In the past decade or so chefs have become celebrities. Pretty much every cuisine or ingredient has been the subject of a TV show or a book. So, it’s kind of remarkable that pioneering chef Jeremiah Tower isn’t better known.
However, a new documentary from filmmaker Lydia Tenaglia sets out to change that. It’s called “The Last Magnificent.” It profiles Tower’s role in changing what and how Americans eat.
Jeremiah started cooking in the ’70s at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse — a restaurant renowned for starting the farm-to-table movement. It had only been open for a year when Tower arrived, and Brendan kicked off his conversation with Lydia by asking what happened next.
Lydia Tenaglia: Into this mix of these 1960s hippie cafe vibe into this walks this unbelievably romantic figure, like straight out of a frigging film with his ascot and his incredible kind of an amalgam of an accent.
He was raised in England and Australia and the US, and we have this incredible accent. And he sort of comes in with this flair and this panache and just rolled up his sleeves and he set to task. And he wasn’t formally trained. He hadn’t gone to culinary school. You know, he wasn’t really a chef.
He just had experienced the world at a very young age, had been exposed to a lot in Europe and basically all over the world and he was kind of taking what he had experienced and read about and he took that and he sort of applied it to the task at hand. And that’s were Chez Panisse started to take on a different tone and vibe from its original concept.
Brendan Francis Newnam: So Panisse became a hit, but then Jeremiah and Alice Waters had a falling out partially because he claims she never credited him with all the work he did on the recipes and the menu.
Lydia Tenaglia: I mean, they had a really tumultuous wonderful, crazy, complicated loving, hating, jealous, ego-driven relationship. And I think it probably came from both sides. I think a lot of people in the films correctly describe it as there is this chemistry or synergy between these two people. It was sort of a confluence of forces.
I would say just knowing and studying Jeremiah’s career, where he came from, what influenced him, that he was really able to bring very clear structure to something that was maybe structure-less. And I think that he really does need to be credited for that kind of influence.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Well there’s one point in the documentary where you’re interviewing him now and he says, “I know that I should forgive Alice and I should be over what happened.” And at one point he says, “I should swallow pride, but frankly it’s too big.” And it sounds like he isn’t over it.
Lydia Tenaglia: Yeah, I think that that line is so… telling. It tells you so much. It really tells you so much about like what Jeremiah’s greatest, but I say equally what his tragic flaws are as well.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Hubris?
Lydia Tenaglia: Hubris. I think hubris, arrogance, tremendously strong, powerful ego. They all derive from a place of artistic vision. I would say that his artistic vision is unbelievably clear.
But I think in some ways, like every great hero, there is that tragic flaw that is the other side of the equation. And I think, as many people say in the film, he was ostensibly written out of that story of the history of the American culinary revolution because that hubris pisses people off.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Well a few years after leaving Panisse he would push the American food movement forward again with the opening of Stars, his pioneering smash hit restaurant in San Francisco. Talk about Stars and what Jeremiah did there.
Lydia Tenaglia: Ruth Reichl in the film says Stars really became the imprint for what the modern American restaurant came to be and what we really frankly know it as today, which is sort of the restaurant as seen. It’s like the chef suddenly comes out of the kitchen, this sort of charismatic central character is both the strong voice in the back of the house and he’s also the great MC at the front of the house. And the restaurant itself really becomes entertainment.
You don’t just go there to eat, you go there to see, be seen, be in the buzz, the swirl. There was like sort of this 50 foot bar that was like just buzzing with activity. There was a piano in the center of it all. It was the first time, too, that it was an open kitchen. I mean Mario Batali says, “All the restaurants that I have created in some way have been influenced or impacted by what Jeremiah created at Stars.” You know, that kind of energy.
Brendan Francis Newnam: So Stars kind of changed how we look at restaurants in the United States and your doc has lots of fun footage of the ’80s in San Francisco, which is a real hoot. Actually, my favorite part of this work is your focus on his childhood and how that influenced his relationship to food. Can you tell us a little bit about Jeremiah’s upbringing?
Lydia Tenaglia: I mean, frankly, just to be totally straight forward, he came from like moneyed neglect. Because I think he was certainly brought in an atmosphere of incredible wealth and travel and fine restaurants and fine hotels. His father was an executive at this company that created sort of sound systems for movie theaters all around the world, so they’ve traveled everywhere. The mother, I think, came from wealth. But I think emotionally he was kind of an afterthought.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Well he filled that emotional vacuum, at least partially, with food.
Lydia Tenaglia: Yeah, I mean he said “You know, when I think about it, food was really my best friend. Food was my companion.” Because they would be going from place to place, hotel to hotel, and he would have this sort of experience of these menus and to him they were like as he describes it like storybooks.
And he said that was one consistency that he could always count on from place to place was that experience of sitting down at a table and being able to order these foods and sort of try new things. And so, that became something that he related to, again, as a sort of consistent, sort of emotional salve, if you will. From getting shuttled from place to place and hotel to hotel. He related to food in a very emotionally visceral way that maybe a lot of people don’t.