A Film Review by Gaetano Kazuo Maida
(Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent opens at theaters across the U.S. in late April and early May. Current scheduled openings are here. )
This is that rare work that will surprise anyone with preconceptions about what a food film, or a film about a chef, can be. True, it starts conventionally enough, with a series of talking heads, some well-known, some less so, describing the twice famous chef Jeremiah Tower. But after that quick feint, it begins to explore a poor little rich boy narrative, and very soon we are in new territory.
We know we are unmoored when the memory of a family visit to an Australian beach morphs into something else: a sensitive depiction of a near-sacred transmission of knowledge of nature and food (and likely, sex) from an Aborigine fisherman the six-year-old Jeremiah happens to encounter on his own, away from his family, who continue to enjoy themselves nearby without noticing his absence. It’s a foundational experience, an initiation, an awakening of sorts that stays with him. The hero’s journey begins…
But this is no conventional story. Its ambitions lie beyond formula, beyond expectations; the aspiration, as the title suggests, is, after all, for magnificence. What perhaps began as an attempt to solve one mystery—who actually started the new American food movement?—tumbles into a journey of discovery about a fascinating man.
Director Lydia Tenaglia is widely respected for her work as co-founder of Zero Point Zero Productions in New York, which has been producing a number of popular food-related television series starting with No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain (who is an executive producer of this film), and including the PBS series Mind of A Chef and the CNN series Parts Unknown. In some ways, these have helped set the tone for a new, anti-FoodTV television approach to the world of chefs, cuisines, culture, and cooking.
This film, though, is not cut from the same cloth. Tenaglia probes past the obvious, and despite Tower’s clearly complicated opacity, enables him to reveal some of his essential qualities: obsessiveness, pride, rebelliousness, brilliance as a restauranteur, an attractiveness to men and women, and a commitment to excellence. And yes, it turns out he deserves a lot of the credit for lighting “the match that started the fire of the revolution that then occurred in America called the New American Cuisine.”
Tower was well known in food circles as the chef at Alice Waters’ ground-breaking Chez Panisse in Berkeley starting in 1972, and after an acrimonious departure from there, as chef-partner at the sensationally successful and influential Stars in San Francisco.
Then, seemingly linked to the catastrophic effects of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, Stars closed, and he vanished from the food scene entirely.
This becomes the core mystery Tenaglia pursues, and she takes us all the way back to Tower’s childhood in search of clues. About his youth spent on luxury cruise ships and in five star hotels all over the world, Tower says, “I much preferred the hotel room to my parents…much! You’re the king and you’re in your own kingdom.” This sense of alienation and aloneness led him to appreciate the one thing that was constant: the food. He says, “Before I read books, I read menus. To me, menus are a language unto themselves… they spoke to me as clearly as any childhood fantasy novel.”
Tenaglia assembles a multifaceted, if necessarily fragmented, portrait of an elusive master.
The film skillfully combines archival footage (Tower family home movies in particular, and also some delightful and priceless clips from Chez Panisse by the late Les Blank), elegant re-enactments, scenes with Tower in the Yucatan, Mexico, and fascinating restaurant and kitchen scenes. To provide commentary and perspective, some of the usual suspects appear—Anthony Bourdain of course, Ruth Reichl, Mario Batali, and Jonathan Waxman—along with others who have known Tower for a long time, but this isn’t mere checklist storytelling.
As Tower engages in a surprise new project in New York, he quotes Proust, “Work while you still have the light,” and muses, “Let the flesh grow old, crumble… what are my great expectations and what have I done? Well, that remains to be seen.”
Whether you’ve experienced Chez Panisse or Stars or not, see this ambitious film for a sense of someone who climbed to the top of the food world seemingly out of nowhere, somehow managed to disappear at the height of his powers and fame, and yet perseveres on his own terms. He tells us, “The only escape is change.”
Gaetano Kazuo Maida is a media professional and strategic planner. He has both owned as well as consulted for restaurants and opened a tea shop. He was a founding director of the Buddhist quarterly Tricycle, and producer/director of several films including Peace Is Every Step, a film profile of Vietnamese Zen teacher/activist Thich Nhat Hanh, narrated by Ben Kingsley. Among his other films as director and/or producer are The Simple Life, On the Luce, Rock Soup, Milarepa, and Touching Peace.
He is currently executive director of the nonprofit Tea Arts Institute and Buddhist Film Foundation and presenting The 2017 Buddhist Film Festival in Los Angeles and San Rafael this summer. The complete schedules are here.
Maida has written for EatDrinkFilms about his search for the perfect Bialy and reviewed City of Gold and In Search of Israeli Cuisine.
The Orson Welles of the food world? A Profile of Jeremiah Tower by Bruce Palling
Check out Jeremiah Tower’s special recipes for Eat Drink Films here and a special edition of “Eat My Shorts” featuring videos of Tower preparing some of his classic dishes, all accompanied by recipes.
Director Lydia Tenaglia is co-founder of Zero Point Zero Production.
Indiewire talks with Lydia Tenaglia.
Read an interview with Lydia Tenaglia in The MarySue.
A NOTE ABOUT JEREMIAH TOWER: THE LAST MAGNIFICENT
By Anthony Bourdain
He was, for a golden time, before and after the revolution, the most important chef in America. He was easily the most influential. Everyone cooked like Jeremiah Tower. Everyone wanted to BE Jeremiah 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?
What began as a culinary mystery: Who was really responsible for the American Culinary Revolution? became a more nuanced investigation: Who is Jeremiah Tower?
The Last Magnificent investigates the life, times, accomplishments and mysteries of a brilliant, immensely talented, mercurial and inconvenient man who changed the world.
Jeremiah Tower and Anthony Bourdain on CBS This Morning