Although never trained in the culinary arts, when Jeremiah Tower stepped into Berkeley’s own Chez Panisse in 1972 looking for a job, he was hired on the spot for adding cream and salt to a pot of soup that was boiling in the kitchen. Over the next 20 years, Tower would become a name synonymous with culinary innovation.
After a continuing disagreement with Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters, Tower left the restaurant and continued to expand his vision, eventually opening Stars in San Francisco — a restaurant that was synonymous with luxury and innovation. Then, in the late ‘90s, Stars fell and Tower disappeared from the culinary scene. For two decades, very little about Tower was heard — until 2014, when he surprised the world by emerging as head chef at New York’s Tavern on the Green. “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent,” produced by Anthony Bourdain and directed by Lydia Tenaglia, documents the rise and fall of the infamous chef, along with his surprising return to the spotlight.
The documentary begins with Tower’s childhood in the restaurants of luxurious ocean liners. As his parents take him on lavish trips to exotic countries, Tower discovers the tastes of the world in the menus of the ships. He recounts racks of lambs, lobster and, most vividly, a glittering croquembouche, a confection that has remained on his mind to this day.
“I did croquembouche for two, for four, for six, you know, depending on the size of the table,” Tower reflected of his 1978 New Year’s Eve dinner at Chez Panisse. “Nearly drove me crazy because I thought the perfect croquembouche is finalized when the caramel is just set, otherwise it might as well be this table,” he said, adding a flourishing knock to the hardwood he sat next to.
In the film, many of the formative moments in Tower’s career — such as his experience with his first tower of croquembouche — are recreated as hazy, dreamlike flashbacks that fit in seamlessly with the spliced footage of a bustling Chez Panisse or the lively kitchens of Stars. Tenaglia, one of the creative minds behind the Emmy award-winning “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” brings this fantastical air to the chef — one that builds Jeremiah Tower into the mystic, almost god-like figure of the culinary world that he had come to be.
Tenaglia directed a vignette in which a young Jeremiah Tower is grilling fruit on the Newport Beach Pier. Although he was brought on as a side act, after being kicked out of the kitchen by the French chefs who had come on to host the dinner, he set up grills in front of the event and grilled an entire meal from appetizer to dessert. “After that, the food section moved from page three to the front page,” Tower added. “They actually started calling it the food section — all of these were firsts, no one had ever seen that before.”
The fear of Tower fading into obscurity colors the entirety of the film. Even as it follows his resurfacing in 2014 to join Tavern on the Green, Tower’s presence in the restaurant is met with sharp criticism. Tavern on the Green — a restaurant past its glory days — had hoped to use Tower’s legacy to bring itself back to the top. To the disappointment of Tower, review after review found that his food never could get back the allure that it once had when served against the background of Stars.
Nevertheless, the documentary stands as a testament to Tower’s defiance of tradition and his resilience in the culinary arts. It proves that, even through the ups and downs of his career, Jeremiah Tower has remained a name in the culinary world that makes hairs stand and mouths water.