Imagine a culinary world without open kitchens, locally-sourced menus, and Rachael Ray’s mug splayed across a collection of groceries and cookware at Target. If the eponymous subject of “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent” didn’t exist — or, perhaps, went into sales instead of the restaurant business — these present-day familiarities might not be so familiar.
As executive producer and fellow celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain puts it, back in the 1970s Tower created “the restaurant as scene.” The innovator himself describes his enamorment with food and first-class living as having been born out of a lonely childhood in which his well-heeled parents often left him alone in hotels and on cruise ships while they socialized.
“The worst thing that ever happened to me is that I wasn’t an orphan,” he says in the documentary. Tower’s father was a womanizer and his mother an alcoholic, though she still threw parties at which she’d get drunk before the snacks had been served. In these situations, a preteen Jeremiah would come to the rescue. “It was probably shame that started my cooking career,” he says.
Food as emotional salve is a recurring theme throughout “The Last Magnificent,” the feature debut of TV producer and occasional director Lydia Tenaglia. Styled pretentiously at times, the film presents Tower as the lone wolf he was at heart; shooting him as chef-as-martyr, roaming the Mexican desert and gazing toward the sun as his own narration plays, however, is a bit eyeroll-inducing. And once Tenaglia dispenses with the visual mythologizing, the colleague-drooling begins, although listening to commentary from celebrities such as Mario Batali, Martha Stewart, and Bourdain is much more palatable.
Tower’s career began in 1972, when he applied for a kitchen job at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse because his family was no longer funding him. He was hired after being commanded by owner Alice Waters to “do something with the soup!” during an evening rush. Quickly rising at the already-famous restaurant, he essentially became Waters’s partner (both in business and personally, although Tower’s gay), creating the menus and introducing the then-novel practice of touting food grown in the region.
When Waters took credit for his work in a cookbook she published and also became unhappy with the high-class crowds he attracted — in archival footage, she says, “You ask people for help, and they [give] you too much help” — Tower took his leave. “I can still feel the outrage,” he says. (Waters appears in vintage footage but does not appear in contemporary interviews.)
“The Last Magnificent” proceeds to detail Tower’s career and self-invented status as the first rock-star chef. That renown was the result of Stars, a restaurant he opened in San Francisco that instantly became the West Coast equivalent of Elaine’s. He didn’t keep himself tethered to the kitchen, instead chatting and drinking champagne with guests. “He was hosting a party,” a friend says. But when the party ended, he disappeared for years.
It’s at this point that Tenaglia loses control. Seeming as if the film had been spliced out of order, the story veers from Tower’s vanishing to his franchising of Stars to his reemergence in New York in the past decade — and it keeps circling, rarely explaining the reasons behind any given move, including the closing of Stars. It might be analogous to Tower’s reputation for being impossible to truly know. (“There’s a locked room inside Jeremiah,” Bourdain says. “I haven’t been there. I don’t think many people have.”) But it mars an otherwise engrossing documentary.
Tower himself contributes to the film’s appeal. Still elegant in his mid-70s, there’s no doubt of his arrogance, though that seems to be a prerequisite of the trade. He knows that his work has been extraordinary, he’s well-spoken, and he cares intensely about decorum and class.
A longtime friend says the conceit that drives him is style: “It’s a beautiful style, something that elevates and brings us out of the muck,” he says. “It brings us out of the mediocrity and out of the vulgarity in which we are forced to live.”