Today might be the golden age of restaurants – but it is definitely the age of the celebrity chef. Years ago, being a chef garnered little of the respect it currently does. It was a hard and thankless job – where greatness often toiled over pots and pans. The chef who changed the public’s idea of what a chef could be was Jeremiah Tower.
Director Lydia Tenaglia, along with Executive Producer (and notable celebrity chef) Anthony Bourdain set out to study Chef Tower’s career in the new documentary Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent. Anyone working in today’s restaurants owes it to themselves to learn the history of Chef Tower – and this documentary gives them a chance to understand one of the great culinary minds that led chefs out of the kitchen and into the spotlight.
The Last Magnificent begins with an introspective Jeremiah Tower walking among Mayan ruins. “I have to stay away from human beings because somehow I am not one,” he says in a voiceover. “Everything that is real to me is what is hallucination for others.” It’s a jarring start to the film, one that immediately forces the viewer to pause and wonder ‘who the hell is this guy?’
The line, it turns out, was pulled from one of his journals. “I was 19 and on a lot of peyote” he told a recent gathering of chefs in San Francisco. While that explanation could have been a form of embarrassed apology for such a grandiose line, it was really just an explanation. Tower embraces himself as a visionary, a leader, a provocateur and most importantly, a chef.
While studying architecture at Harvard, he decided to cook through Escoffier’s Le guide culinaire. His dinner parties became legendary as the revolution of the 60’s happened around him. “Drink Champagne and eat smoked salmon,” he said. “That was my revolution.” After finishing school he traveled west, eventually landing his first cooking job at Alice Waters’ now famous Chez Panisse. Once he found himself in a professional kitchen he never looked back.
Tower’s time in the Chez Panisse kitchen was clearly formative, but it was his restaurant Stars that put him on the map. He opened Stars in an unglamorous part of San Francisco (anticipating a model we see repeated so often with current restaurants), practically daring his diners to traverse through a gritty alley to get to the front door. It was an instant success. And rather than be content to stay in the kitchen, Tower circulated through the dining room, often with a glass of champagne in hand to meet his guests. The celebrity chef was born.
The transition from Chez Panisse to Stars is the most gripping part of the film. Tower was young, but sure of himself and his place in American cuisine. He saw himself as a great chef, so he demanded that same greatness of everything he cooked. He looked to the local farms and producers to find ingredients to match his vision of a truly great American cuisine – creating a “farm to table” menu long before anyone even thought of the phrase.
The result was everything a restaurant should be: distinct, disciplined when it counted but downright raucous otherwise. It wasn’t a temple, but a party. The chef was no longer the help, but the host. Stars filled every night with an eclectic mix of personalities: businessmen, politicians and punk rockers who sucked down champagne and smoked salmon. Tower was right – that was his revolution.
The film then unwinds the rise and eventual closing of Stars. After closing the doors on his famous restaurant, Tower largely withdrew from public view. Always enigmatic, Tower’s departure from the culinary world was downright mysterious. Even more mysterious, however, was his return to cooking at the Tavern on the Green after more than a decade. You’ll have to watch the film to fully grasp how unexpected it was for Tower to take the reins of Tavern, but I will say it’s a mystery that’s not neatly answered. I’d argue that lack of resolution is one of the strengths of The Last Magnificent. Much like a chef knowing exactly how much they can develop a flavor before it becomes over-worked, Director Tengalia lets the story unfold on its own.
For me, this was the most compelling thing about the documentary: as a viewer I was led to believe I understood Chef Tower. But just as I settled into that sense of familiarity, I realized all I really understood was how mysterious the mind of a chef – of an artist – really is.