“Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent” is an attempt to secure the place of the renowned chef in American culinary history. It’s a portrait of a man and also the story of an artist’s evolution, in this case an artist who has dealt in the realm of food.
As a chef at Alice Waters’ groundbreaking Chez Panisse and as the founder and chef of his own restaurant, Stars, Tower helped change the way Americans thought about food by emphasizing the local sourcing of ingredients. With Waters he was one of the inventors of California Cuisine.
Tower was born into a wealthy family but had a difficult and lonely childhood, which, according to the film, resulted in a complicated personality. Tall and good-looking, he could be charming and convivial, the most magnetic person in any room he entered. But he could also be difficult and exacting, and even good friends say that he always kept a part of himself hidden from view.
He enjoyed cooking but never considered it as a career until he got a job at Chez Panisse, and the rest is history. The behind-the-scenes footage of the Chez Panisse kitchen in the 1970s makes cooking look sexy. Everyone is young and gorgeous, and according to interviews, they were all hopping into bed with one another. It certainly looks like it.
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The documentary delves into the controversy resulting from Tower’s leaving Chez Panisse in the late 1970s. Tower feels that Waters took credit for his inventions, and the documentary contains interviews that both support and qualify that contention. In the end, the movie leaves the impression that both Waters and Tower are seminal figures in American cooking, but that Tower, who is somewhat forgotten, deserves to be remembered.
Stars, which created a sensation in the 1980s, was Tower’s greatest creation, and its food and the atmosphere are discussed in rhapsodic terms by food celebrities such as Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain. The movie contains lots of footage from Stars’ heyday, which shows Tower hobnobbing with the politicians and celebrities of the era. Tower himself was a celebrity, the prototype of the celebrity chef.
The documentary takes Tower through his much publicized recent stint as the chef at New York’s Tavern on the Green, a rather hopeless assignment for a perfectionist. The restaurant is enormous, and ensuring quality control when a kitchen is preparing 1,000 meals a night is next to impossible. Tower is shown in the kitchen trying to do the impossible, and it’s hard not to feel for him and respect his care and rigor.
We also see him reading his own reviews, something critics should keep in mind when they write about people. These are real people, not abstractions, not ideas, but actual people, and words have consequences. A rave review in the New York Daily News makes Tower a nice man to work for … until the other reviews roll in.
(Opens Friday at the Glenwood Arts.)
Rated R for language.
The Culinary Center of Kansas City, 7920 Santa Fe, Overland Park, will host a reception including food and demonstrations at 6 p.m. May 25, followed by a screening of “Jeremiah Tower” at the Rio Theatre. See kcculinary.com.