Jeremiah Tower’s impact on the gastronomic world, particularly in the United States has been huge for those in the know. But for many, he was just a forgotten figure and most people interested in the food scene today would probably never have heard of the name before. This is because until 2014 he was mostly forgotten because he was on what many viewed as a self-imposed exile.
So it must not have been an easy task for Director Lydia Tenaglia and executive producer Anthony Bourdain to get the US chef to reveal his story from his childhood to the years at the legendary Chez Panisse and then Stars while also depicting what happened since he left Stars.
When I interviewed director Lydia Tenaglia on her documentary film Jeremiah Tower, the Last Magnificent which will be released in cinemas this week in New York and LA on 21 April after its success at the Tribeca film festival last year, I was curious to how she had managed to convince someone who had disappeared from the limelight to reveal his story on screen.
“It was very difficult,” she tells me. “He was flattered at first because he was living in relative obscurity but it suddenly dawned on him that he would be rendered vulnerable.”
She tells me that in the process of filming and producing the film, Jeremiah and she became friends but at the start he tried to control the process. “He wanted to decide what pictures to use. We had a heart to heart discussion and I told him that this was a documentary film and not a public relations piece. He needed to let go and much to his credit he did give himself over, particularly since he has a controlling character as is evident in the film,” Lydia said.
Lydia needs no introduction to food TV. For the past 17 years, she has been at the forefront co-creating food and travel shows with her husband and partner Chris Collins and chef-turned-host Anthony Bourdain. They are responsible for Parts Unknown, The Mind of a Chef and No Reservations among others.
So how did the idea to create a biopic profiling Jeremiah Tower, the former executive chef of Alice Water’s Chez Panisse and owner of Stars Restaurant in San Francisco? “I have been doing this for 17 years through the company Zero Point Zero Production. We started off small but have a long running friendship with Anthony Bourdain and we were discussing ideas to pitch documentaries to CNN. We proposed three ideas for them to choose from. Both Anthony and I had read Tower’s memoir Start the Fire and CNN seemed to be intrigued by the character. What had happened to him? It started from here,” she said.
But they were not entirely convinced so she went to interview Jeremiah while he happened to be in San Francisco asking basic questions about his life which ended up being presented to CNN as a 10 minute interview which intrigued them to back the project.
During the filming, Jeremiah Tower accepted an offer to take over the helm of Tavern on the Green, a fabled but troubled New York City restaurant in Central Park. How did Lydia deal with this? “It was a surprise. Essentially the film had a three-part structure. We wanted to cover his early childhood, Chez Panisse and Stars Restaurant until it fell apart and he decided to leave everything behind. Three quarters of the filming was complete and we had to shoot the final parts in Mexico. Suddenly someone from my office called to say that Jeremiah had taken up an offer to take over Tavern on the Green in New York. I can still feel the churn in my stomach because at that stage we needed to decide whether to finish filming and let go or whether to cover the return with all the implications. Would it end in glory, would it fall flat? We didn’t know.”
Lydia had to adapt the film because stylistically the shooting was also different. We had archive material as well as some recreations and then we needed to follow someone so the style was difficult. Finally it turned out to be a good call because “we got a glimpse of him in action and it also provided a dramatic backdrop to the story,” she said.
Does she think that he did it because of the film, I ask her telling her it is a question that I will also ask Jeremiah? “I am curious to see what his response will be. He will probably say that an opportunity came about and he thought why not. But I think that there was a part of him which wanted to prove that he still had what it takes to run a restaurant. This was not a small restaurant but one which is renowned and was passing through troubled times. He was pushing himself not just for the film but also to take up the challenge and show that he could still do it,” she said.
The relationship between Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower was troubled and this is evident in the film. Tenaglia regrets that she did not manage to interview Waters for the documentary. “We had the interview set up when we were in San Francisco but it was cancelled at the penultimate moment. We had a series of conversations after that and I can understand why she did not want to speak about the story. It is a personal story and she was not willing to expose her personal story. I appreciate and understand that she wanted to preserve the privacy,” Lydia told Food and Wine Gazette.
Where there other challenging moments apart from when Jeremiah decided to take over the Tavern on the Green kitchen I ask her. “When we were two thirds into post production, I got a phone call from the nephew of Jeremiah (who is also interviewed in the documentary) who was extremely helpful. He told me that he had been clearing his mother’s basement in Oklahoma as she was going to live with them and they had found a box with 8mm film of young Jeremiah. He asked me if I thought that these would be useful. The footage was incredible and it corroborated most of the stories as well as our recreations. It provided us with a new visual paradigm but we needed to adapt the story again,” she said.
Is there a restaurant somewhere in the world that is similar to Stars in style I ask. Lydia says that in the interviews Mario Batali speaks of how he was influenced by what was happening at Stars even though he never worked there as a chef. “He used to go there and he said in the documentary that to some extent all his restaurants were modelled on what he had experienced at Stars.”
Stars was a restaurant that was ahead of its times. It had a 50 foot bar, with a big piano in the middle and a huge open kitchen allowing guests to see what was happening behind the scenes. “The restaurant could welcome the wealthy in one area and guests in another area. In many ways it defined and invented the American approach to food. It had a lasting impact on the American culinary scene,” she said.
Having worked in productions on food for the past 17 years, Lydia believes that we have still not reached saturation point. “This is not a fad. Unlike other forms of art, food is ubiquitously accessible. It is a medium that lends itself well to be shared. Someone can enjoy a dish and share it with friends through social media. It is more accessible that politics, music or art of canvas because everyone has to eat. So in my view, the interest in food will continue to grow. We are not at the top of the mountain yet.”
Is there someone that she would like to document I ask? “There is no one that immediately comes to mind. At the moment we are working on the next series of Mind of a Chef which explores in eight episodes an individual chef and how their childhood memories impact their work. It doesn’t mean there aren’t great ideas. But we enjoy the immediacy of working on this 8-part series,” she said.