Thursday, May 18, 2017

Review: "Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent"

It wasn't that long ago in the ongoing feast that is the American story when chefs were considered servants, not celebrities. Jeremiah Tower grew up in that Old World of privileged dining, where white-gloved underlings flitted to and fro, fetching exotic dishes that other nameless persons had meticulously prepared for well-heeled diners.

Then Tower crossed over to the kitchen side, bringing scintillating new ideas about cooking that permeated our culture and, in the process, upending the classic dynamic between the feeder and the fed.

Tower served as a bridge between two culinary traditions, a largely self-taught cook who ran huge restaurants and almost single-handedly created what came to be known as California cuisine, which blended classic French cooking with American tastes and a then-novel emphasis on local ingredients. He was this country's original celebrity chef -- not counting Julia Childs, whose province was teaching housewives to cook with flair -- and from the early 1970s to the early 2000s, countless rising young chefs looked to him for inspiration and emulation.

And yet, Tower's name is not one that resonates today in the minds of most people, even devoted gastronomes -- certainly not in the way of other chefs whose fame came after, such as Wolfgang Puck.

The new documentary from director Lydia Tenaglia, "Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent," explores not only the genius of Tower, but how and why it's been overlooked.

It's a penetrating portrait of a man who loves to be around other people, a naturally charismatic figure toward whom others are pulled, yet one who can be off-putting, stubborn and brittle. As depicted in this film, Tower is now wandering through his eighth decade of self-imposed loneliness, an obsessive artist whose first, and best, relationship has always been with food rather than the people who ate it.

Tenaglia’s background is in food television, including a long collaboration with Anthony Bourdain of "No Reservations." She interviews dozens of well-known culinary figures, including Bourdain himself, Martha Stewart and former New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl, along with a host of other chefs who apprenticed under Tower or admired him from afar.

And there are talks with his few longtime friends, several of whom admit that despite adoring Tower for 40 or 50 years, they don’t truly know him. As Bourdain eloquently puts it, Tower has a private room inside himself that few, if any, have ever visited.

Tenaglia’s camera also follows Tower himself around his solitary contemporary perambulations, first living near the sea in Mexico, cooking exquisite dishes for 10 even though he’s the only guest at the table. And later, we shadow him during his brief, ill-fated attempt to return to high-profile restaurateuring, taking over the mammoth kitchen operation of Tavern on the Green, a New York City landmark where many chefs have failed to match quality to the quantity served.

The film’s best sequences explore Tower’s youth and unlikely rise as a chef. As a son to a distant, wealthy executive and a caring but alcoholic mother, Tower recounts long trips they took all over the globe, often for weeks or months at time, during which he was left almost entirely to himself. He was waited on hand and foot by servants, trying out every kind of food he could, memorizing and collecting menus, and eventually being taken under the wing of the kitchen staff.

"From early on, I really think food was my best pal, my companion," he says.

He tells the tale of walking alone along the beach near the Great Barrier Reef at the age of 6, encountering an Aborigine who shared a dinner with him consisting of the barracuda he had just caught. Tower vividly describes smelling the fish searing on a makeshift grill right there on the sand, rubbed with herbs the man had gathered from the jungle. It’s a moment of crystallized memory and pure magic, but one with a conclusion of unexpected darkness.

After misspent years in his teens and 20s, studying architecture at Harvard, exploring counterculture and cooking fabulous meals for friends, Tower found himself cut off from his rich boy’s allowance and in need of a job. Based on the strength of a berry tart he’d tasted and the recommendation of friends, he inquired about a job at Chez Panisse, the storied bohemian Berkeley bistro founded and run by Alice Waters.

Taking over as chef, Tower soon put the place on the national map, and also joined the freewheeling party of carefree souls ensconced in the kitchen -- cooking, eating, drinking, laughing, carrying on affairs. This included Tower and Waters, despite Tower knowing from an early age that he was gay. Eventually the personal and professional affiliation dissolved, ending in bitter accusations over credit for the cuisine.

The movie occasionally wanders chronologically, especially in the second half, in a way that doesn’t serve the storytelling process well. For instance, people who worked at Tower’s signature restaurant, San Francisco’s Stars, question why it closed up suddenly in 1999 after years of being one of the top-grossing restaurants in the country. Some even offer psychological divinations, insisting Tower became distracted with other ventures, or had simply grown tired of the gig. Then the documentary retreads this same ground near the end, offering another reason that is as mundane as it is likely accurate.

As you might expect, Tenaglia and her cinematographer, Morgan Fallon, lovingly caress the food with their lens -- kaleidoscopes of shapes, colors and textures that practically leap off the screen, burrow themselves into your soul and make you yearn to eat, no matter when your last meal was.

The latter portion of the film’s title, “The Last Magnificent,” comes from the nickname of Lucious Beebe, a 20th century journalist and top hat-wearing man-about-town who is credited with creating cafĂ© society. It’s clearly a role Tower desired for himself -- the center of attention in a never-ending swirl of people who loved to gather together for conversation, comradery and, above all, great food. Yet his ability to push people away, even leave them furious, was as boundless as his skills at the stove.

The cuisine endures, but the fame did not. Jeremiah Tower was a celebrity, and then he became almost invisible. But as this probing documentary shows, he was always in the midst of a disappearing act.

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