Chef Jeremiah Tower may not be a household name like Alice Waters, even in California where he once made history. But if you’ve ever eaten a fine meal in a Golden State restaurant, prepared by a superstar chef in an open kitchen, relying on simple ingredients, carefully sourced from nearby waters and farms, then you’ve certainly tasted cooking influenced by him.
But why was his name dropped from the lexicon, and, more importantly, where in the world is Jeremiah Tower? These are the questions that CNN Films documentary Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, directed by acclaimed TV producer Lydia Tenaglia (EMMY Award-winning series Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown and The Mind of a Chef), successfully answers.
Just before the film’s Bay Area opening on April 28th, the once elusive Tower is discovered, sitting in a suite at San Francisco’s Kensington Hotel. Although he had already released a 2004 memoir, California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution [newly revised and reissued, earlier this month, as Start the Fire: How I Began A Food Revolution In America], the two-time James Beard Award-winning chef — who has been widely credited with developing California Cuisine along with Alice Waters at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, in addition to being the man behind San Francisco’s beloved Stars restaurant, before becoming disillusioned with the restaurant industry and moving to the small Mexican town of Mérida — admits that he was initially reticent to subject himself to the documentary process.
“It was not something I ever thought I would do,” says the once closeted Tower, who was raised to be seen and not heard among society’s upper echelons in the U.S., Australia, and England. “Of course I didn’t know how much would be out there ’til we got going on it. But I ultimately knew I didn’t want to do a PR job, because that had been done so many times already. It had to be a much bigger story.”
For this reason, the man who’d just as soon keep his inner-most feelings tucked under his chef’s toque agreed to take part in this tell-all documentary that also includes comments from fellow culinary superstars such as Mario Batali, Anthony Bourdain, Martha Stewart, and Gourmet magazine editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl.
The Last Magnificent chronicles Tower’s gripping story, from his glamorous upbringing in the 1940s and ‘50s, tarnished by neglect and sexual abuse, to his failed comeback attempt as executive chef at New York’s Tavern on the Green from 2014-2015. In between, we watch as he moves out West to partner with Alice Waters as head chef at Chez Panisse. We bear witness to their much-publicized feud, which led to Tower’s departure and Waters taking sole credit for cooking up California cuisine in the Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook. We root for him as he makes a culinary comeback in the mid-‘80s with the hugely successful Stars restaurant, which hosted everyone from local politicians to Sophia Loren, Pavarotti, Baryshnikov, Run–D.M.C., and the Beastie Boys. We are saddened when the Stars empire crumbles to the ground due to over-expansion and the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
Like a mouthwatering cookbook come to life, the visually arresting film is punctuated by gorgeous footage of Tower today shopping for quality ingredients and preparing simple yet stunning dishes.
Tower says he’s mostly happy with how he comes across.
“At the end of the movie, when I’m going up the steps and [Town and Country’s former Food and Wine Editor] James Villas, with that wonderful Southern accent, says, ‘Is he a lonely man?’ I go up the steps and turn away and the film ends. So that’s, for a lack of a better word, a ‘sad’ take on it all…but it’s just a movie. Do I look sad?”
To Tower’s favor, he has a lot to be excited about. Since wrapping the film, he’s written two cookbooks with a third on the way, and enjoys traveling the world in search of fresh ingredients to cook with and scuba diving off the Pacific. He’s also hopeful that The Last Magnificent will win him more recognition for his culinary contributions.
“It’s for giving credit where credit’s due and making history the way at least I thought it happened,” Tower says. “But one person [James Villas] writes an article [in Town and Country] with a partial truth [Tower as Waters’ peripatetic disciple] and then journalists base their stories on that article and the stories get more and more diluted and further away from the original point. So it was interesting to make an original version of it again.”
Although Tower claims he doesn’t “really think about or give a fig about” his legacy, he can’t help but be reminded of it each time he sits down to a meal that emphasizes simple menus, using fresh, locally available ingredients.
“The culinary revolution that the movie talks about has definitely worked,” he says. “It’s worked so well that now the restaurant and hospitality business has all these fabulous ingredients. When you have a perfect ingredient, you don’t have to mess it around very much, and you certainly don’t have to disguise it with 10 more.”
Tower knows that he can easily walk downstairs to Farallon, an opulent, 20-year-strong, San Francisco seafood restaurant, adjacent to the Kensington Park Hotel, to see his legacy plated. Co-owned and operated by Chef Mark Franz, who previously worked under Tower at three separate restaurants including Stars, Farallon focuses on the local ingredients and simple preparations Tower touted decades earlier.
“There used to be a lot of ex-Stars people working in there, so it’s like going home,” he says. “In San Francisco alone, there are eight or 10, such as Bruce Hill, Dominique Crenn, and Loretta Keller, and on and on, who have their own restaurants or group of restaurants. So yes, it’s very pleasing to see them.”
— Head Photo: Margaret Gordon.