Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Apr 30, 2017 8:38 am 
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Portrait of a pioneer of the new American cuisine

The most remarkable part of Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent - the phrase is associated with bon vivant writer Lucious Beebe, a role model of Tower's - is the beginning. In it Tenaglia, producer of food films, especially with Anthony Bourdain, recreates her subject's grand but lonely childhood as a solo gourmet diner at grand hotels and in first class on luxury liners, forgotten by his rich vagabond parents. They spent long periods abroad. Once as he tells it his parents were surprised to find him on a boat dining by himself. Each thought the other had sent him to boarding school. Played by the exceptionally self-possessed young Rocston Issock, the pre-teen Jeremiah is seen dining alone, in style, in grand settings - these evocative, odd stagings alternating with old footage showing the boy's parents dressed rich. To some viewers this introduction is overblown. I found it a welcome departure from documentary routine.

This childhood made Jeremiah Tower into a lonely sybarite whose comfort was fine food, which as a student at Harvard he began producing for the entertainment of himself and fellow classmates. It also made him into a closed, mysterious person, a quality doubtless augmented by having an alcoholic mother and abusive father and growing up gay in the fifties. (He says his greatest misfortune is not having been an orphan.) Tower's secrets the various talking heads say they have never penetrated. Tenaglia uses other found or period footage to recreate in more detail earlier times, and show the man's link with elegant, traditional fine cuisine, which he was to help revolutionize. His foothold in traditions of earlier high style dining, which younger chefs are described as lacking, is reflected in his greatest success, the San Francisco Civic Center restaurant Stars which lasted fifteen years from 1984 to 1999. The film jumps around a bit, turning more into a conventional food history, but the haunting early sequences leave their mark.

Jeremiah Tower is tall, handsome, and elegant. In 1972, taking over from Victoria Wise, he became one of the first and the most famous chefs of Berkeley's Chez Panisse, the restaurant credited with being the origin of the new California cuisine, with a casual emphasis on the south of France and reveling in the best local ingredients. Tenaglia makes liberal use of old footage of Jeremiah and Alice Waters, Chez Panisse's guiding spirit, cooking together in the kitchen. Rumor had it that they may have had an affair; the attractive Tower, in the hothouse kitchen atmosphere, swung in different ways. He says they did not, as rumored, fight. But he left when Waters' first Chez Paniesse cookbook came out and she claimed all the dishes he and others had created were hers, only mentioning the other cooks by their first names in an opening general thanks. Waters is not one of the many talking heads here. Tower went to the Santa Fe Grill, at an old Berkeley railway station (is this mentioned?), and on to Stars later.

The film devotes plenty of time to Stars, an extraordinary and for a while enormously successful restaurant with an open visible kitchen and a long bar that was the center of attention. The restaurant mixed socialites and punks who could see and be seen. Tower was omnipresent, charming, keeping a keen eye on every dish that came out of the kitchen. Batali and Bourdain both say Stars was more important and more innovative in its time than Chez Panisse. There is ample film footage of Stars in its glory, which began to fade with the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which devastated the Civic Center area. How did it last another ten years? Eventually it lost too much money and closed. This film is probably a better portrait of Stars restaurant as a social phenomenon than of the birth of new American cuisine. Tenaglia provides a wealth of information about Tower's life and career. But she still omits certain essential linking details, and jumps around in time in a confusing way.

The nostalgic portrait of the lonely child gourmet fades in favor of a bevy of talking heads interspersed with period footage. Old Harvard friends alternate with chefs like Anthony Bourdain, Wolfgang Puck and Mario Batali. But the film also goes to Merida, Mexico, where Tower, whom we hear from frequently in voiceover, now lives in quiet grandeur. We see him preparing a dinner of octopus for himself, climbing a Mayan ruin in slippers, and scuba diving. A Harvard interest was architecture, and he designed undersea buildings. It's left sketchy here, but he has spent some years rehabbing and reselling buildings in Merida. A late episode, time-lined from 2014 to 2015 and covered live by the filmmaker, is his return after disappearing, as perhaps the first celebrity chef, to try to revive the Tavern on the Green on the West Side in New York City. This is even better coverage than of Stars, but it's the story of a failure. Tower's revamp got a great review, then a bad one; Tower departed due to differences with the owners - when the bad review caused them to take over the food as well as the restaurant, knowing nothing about it. The Tavern on the Green was too big, but Tower evidently took it on because its grandeur reminded him of early days. As this film ends, we see him walking away into Central Park, as a talking head proclaims him the loneliest man in the world.

Maybe so, but wherever he is, however bad his luck or his strategies, Jeremiah Tower lives and eats well; and his importance, neglected during his long absence, may be reasserted by this film. “He’s a hero of mine,” Anthony Bourdain said in a San Jose Mercury article two years ago. “Jeremiah was a true innovator, an important original, and probably the first American chef anyone wanted to see in the dining room. He was an integral part of a power shift that has changed menus all over the world."

Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, 104 mins., debuted at Tribeca Apr. 16, 2016; also featured at The Hamptons, Mill Valley, and Denver festivals. US theatrical release (NYC) Apr. 19, 2017.

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