Food, Feuds, and Fame in Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent
The rise and fall (and return?) of celebrity chef Jeremiah Tower
Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificient
Directed by Lydia Tengalia
Starring Jeremiah Tower, Anthony Bourdain, Martha Stewart, Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali
Director Lydia Tenaglia and executive producer Anthony Bourdain’s culinary documentary Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent opens with footage of some dusty looking rocks. It quickly becomes apparent that these dusty rocks are in fact ancient ruins upon which present-day Jeremiah Tower himself stands, staring wistfully into the clear skies. Why he is standing on these ancient ruins, however, is never fully explained. Instead, the film switches gears, flashing a barrage of excerpted clips from the rest of the documentary that foreshadow the highs and lows of its namesake: the celebrity chef Jeremiah Tower and his astonishing life.
The rest of the documentary plays out much like its opening scenes, presenting Tower as an enigma that seems to defy explanation. Much of the film consists of narrations and interviews with many of his friends, colleagues, and contemporaries, including Mario Batali, Anthony Bourdain, Ruth Reichl, and Martha Stewart. Many are quick to label Tower as an innovator, creator, and artist in his field of work, but the chorus of voices also captures a more complex picture of Tower as a human being. Tower possesses a brashness that seems almost magnetic, and undoubtedly, his own theatricality and personal opulence provide the film with an added kick of entertainment. Nevertheless, there is also a quietness in his dedication and efforts toward his craft, a biting sense of egoism that he carries as an artist, a romanticism in his respect for the old world traditions, and a flippant self-assuredness that is often viewed as a constant middle finger to the rest of the world. Part of the documentary’s appeal is the multi-faceted way in which it depicts Tower’s personality. No one can be defined by a few trite adjectives and, thankfully, the film does not attempt to do so to Tower.
For those looking for a more story-driven drama, the film is also billed as an examination of Tower’s personal and professional life. It begins his story with dream-like footage of reenacted memories that paint an idyllic picture of his seaside childhood, but the tranquility is short-lived. Before long, the viewers are taken down a bumpy road of family drama, school-age mischief, and introspective growth that preceded the nascent talents of this gastronomic pioneer. Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificient traces Tower’s rise to fame from a new chef in 1972 at Chez Panisse to a leader of the California cuisine movement, from his opening of his legendary, celebrity-attracting restaurant Stars to its sudden closure, and from his two-decade long disappearance to his unexpected return to the Tavern on the Green in New York City. The journey we take alongside Tower is exhausting but also deeply fascinating because it weaves together the drama and circumstances of his life’s story with the provocative complexity of his character.
Overall, Tenaglia and Bourdain manage to create a cohesive character piece that takes a personal and honest look into the life story of a culinary icon. Not only is it a visually appealing film — complete with slow-motion footage of lobster, duck, and octopus being tantalizingly prepared — but it is also an entertaining peek into the chaotic and colorful world of the professional kitchen.