There are two conflicting origin stories about the birth of California cuisine, both set at Berkeley’s famous Chez Panisse. In one version, it’s Alice Waters who brainstorms the idea of using fresh, seasonal, locally sourced ingredients. The other places the self-trained Jeremiah Tower at the center of the distinctly American nouvelle cuisine movement.
The new documentary “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent” builds a case for the Tower version, connecting the dots between his lonely aristocratic childhood, his extravagant bad boy days at Harvard and his early ‘70s tenure at Chez Panisse when, according to the documentary, he strode into the kitchen and took it in a new direction. Five years later he was out on his own, forging a profile as one of the first celebrity chefs and, in 1984, opening San Francisco’s landmark Stars restaurant. The “who-created-California-cuisine” dispute assumes its full form when, after publishing her first cookbook, Waters neglects to assign credit to Tower’s many contributions. Produced by Anthony Bourdain and directed by Lydia Tenaglia, “The Last Magnificent” will be released April 21.
Tower, a witty raconteur, recently spoke from his home in the Yucatán, addressing the documentary ground rules he established, his failed 2014 term at New York’s Tavern on the Green, and the last time he saw Waters.
What did you think when you were first approached for this project?
I was quite leery at first. I wondered, “Why would anyone want to make that?” Then I had dinner with Anthony and he persuaded me that it was a very good idea. He’s a hard man to turn down.
Were there certain scores that you knew you wanted to settle?
Yes. But I resisted that. [Laughs.] I said to Lydia before she started interviewing me, “This is such a weird process for me. I have two things I insist upon. The first is that we take the high road with Alice Waters, and the second is that I have absolutely nothing to do with what’s in [the documentary].” And she said, “That’s interesting. Those were the two things that we were going to insist upon with you.” [Laughs.]
What did you discover in the process of excavating your past?
I found all of my culinary notebooks from when I was a teenager and in college, and I transcribed them and sent her those. I’m glad I did, but what came out of them was pretty shocking. When you’re 19 and on drugs, you say all kinds of things.
Tavern on the Green. Why?
I do have a fatal attraction to the slim chance, and that was certainly one of them. But I’d always been attracted to Tavern on the Green. For years Stars and Tavern were the highest-grossing restaurants in the United States, not by the final amount but by the ratio of seats to gross. It was kind of a competition. When I got word they were looking for a chef, I thought, “Maybe it’s time to get off the beach and go to the place that’s the least beach in the United States, which is New York City.” [Laughs.] I thought I’d have a go at it. And I nearly pulled it off.
The cameras were there to document your tempestuous term. How did that happen?
The chronology was they were heading toward final editing and as far I was concerned my part was done. But after I took the job, Lydia said, “My God, Jeremiah, now we have to reshoot. We had an ending but it wasn’t this one.” So I said, “You can film just a very little bit because otherwise it will look like I’m trying to grandstand.” Of course, they filmed for months and were hanging around Tavern until they drove us all mad. But they got the stuff they wanted.
What did you learn from experience?
That I’d completely forgotten everything I knew while on the beach. [Laughs.] Opening a brand new restaurant is one thing — taking over from some people who are already failing is not as easy as you might think. People who are failing are failing and they don’t really realize why. It’s probably egotistical of me, but I always think I can improve something, make it better.
How did you end up in the Yucatán?
I moved to New Orleans and then went to Cozumel to vacation. Then Katrina hit. So I was basically homeless in Cozumel. Then Wilma came along a couple of months later and I was homeless again. Then I thought, “I’m going to a place that has no hurricanes, no terrorists — I was in New York during 9/11 — and that’s how I came upon Merida, the most tranquil, beautiful, spiritual city I know.
When was the last time you saw Alice Waters?
I think it was the 40th anniversary dinner at Chez Panisse. We sat together.
Has time healed all wounds?
When you get to be my age, if you haven’t given up on the petty things that upset you, you should definitely start doing it. I did it a long time ago. [Long pause.]
Oh, actually I should say that I gave up on those things a long time ago — but Anthony hasn’t. [Laughs.] He says in the movie, “People should be given the credit when it’s due.” And it’s possible that that’s what gave birth to the idea that he should make this movie about me.