Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent (2016)

120 min. Director: Lydia Tenaglia. Cast: Anthony Bourdain, Francesca De Luca, Mario Batali.

With her documentary Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, Lydia Tenaglia begins by establishing the enigma of her subject: Tower emerged as a superstar chef, reached a pinnacle, then disappeared from the scene. A friend of forty years maintains, “Nobody knows Jeremiah.” Seen striding alone, Tower himself muses alone in voiceover, “I have to stay away from human beings, because somehow I am not one.” The prelude describes a mystery and teases another: will the film you’re watching realize its seeming goal to penetrate that mystery?

The answer, alas, is “Not really.” But that doesn’t mean the film isn’t worth watching, only that Tower treated his participation in the documentary like everything else in his career: something to be approached strictly on his own terms. The film’s early passages, addressing his apparently loveless upbringing by inattentive socialite parents, help to explain his independence, drive, and need for attentive respect. Once he finds his way into a living as a chef, Tower becomes somewhat more remote as a human being, subsumed into his lifelong obsession with crafting just-so dishes, just-so menus, just-so restaurants.

Tenaglia neatly divides Tower’s career into three key stints: first at Alice Waters’ famed Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse (1972-1978), then as the prime mover of his own restaurant Stars in the Civic Center of San Francisco (1984-1999), and finally, his latter-day comeback bid, at Tavern on the Green in Manhattan’s Central Park (beginning in 2014). Documentary cameras observe Tower’s third act as it unfolds, while the first two acts benefit from compelling archival footage and photographs, as well as reminiscences by Tower and other interviewees. (N.b.: Tower opened a Stars branch in Palo Alto in 1995, but it closed by 1997, becoming a branch of Wolfgang Puck’s Spago.)

Martha Stewart sums up Tower as “a father of the American cuisine”—although he’s more specifically associated with the California Cuisine movement. Tenaglia recounts Tower’s complicated relationship with local legend Waters, a heady rush of culinary creativity, compatible personality, romance and sex (despite Tower’s otherwise homosexual identification) that imploded in a dispute over credit for Chez Panisse and its menu. Stars allowed Tower to conjure up his ideal of “a café society where everything is charming and perfect,” like the ocean liners that introduced him to cuisine in his childhood. Batali describes 1984 as the moment “the energy became important as the food,” and the celebrity chef emerged from the kitchen.

In addition to Batali and Stewart, talking heads include Puck, Ruth Reichl, Anthony Bourdain (also an executive producer of the film) and a few of Tower’s closest friends. But Tower only reveals what he’s willing to reveal, and his personal life and gay identity go largely unexplored, with Tenaglia repeatedly suggesting that Tower is a lonely soul. When Tenaglia does go there, it’s just enough to whet our curiosity for answers she’s never able to get out of her subject. Still, the focus should remain, and does, on the food itself, and the tenacious, productively persnickety, beautiful mind it took to serve it up.

[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]