Food lovers are in for a treat as Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, a documentary film depicting the remarkable life of Jeremiah Tower, one of the most controversial and influential figures in the history of American gastronomy is released in the United States in New York and Los Angeles on 21 April.
Tower began his career at the renowned Chez Panisse in Berkeley in 1972, becoming a pioneering figure in the emerging California cuisine movement. After leaving Chez Panisse, due in part to a famously contentious relationship with founder Alice Waters, Tower went on to launch his own legendary Stars Restaurant in San Francisco. Stars was an overnight sensation and soon became one of America’s top-grossing U.S. restaurants. After several years, Tower mysteriously walked away from Stars and then disappeared from the scene for nearly two decades, only to resurface in the most unlikely of places: New York City’s fabled but troubled Tavern on the Green.
There, he launched a journey of self-discovery familiar to anyone who has ever imagined themselves to be an artist. Featuring interviews with Mario Batali, Anthony Bourdain, Ruth Reichl and Martha Stewart, this delicious documentary tells the story of the rise and fall of America’s first celebrity chef, whose brash personality and culinary genius has made him a living legend.
Tower says he was compelled to create beauty ‘to keep the darkness at bay’ and layers of his personal story are intimately revealed through his own deeply self-aware remembrances. Throughout a lonely childhood, Tower entertained himself through food first, as a gourmand and developing connoisseur of the fancy cruises and exotic restaurants his family frequented during luxury travels, and later, through his own culinary explorations and connecting with the kitchen staff when he was left alone by his parents. After completing architectural design studies at Harvard, Tower landed at Chez Panisse in 1972, the year after Alice Waters opened the now-legendary Berkley bistro.
The match of Tower and Waters seemed fated. It was also complicated. During an era that valued European epicureanism, both Tower and Waters were passionately committed to artisanal food and culinary experimentation and served as mutual muses. Tower was given free rein at Chez Panisse and rose to the role of executive chef, playing an integral role in establishing its reputation. Tower convinced the venerated and powerful James Beard to review Chez Panisse rocketing it into a rare echelon of restaurants whose lauded reputations command waiting lists for reservations and deliver tony patrons who sometimes even flew in on private jets to dine on its famed cuisine.
The two chefs’ competing profiles and passions – Waters’ commitment to French cuisine and Tower’s growing interest in experimenting with an American haute cuisine menu – were perhaps destined for a combustible apex. In 1985 Tower famously left Chez Panisse and planted his own flag with the opening of his Stars restaurant in San Francisco. Stars became the birthplace of ‘nouvelle cuisine’ or ‘California cuisine,’ a revolutionary, elegant, unapologetic celebration of distinctly American culture. Stars was a complete game changer and Jeremiah Tower was both chef and superstar celebrity. Hollywood stars, politicos, and scions and socialites of the elite came calling. In its heyday, Stars was among the most profitable restaurants in America and spawned fêted satellite restaurants in Napa Valley, Manila, and Singapore. Stars also launched and influenced the careers of other eminent chefs including Mark Franz, Mario Batali, Emily Luchetti, and Brendan Walsh, several of whom reminisce about Stars and Tower for The Last Magnificent. But then, suddenly, after a decade and a half at the top of the restaurant world, Tower’s empire crumbled and he disappeared to what many viewed as a self-imposed exile. In 2014, Tower re-emerged in the most unlikely of places: New York City’s fabled but troubled Tavern on the Green restaurant. Director Lydia Tenaglia weaves a beautiful, poignant, universally accessible study of the longings and triumphs of the very large life of a gifted yet lonely artist.
Interspersed among re-enacted portrayals of the bygone elegance of Tower’s youth, are moving interviews with Tower’s contemporaries and others and, the sumptuous, mesmerizing beauty of Tower’s food creations. JEREMIAH TOWER: THE LAST MAGNIFICENT illuminates some of the >mysteries and the demons that drive the passions familiar to anyone who has ever imagined themselves an artist.
Tenaglia, the film director said she thought this would be an interesting biopic of a successful restaurateur. “What I found instead was a rich and complex story of an artist, one who continuously endeavored to reconcile his artistic dreams and visions with the “vulgar reality of life… Driven perfectionist, egotist, seducer, ringmaster… Jeremiah Tower is indeed one of the most controversial, outrageous and influential figures in the history of American gastronomy. Almost overnight, the sexually-omnivorous, Harvard-educated Tower transformed the landscape of not just American food but its restaurants and dining rooms as well. And yet his name has largely been obliterated from history. The Last Magnificent explores the life of this complicated man,” she said.
Executive Producer Anthony Bourdain speaks of Tower as the most important chef in America. “He was easily the most influential. Everyone cooked like Jeremiah Tower. Everyone wanted to beJeremiah Tower or at least bask in his presence. His restaurant, STARS, became the template for the modern American restaurant. He was, arguably the first celebrity chef. He was most definitely the first chef anyone wanted to sleep with. And yet, one minute he was there then he was everywhere and then he was gone. Why did the man who nearly everyone agrees was absolutely instrumental in how and what we eat in restaurants today disappear? And why was he written out of history his accomplishments dismissed, attributed elsewhere, the whole subject suddenly uncomfortable?
Food lovers are in for a treat as the Last Magnificent investigates the life, times, accomplishments and mysteries of a brilliant, immensely talented, mercurial and inconvenient man who changed the food world in the United States.
The film is produced by Zero Point Zero Production Inc. and CNN Films.