“I was too busy cooking to be a revolutionary,” says the patrician chef Jeremiah Tower in Lydia Tenaglia’s documentary Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent. Having grown up as a lonely boy on transatlantic ocean liners and in other aristocratic milieus, the film describes his one foray into 1960s-era revolution as the mixing of a late-night Molotov cocktail in a Dom Perignon bottle with an Hermès scarf an a Tiffany bag that bounced off the wall of Harvard University’s architecture school and ignited in a storm drain.
It would have been fitting and proper for a man named “Tower” to enter the world of architecture and erect grand buildings, but he found another calling associated with titanic egos. Having charmed his way into a job at Chez Panisse in 1972, Tower worked alongside Alice Waters for six years, providing a classical backbone to her adoration for fresh, seasonal ingredients that together became contemporary California cuisine. Later, Tower opened Stars, the Civic Center restaurant — and, later, global chain — that reigned as the perennial “It” place for most of the 1980s. (It’s now the Empire Room.)
The Last Magnificent opens with Tower slipping a fork into the breast pocket of his chef’s coat, and saying, “I have to stay away from human beings because somehow, I am not one.” This sense of alienation pervades throughout, from his chilly childhood through the rise and fall of Stars to Tower’s ill-fated turn as the executive chef of New York’s Tavern on the Green.
There are lovely details, from descriptions of the week Chez Panisse spent cooking dishes from haute cuisine master Auguste Escoffier — “a nightmare,” one chef recalls — to the fact that Tower takes Alice B. Toklas’ cookbook with him everywhere to his love of aspics and enduring fascination with Atlantis. Exploring the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake’s effects on Stars’ closure, Tower says he might well have committed suicide via Champagne. Reminiscences of his youth and young adulthood become fully formed period pieces with separate actors, endowing the documentary with a Proustian (or maybe Downton Abbey-like) mistiness. Even his commercial endorsements are droll. A profile in a Dewar’s ad reveals him to be the “Vice President of the Society to Stamp Out Kiwifruit.” (James Beard was the president.)
The roster of luminaries who toast his talents is vast: Martha Stewart, Mario Batali, Ruth Reichl, Anthony Bourdain, Jonathan Waxman, Ken Friedman, Wolfgang Puck. One key figure is missing, however: Waters herself. Coyly implied to have been Tower’s lover at one point — although he is gay — and even a recipe thief, their relationship was always contentious. Her non-appearance is the film’s most glaring omission.
In town to promote the film, Tower and Tenaglia insist that there was no sinister motive for it.
“I emailed her last week, saying ‘I miss you, everyone who’s seeing the film is missing you, would you come and moderate the showing at the Shattuck [Cinemas]?’ Tower says. “Her assistant — it was a very nice email — said ‘No, she’s not available.’ Then I found out she was in Europe.”
Waters had agreed to do an interview, only to back out, Tenaglia says.
“I begged her, and she just said, ‘This was a personal story.’ So I respect her decision. I wanted her in the film. People are asking this question consistently.”
“It was not for lack of trying,” she adds.
Even if it’s slightly presumptuous to take this route, the film would have benefited from some explanation — especially as Tower and Waters have indeed kissed and made up, dining together in the middle of the room at Chez Panisse’s 40th anniversary party several years ago.
But Tower’s involvement with Waters’ restaurant remains the third-most-interesting of his stints in the kitchen. The footage of Stars in all its borderline-tackiness is considerably more arresting — especially juxtaposed with quotes about how before it came along, chefs were merely employees and restaurateurs got all the acclaim. It’s also described as a Freudian reimagining of the “ocean liner of his youth” — an assessment Tower has come to agree with.
“Two weeks ago, I would have said, ‘Come on, give me a break,’ ” he says. “But actually, seeing the movie and hearing people’s comments makes me think there’s a lot to it.”
Then he effortlessly segues into the third major phase of his career.
“Turning around, like the Queen Mary — turning around those big ships takes a lot of time and effort to get back on course,” he says. “Certainly Tavern on the Green, somebody said, was like getting a great ship back on course, a monster back on course. I like the comparison now.”
The Last Magnificent‘s chronology is linear until it appears to gloss over Stars’ 1999 closure, leaping to 2014 before knitting together the two tales. There’s a reason for that.
The film’s last section was “informed by the unexpected pivot of him taking the Tavern job,” Tenaglia says. “That certainly wasn’t in any initial incarnation of the film, and when that happened and we started following that story … I had to start making choices.”
“I had a finished film, and then another big event happened,” she adds. “How do you then interweave an entirely new visual paradigm and a dramatic ending onto a film that was four-fifths the ways completed? We went through about 10 different iterations of the ending.”
Ostensibly, the film’s primary question is “Why did Jeremiah Tower disappear and then reappear?” His stint at Tavern was an unhappy one. Watching him contend with mediocrity on his staff, you see anger — but mostly frustration that he himself can’t simply execute every task himself. Bureaucratic inertia and meddling from the kind of non-culinary professionals who ask if lamb has white and dark meat ultimately stymied his attempt to modernize the 800-seat dinosaur, and he left Tavern in 2015 after a number of harsh reviews.
Tower no longer seeks the limelight. He lives in Merida, Mexico, where he’s content to scuba-dive and avoid the American expatriate community. He seldom returns to California, and has no interest in checking out the Empire Room. (“I’d rather jump in with white sharks than do that.”) Champagne is his only drug, and his aloofness extends even to the film’s occasionally bracing candor — even to candor about the candor.
At the premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, “a young woman came up and said, ‘I love the movie, but you seem so sad.’ And I said, ‘Honey, it’s just a movie. Do I look sad?’ ”
Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent is playing at the Embarcadero Center Cinema and the Shattuck Cinemas.