‘Last Magnificent’ Gastro-Doc Dishes on Chef
By Samantha Anne Carrillo
In a world gone reality-horrorshow, the chef archetype has joined the ranks of the dance mom, the real housewife, the teen mom, the traded spouse, the next top model (and/or American idol), the bachelors and bachelorettes, and the apprentices. Before all the top chefs, kitchen nightmares, cake bosses and cupcake wars, reclusive yet glamorous culinary star Jeremiah Tower was born off camera—yes, that happens!—in the 1970s and ’80s.
Celebrity chef-cum-professional bon vivant Anthony Bourdain’s (No Reservations, Parts Unknown) unabashed fascination with Tower’s larger-than-life persona led him to partner with CNN Films to produce Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent. Helmed by director Lydia Tenaglia, the gastro-doc chronicles Tower’s meteoric rise through the crème de la crème of the haute cuisine’s ranks.
Berkeley, Calif., circa 1972 was the birthplace of Tower’s career and his contentious—and, to hear him tell it, wildly unbalanced—partnership with Chez Panisse proprietor Alice Waters. Tower reveals that his beef with Waters began with his conceptualization of Chez Panisse branding and design—especially the menus’ inclusion of source farms and farmers—the open-air kitchen design, and other concepts at the heart of the farm-to-table dining ethos; after a brief, ill-advised fling, Tower says that Waters simply wrote him out of Panisse history.
The names in California cuisine were Chez Panisse, Spago, and Michael’s. In the portentous year 1984, Tower launched his own flagship restaurant, Stars, in San Francisco. Backed by Berkeley investors, the Stars concept was a hit, joining the California cuisine Big Four until Tower applied the brakes in the early ’90s. Amid enduring success, he suddenly and inexplicably gave up the range, retiring to Mexico.
After notoriously ghosting his fans, Tower finally reappeared on the scene in November 2014. Tasked with performing CPR on the reportedly awful menu at Tavern on the Green, he gave it his all. And six months in, he was out. With two books—Table Manners: How to Behave in the Modern World and Why Bother and the just-published Start the Fire: How I Began A Food Revolution In America—on shelves and an advocate in Bourdain, Tower hasn’t disappeared again … yet.
Director Tenaglia’s experimental biopic blends richly evocative reenactments with archival footage and talking heads dishing up some serious, thoroughly organic dirt. Bourdain, Martha Stewart, Ruth Reichl, Mario Batali, Wolfgang Puck and Jonathan Waxman all share recollections. This biographical work’s overtly glossy Q&A segments may tremble ever so slightly with art school affectation; the reenactment-driven narrative depictions might weigh in over the top, but Tower’s cocksure personality, unbridled talent and ready temper command respect and attention throughout.
If you’re craving elegant food porn—à la Jiro Dreams of Sushi—The Last Magnificent may not fully sate. For those seeking more than hagiography shot through a Vaseline-smeared lens, this biopic serves up an authentically messy, human story of the redemptive nature of putting food on the table.
From Friday, May 26, through Monday, May 29, catch any of eight screenings of Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent (102 minutes, rated R) at The Guild Cinema (3405 Central Ave NE). Showtimes are at 4 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. daily.
Photos of Tower Courtesy of The Orchard
Samantha Anne Carrillo is: a Burqueña; a freelance writer & editor; a social media consultant & brand strategist; and a fourth-wave feminist & devout situationist. Connect with her at facebook.com/samanthaannenm, samanthaannecarrillo.contently.com and twitter.com/SamAnneCarrillo.