For someone who has had such an illustrious career, Jeremiah Tower may be the nation’s most unfortunate chef. As chef de cuisine of Chez Panisse from 1972 to 1978, he made the famed restaurant in Berkeley, California, what it was, but it’s only founder Alice Waters’ name that people associate with it.
Tower founded one of the country’s best restaurants — San Francisco’s Stars — and, just like the celestial bodies it was named after, it burned the brightest before it died. His streak of misfortune continued in 2014, when he was given the thankless task of remaking New York’s Tavern on the Green, a job from which he was unceremoniously fired after only five months.
But Tower is on a quest to reclaim his reputation with the help of Anthony Bourdain, who has reissued Tower’s memoir, via his book imprint, and produced the new documentary “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent,” directed by Lydia Tenaglia. It’s a languorous look at the ups and downs of a career gone awry, and the mysteries and confused culinary disciples left in the wake of the chef’s abrupt disappearance to Mexico for several years.
There is no shortage of famous faces who pop in to pay homage to Tower, including Mario Batali, Martha Stewart and Wolfgang Puck. Waters, who is seen in archival footage of Chez Panisse, declined to participate, which is no surprise. She is portrayed as someone who pined, romantically yet unrequitedly, for Tower, and then stole his recipes when his celebrity began to outshine hers. Tower says he “can still feel the outrage” at her.
He can still feel the outrage over a lot of things. The documentary delves deep into his childhood, with scenes of a young Jeremiah and his parents depicted by actors. He describes his dismay at being carted around the world, first class, by his disinterested parents; his grim, elite British boarding school; his lack of purpose at Harvard. It’s the whine of the privileged, with the exception of a genuinely disturbing allusion to an incident of sexual abuse by an Australian fisherman when Tower was a young child.
But growing up in hotel restaurants prepared him for the job at Chez Panisse. (His job interview: “Alice turned to me and said, ‘Do something to the soup.’”) Chez Panisse begot Stars, which attracted celebrities and drag queens, and made Tower into a celebrity himself (and, sometimes, a bit of a jerk). It came crashing down, in part, because of the San Francisco earthquake of 1989, and Tower didn’t resurface again from his Yucatán home until his disastrous Tavern on the Green gig.
As the documentary comes to a close, so, too, does that job — another disappointment, another fury — and a man few people ever truly knew retreats into himself once more.
‘JEREMIAH TOWER: THE LAST MAGNIFICENT’
Starring: Mario Batali, Anthony Bourdain, Francesca De Luca
Rating: R for coarse language
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes