With uncanny visual lyricism and stylish, cinematic savoir faire, director Lydia Tenaglia chronicles the how and the why of the career of culinary genius Jeremiah Tower, mystery man of profound sensibility and simple yet incredibly complex tastes. Tenaglia’s amazing documentary charts this most maverick of food connoisseurs who was the first chef to spearhead a revolution in American culinary artistry and solidify what became known as California cuisine and the modern American restaurant.
Jeremiah Tower innovated the concept of the celebrity chef simply by being himself; he embodied his own creative conceptualization of a chef’s magnificence like no one else before or since. Tenaglia captivates us with incisive commentary by foodie experts, today’s top chefs and cuisine mavens including Anthony Bourdain, Mario Batali, Martha Stewart, Jonathan Waxman, Ruth Reichl, Wolfgang Puck, and other Tower friends who attempt to define his ineffable brilliance and mojo to clarify what makes Tower worthy of the title of the film, “the last magnificent.”
As all attempts to identify the opaque soul of an individual with words often miss the mark, Tower’s friends come up short and admit that they know little of the depths of Jeremiah Tower. Even they could not explain or understand how he was the feted darling of the jet set, prized in cultural magazines of the 1980s and 1990s one moment, and then vanished into the ethers, slipping out of the limelight to enjoy an elegant existence outside the US.
Traveling to the other side of the world, he sought to morph from an inception that he himself created and innovate once more. Along the journey, after opening up a restaurant in Hong Kong, he eventually arrived back in the U.S. and through circumstances and life choices he gradually broke himself down as an eagle does when he must regrow a new beak and feathers to evolve to another dimension of life. During the course of their commentary in the film, friends and acquaintances admit that somewhere locked away in one room or many rooms of his soul, Jeremiah Tower is known only to himself and is unfathomable.
That is perhaps the finest compliment that they are able to give about this most intriguing and controversial of individuals who in the 1970s put Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse (Berkeley, California), on the foodie map, and quickly moved to integrate other cuisines on the menu, throwing out all culinary rules about French cuisine from 100-year-old recipes. At Chez Panisse where he “made his bones” he developed his own dishes despite the fact that he had no real prior experience other than cooking for friends in college and elsewhere, loving sumptuous, delectable creations from freshly sourced foods and enjoying being ingenious in the kitchen. Sometimes, that is all it takes when one finds one’s passion and that passion is eating well and making others thrilled to sample divine, extraordinary faire.
Tenaglia reveals her mastery in having gained Tower’s trust, so that she is able to subtly spotlight his humility, elegance and magnanimity. She teases out fascinating answers to the deeper questions and issues in his life and forges the portrait of how this icon effected his approach to an American gastronomy that was totally singular and decades ahead of the culinary curve. After the film’s initial introduction Tower discusses his upbringing with wealthy parents who often left him to his own designs as they traveled with him on first class luxury liners that take one’s breath away by comparison to today’s middling, ostentatious cruise ships.
He grew up after the war in the 1950s when few traveled widely. He knew, understood and experienced a level of sophistication that the middle class never dreamed of. His parents were of means. Enjoying a first class lifestyle, he grew accustomed to the luxury and elegance he encountered dining where reading menus became a fascinating education. He enjoyed superb, culturally exotic foods (i.e. rabbit in aspic), served by white-gloved waiters in the first class dining rooms of beautifully appointed ocean liners. Such cultural complexity presented to one of his young age inspired Tower to appreciate the finest of faire contrasted with the industrially processed, canned/frozen foods packaged with heavy preservatives which included vapid white bread, canned meats, processed cheese food, canned ravioli,and pasta, TV dinners and other convenience foods that were advertised “must-haves” for American families.
Tenaglia intersperses Jeremiah Tower’s comments against panoramas and medium shots of geographical settings. Some, where he currently lives, are exceptionally poised against his voice-overs and cleverly manifest his perceptions and symbolic quips that reveal who he is. The metaphoric revelations are stunning couple with their visual counterparts. The recreations of Tower’s childhood (on the luxury liners), are vital, the cinematography muted and austere, reinforcing the otherworldy aspect of a child alone, who had to learn inner strength as he often was forced to entertain himself apart from his parents.
These visuals reveal the dreamscape of a youngster who did as he wished without parents hovering. Tenaglia’s well crafted recreations reveal a time and place that will never be again, and characterize the indelible influence of his early childhood on Tower’s culinary artistry. His food achievement is not to be underestimated. He singularly manifested his intent to present the most stylized, tempting, outrageously crafted and memorable dishes one could ever hope to sample at a period in the 1970s and 1980s when no other chef thought of mastering the extraordinary standards that Tower set for himself.
In the film Tenaglia also charts Tower’s evolution as a celebrity chef which takes him beyond the finality of his close relationship with Alice Waters and her Chez Panisse. Not only did he engineer the restaurant’s fame by following impulses learned from his childhood, he was inspired to encourage the renaissance of local, freshly, sourced food to be the core of epic creations in American cooking. Tenaglia, through interviews with Tower and commentary by those who knew Tower’s relationship with Waters, highlights how he then moved on to other restaurants always the trailblazer for those neophytes ready to follow his sterling example in what was to become a new gastronomy.
Tower’s influence pushed time forward in the culinary universe. There was a paradigm shift in how restaurants upped the stakes in the way they engaged their clientele. There was a sea change in how chefs were perceived as artisans of a vitally important craft in which gradually folks began to understand how they defined themselves by what and how they ate.
Jeremiah Tower was at the conjunction of the relationship between culture and food, the axle that turned the menu wheels spinning to where there are today. He forever redefined food in America not only in its passion for his “California cuisine.” He inspired a global, social phenomenon, a food revolution that has spawned countless global culinary stars, chef memoirs, television foodie programs, food networks which not only are competing to top one another, but cannot seem to satiate the public’s appetite to watch kitchen creations, something that Tower innovated with his open kitchen design at his world renowned imminently successful restaurant Stars.
At Stars, Tower produced interactive culinary theater. Restaurant clientele had the opportunity to watch his inspirations form on their dinner plates, as the chefs in full view entertained their eyes and entranced their palates. The San Francisco brasserie served truffled lobster to politicians, dignitaries, celebrities, walk-ins, and the little people. The patrons exemplified democracy in motion: the wealthy hobnobbed in the same rarefied atmosphere with the middle class in a most egalitarian way. Folks went there to “see and be seen” and have their taste buds titillated beyond belief in an exceptional dining experience. Stars was an overnight sensation after it opened, and Tower has shared that Stars grossed millions a year to become one of the most successful restaurants in the world.
How Tower evolved Stars, closed it, then stepped up his global travels and restaurant openings in Asia, returned to the U.S. faced a few disastrous storms, then confronted his trials at Tavern on the Green in New York City, Tenaglia unspools as his incredible journey. Indeed, his life is like an ocean tide that ebbs and flows in toward the shore of humanity and out again toward solitude, with its own unique rhythm and poetry influenced by the phases of the moon and the patterns of the weather. As this tide peaks shaped by the winds and currents of life, little is controllable. But its movement is gorgeous, dangerous, remarkable to see and enjoyable to watch.
Some of these rhythms Tenaglia is able to crystallize in her documentary of this foodie great. Jeremiah Tower’s life is. And we may sit back and watch as his energy and vitality spins out his next culinary feat, whether it be a restaurant, a book, film or something entirely different.
Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent will air on CNN after its release in theaters in early 2017. Look for this must-see documentary about the legendary chef you may never have heard of until now.