If the films were actually bad, I’d consider this onslaught of documentaries about world-renowned chefs and restaurants an epidemic. But so far at least, each one has had a unique spin on the traditional success story. Some are tinged with personal disappointments or tragedies, while the new Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent is the story of a genius who might be his own worst enemy. Unlike so many other temperamental chefs who simply yell at their staff and make millions, Tower is considered by most to be a fairly charming man and is appealing to people of all genders. His story is that he essentially created (or co-created, depending on who you believe) what is today considered fine American cuisine, using homegrown ingredients, paired with American-made wines.
We get a great deal learning about Tower’s upbringing, which was one of indulgence and privilege. We also learn that he spent a great deal of time separated from his parents, even when they were traveling together. He was all over the world at a young age, and very often would find comfort and companionship in the kitchens of luxury ocean liners and fancy hotels. So by the time he landed at Harvard, he was already an excellent cook, especially when called upon to feed large groups of students, fresh from an antiwar protest. He began his professional career answering an ad for chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley circa 1972, where owner Alice Waters had turned her tiny little restaurant into a French kitchen meshed with a seemingly nonstop party.
One of the great advantages director Lydia Tenaglia (a producer on “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations.”) has in putting together this film is an astonishing amount of archival footage of Tower at work at every stage of his career. When he began to change the menu at Panisse in American cuisine, the student/artist crowd was pushed out by the more elite wine crowd and tourist looking for the next big dining hub. A veritable who’s who of well-known chefs, food writers, and Tower’s friends and family (including Martha Stewart, Mario Batali, Wolfgang Puck, Ruth Reichl, and, naturally, Anthony Bourdain, who also co-produced and seems to have a vast wealth of knowledge on the subject of Tower’s career) weigh in on the great chef’s greatest achievement and most heartbreaking failures, including a fairly recent attempt to install him as the head chef at the notoriously terrible Tavern on the Green in New York City.
But The Last Magnificent does more than just present a biography of Tower. When we first are introduced to the present-day man, he is living as a recluse somewhere in Mexico, away from judgmental people and the furious pace of an exclusive restaurant. There are times when Tower’s quest for perfection in his food and staff is exhausting, never more so than when he took over at Tavern on the Green. But the exciting footage from his most successful venture, Stars in San Francisco, which opened in 1984. The space was flawlessly design to maximize space, visibility of all aspects of the restaurant, with an open kitchen that made the chefs the star attraction. In fact, Tower is most likely the first celebrity chef of the modern era (complete with endorsement deals). But after Stars closed, he vanished for almost 20 years, hoping to discover himself again as both a human being and a lover of simple but elegant cooking (the meals he makes himself are among the most delicious looking in the entire film).
Director Tenaglia’s sparse use of re-creations of events from Tower’s younger days don’t really add much to the bigger picture being drawn of this culinary artist, but they aren’t distracting or insufferable either. She does attempt to find a through-line in Tower’s life that connects the failures, and it clearly has something to do with a combination of being a perfectionist and a control freak. The idea that he wouldn’t control every aspect of a restaurant in which he worked seems ludicrous. He cares about the way the waiters pour wine as much as he obsesses over the main course. Above all else, The Last Magnificent captures the passion with which Tower operates every corner of his life, even when he’s mostly sitting still.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.