Dining

A Towering Figure

A new documentary digs into the life and mind of Jeremiah Tower, the most important chef you don't know
Jeremiah Tower
Photo: Courtesy of ZPZ Production and CNN Films

Jeremiah Tower "changed the world," Anthony Bourdain says. Many have called him the father of California cuisine, the chef who radically changed how we think of this thing we call "chef." And yet, he's largely unknown to anyone who isn't old enough to remember the dining scene of the 70s and 80s, when Tower helped define Chez Panisse, and everyone from Gorbachev to Run-D.M.C. ate and drank Champagne at his iconic San Francisco restaurant, Stars.

A new documentary, Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, which premiered this weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival (and was just picked up for distribution) tells the story of Tower through interviews with Bourdain (who is also one of the producers), Mario Batali, Ruth Reichl, Martha Stewart and other recognizable members of the food elite. Woven into those interviews and recollections are edited family videos and artful recreations of Tower's younger life that look like they could have come from Big Fish—a sort of imaginary realism that pushes the film beyond a typical documentary.

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The film starts with Tower's childhood, living mostly alone in grand hotels (imagine Eloise crossed with Gatsby), finding friends and companionship among kitchen staff and menus. From the beginning, the viewer is hit with this central theme: the tension of being alone versus loneliness. The film treats food and the dining experience like art and theater, and Tower the brilliant but somewhat tortured artist behind it.

Viewers follow him to Harvard and then to Chez Panisse, where, as Bourdain puts it: "He made Chez Panisse the place where everyone wanted to go." To Bourdain, this part of the film is key. Alice Waters is often given credit for work Tower did in the kitchen, writing him out of history. And the film stands firmly to set this straight.

But perhaps the best part of the film is when Stars, Tower's signature restaurant, which opened in 1984, comes into focus as the birthplace of a myriad of things in our current dining scene: the open kitchen, the hearth and wood-fired oven, the chef as rock star and the restaurant as scene of the party. It's one of those places where "you just had to be there." And anyone watching the film who wasn't there will certainly wish they were.

Unfortunately, toward the end, the narrative becomes muddled. Just before filming was supposed to wrap, Tower accepted a job as the chef of the long-beleaguered Tavern on the Green. So the last third or so of the film jumps back and forth between Tower's later, rougher days at Stars and his three-and-a-half-month stint at Tavern, where he almost succeeded in bringing the restaurant out of its dark, touristy haze, but was forced out before that happened.

The move to come out of retirement in Mexico at the age of 71 was shocking, but paraphrasing Proust, Tower says, "'Work while you still have the light.' I wanted to see if my light was still on." In many ways, it is. Tower, speaking with Bourdain, director Lydia Tenaglia and Charlie Rose after the film's premiere, was still beaming, still sharp, insightful and with a flair for the dramatic. But his light may never shine as brightly as it did at Stars. For those who missed it (or simply those who want to bask in its remembrance), this film is the closest we can get.

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