Both a biopic of a complicated man and an exploration of the gathering forces that converged to shape a new American cuisine and create the cult of “celebrity chef.”
I am a ‘foodie,’ a person keenly interested in food, especially in eating or cooking. I am also fascinated with chefs. Specifically, chefs that create or define cuisine. Paul Bocuse, Masaharu Morimoto, Paul Prudhomme are all renowned as inventing or defining a particular cuisine. Wolfgang Puck is said to define California Cuisine but before him, was Alice Waters, the chef/owner of Chez Panisse in Berkley, CA, who some credit with inventing California Cuisine in the early ’70s.
That may not be true.
Alice Waters is a very sore spot in the personal history of Jeremiah Tower, the chef biographed in “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent,” a new documentary opening at the Magnolia Theatre in Dallas on Friday, April 28th. Directed by Lydia Tenaglia and produced by celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, this movie brings to light the argument that Tower was far more the brains behind the inspiration than was Waters. While Tower and Waters only collaborated at Chez Panisse for five years, 72-77, the documentary makes clear that their time together was the defining point in Tower’s life.
Jobless and broke, Tower was on his way to Hawaii when he made a stop in Berkeley. A friend, knowing what a good cook he was, encouraged him to answer an ad for a job as chef at Chez Panisse. There, he created a menu featuring locally-sourced ingredients that he tried to turn into the great food he enjoyed as a child of incredibly wealthy and indulgent parents. When I say “indulgent,” I do not mean that they indulged or doted on Jeremiah or his siblings as children. The reality was quite the opposite. The documentary spends quite a bit of time outlining just how broken Tower’s youth was. However, being that he lived in grand hotels and luxury ocean liners much of the time, he was exposed to the finest of French cuisine prepared by the finest chefs of the time. It was this, and not any formal training that led him to do what he did at Chez Panisse.
Forty years later, Tower still contends that Waters took credit for his recipes in Water’s Chez Panisse Café Cookbook. “She had taken all my menus, all my dinners, all the special events that I had dreamed up, written the menus for, and cooked, and said that she did.” Yeah, he’s still kinda peeved.
Once he left Chez Panisse, he went on to create Stars in San Francisco where he was not only chef but the face of the restaurant. He would always come out and schmooze with the clientele whether they be diplomat, movie star or Joe and June in from the countryside to celebrate a new baby or whatever. This is common practice now, but he was really the first to do it. He had several chef coats in his office so that if he soiled one, he would change before returning to sashay through the dining room to check on his customers.
Stars eventually fail with the economy, struggles ensue, and he retreats to Mexico and essentially disappears from the culinary world in the ’90s. He does return (unhappily) to cooking in 2014 at New York City’s famous Tavern on the Green but he is a culinary perfectionist trying to keep quality control of a kitchen in what has become a 1,000 plate per night tourist spot. Makes you feel a certain justification for the bitterness he still harbors towards the restaurant industry as a whole.
The film comes across as Anthony Bourdain’s personal homage to a man he greatly admires. The film is being released at the same time as Tower’s memoir, ‘Start the Fire: How I Began A Food Revolution In America.’ Mr. Bourdain is not only the executive producer of the documentary but the publisher of Start the Fire as well. He has definitely taken sides in the Tower/Waters debate and he is doing everything he can to make sure Tower gets his due.
The problem, simply, is that the film is a bit long and boring. The recreations of Tower’s life are done well enough but, seriously, the 102-minute running time could have easily been edited to the standard 83 minutes of a two-hour television special and shown on Bravo or Food TV or wherever. Even as interested as I was to find out about this man, I lost interest in the storytelling. The film is playing at the Magnolia which is surrounded by eateries both chain and local so if you are a bonafide foodie, I suggest you make it a culinary date and see this movie and enjoy some fine cuisine and a bottle of wine in the West Village. If you’re not, skip it.
Now playing at the Magnolia Theatre in Dallas