Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent

I recently had the opportunity to watch the documentary Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, a film by Zero Point Zero, the production company responsible for the excellent Parts Unknown (featuring Anthony Bourdain) and The Mind of Chef (narrated by Bourdain)

Tower, for those who haven’t heard of him (which is apparently a lot of people, including myself before hearing about this film), worked at Alice Waters’ iconic Chez Panisse restaurant back in the days (meaning the 70s), and apparently helped to turn a little hippie venture into one of the most sought-after restaurants in the area. From Wikipedia:

After his grandfather died, Tower, who was used to being taken care of and supported, found himself out of money and in need of employment.

Inspired by a berry tart he had eaten at the then-unknown Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California, he applied for a job there in 1972. Alice Waters and her partners hired him for his demonstrable skills and brazenness when it came to recreating great French traditional food. Within a year, he became an equal partner with Waters and the others. He was in full charge of the kitchen, the writing of the menus, and the promotion of the restaurant.

‘Being taken care of and supported’, we learn in the film, meant being a child of wealthy parents who took him with them on trips around the world in first-class passage, where he was pretty much left to his own devices by a father he describes as an asshole and a mother as a raging alcoholic whose dignity he had to protect by stepping in to poach, skin and decorate the salmon at dinner parties once he noticed that she was too tanked on martinis to finish the job herself.

I’m a fan of pretty much everything that Bourdain does, and also geeky about celebrity chefs, especially the ones who get named as the “first” of their kind – or rather fascinated by that strange race by others to name so many the “original” (Wolfgang Puck! – ‘a celebrity chef long before the phrase was invented’, Emeril Lagasse! Alexis Soyer! Marie Antoine Carême! Philip Harben! Dione Lucas! and now Jeremiah Tower!), which just betrays historical confusion and/or the problems of taxonomy. #whatevendoescelebritymean? 🤷‍♀️ 🤷‍♂️

Back to the film (which the New York Magazine describes as “a rare, honest, and compelling glimpse into the life of a legendary chef”): in one talking head segment Bourdain, who is also the executive producer of the film, tells us something along the lines of how important it is to know about the names and stories of people who may be forgotten (or never known), but who in some way contributed to changing the world. Which is true. If indeed they changed the world. It’s a bold claim.

The story, as told on the screen, involves no berry tart, but rather being down and out after being cut off from the wealth he grew up with, and having friends who happened to know Alice Waters, and who encouraged him to present himself for a job at Chez Panisse, which he did, and impressed Waters by adding salt and cream to a large pot of soup. He worked there for the next six or so years, he and Waters credited with birthing ‘the so-called California Cuisine‘, before leaving to open his own restaurant called Stars in San Francisco in 1984, where he nurtured such young up-and-coming chefs as Dominique Crenn and Mario Batali.

It worked for a while, and then it didn’t (there *was* a lot of champagne consumed in the kitchen, we hear, and an earthquake), so Tower upped and left in 1989.

The most interesting part of the story is that no one knew where he disappeared to.

 (He went to Mexico.)  

Then he suddenly re-emerged and was appointed as the head chef at the iconic tourist destination Tavern on the Green (the ‘second-highest-grossing independent restaurant in the United States‘ in 2007) in Central Park in NYC in 2014. That didn’t really work for less than a year, and so he was replaced. And now there’s a movie about him.

But it’s a disappointing film, because the hagiography that I gather it’s intended to be instead comes across as a portrait of someone who feels entitled (and is promised by the entire premise of having a film made about him) to much more credit than he deserves. Tower felt very aggrieved when someone wrote something about how he was a second fiddle to Alice Waters, whereas he felt he deserved all the credit for the restaurant’s success while he was there, which some other talking head in the film rightly summed up as “But he left!”. Which is not to say that he wasn’t influential, and historically significant. But to whine about not being held up as the prime mover of a place that has operated for 46 years, 6 of which were graced by his presence, and inspiration (and apparently massive levels of testosterone) just seems churlish.

Finally (yes, almost over), it’s interesting that about two decades after celebrity chefs sprung onto the scene – depending on who you think was the “original” – now many of them seem desperate to get off the stage, with 3 Michelin-starred chefs like Sébastien Bras trying to give back their stars because of the ‘huge pressure of being judged on every dish’ they serve. Meanwhile, Bourdain seems to be trying to resurrect the fanfare around a man who walked into a restaurant in 1972, did some good things, then disappeared, then opened a restaurant which failed, then disappeared, then re-emerged to take over another restaurant which didn’t go well either. Either the film wasn’t as persuasive as it wanted to be, or Mr. Tower just isn’t as magnificent as he is in his head. Or maybe it’s just a shitty title for a film about a man who moves to Mexico because he can’t quite figure out how to make it work anywhere else, but knows how to cook and eats octopus for lunch by himself (true story). I’m sympathetic, but not convinced.