Towering Cuisine: Anthony Bourdain salutes a culinary icon and ponders food waste with two new docs
As a chef, best-selling author, and through television appearances, Anthony Bourdain has built a reputation as one of the most trustworthy voices in American cuisine. In addition to hosting the award-winning "Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown" on CNN, Bourdain and his Zero Point Zero Production team have produced two feature-length documentaries: Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, distributed by The Orchard, opens in theatres on April 21. Wasted!: The Story of Food Waste receives its world premiere on Earth Day, April 22, at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Speaking by phone prior to the openings, Bourdain says that the documentaries were a logical outgrowth from his television work. "I've always looked to dramatic films as a template for a documentary television series. We've tried to make each episode of 'Parts Unknown' feel atmospherically and stylistically as individual little films rather than part of a series. I think that's what sets our product apart from other television shows."
Directed by his longtime Zero Point Zero creative partner Lydia Tenaglia, Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent is a portrait of a chef who helped redefine American cooking. It's an intimate look at an artist who many feel has never received proper credit for his innovations.
The movie shows Tower's creative partnership with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, his groundbreaking Stars restaurant in San Francisco, and his sudden retreat from the culinary world to a life of relative isolation in Mexico. In addition to interviews with Mario Batali, Wolfgang Puck and Martha Stewart, Jeremiah Tower includes revealing footage of what it was like to work in the Chez Panisse kitchen from Les Blank's Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers.
Tower opened himself up for the film, allowing camera crews to follow him while working at Tavern on the Green and helping provide archival footage and photographs.
"He was a fundamental part of the production, but he did not have any creative input as far as how we were going to tell the story," Bourdain explains. "I think he put a lot of faith in us and in himself to agree to participate to the extent he did. He had no control over what angle we were going to take, how sympathetically or unsympathetically he might emerge."
Tower teases out contradictions in the chef's character—his quest for recognition, difficulty maintaining relationships, problems with money—while positioning him at the forefront of a revolution in cooking. The documentary circles around incidents, gradually revealing an abused and neglected child whose only solace was food and dining.
Bourdain credits Tenaglia with restructuring Tower's story, adding, "I despise competent, formulaic, chronological filmmaking. We grew up with film and television, and we are perfectly capable at this point to move backwards and forwards in time. We understand the language of editing in a way that people in the ’50s and ’40s might not have."
He's also dismissive of many food shows on television today, complaining about their production values as well as their approach to depicting dishes. "It's like shooting porn," he says. "The same rules, to a great extent the same shot progression. Making film is a very manipulative process. Whether it's a landscape, a beautiful body or food, through editing, music and camera movement, you tell people the way you want them to feel. The anticipation of beautiful food causes a lot of the same physiological actions as anticipation of sex. So it ain't that hard, if you bring the camera in and edit in a certain progression, add a little sizzle, to make people look at images of food and to an annoying extent desire it."
While admitting that there's something "obscene" about staring at images of food, Bourdain points out Jeremiah Tower is primarily a character study. "You show people eating a big fat cheeseburger and yes, you can make them hungry," he says. "But you make the cheeseburger magic if you have a story built around it and a context. Say that cheeseburger is the end result of years of experimentation, or a rags-to-riches story, and made from only the finest ingredients under situations of great difficulty—you know what, that cheeseburger's going to look like it tastes better."
While Bourdain was involved with Jeremiah Tower from the start of the project, the Zero Point Zero team approached The Rockefeller Foundation to create a film that would educate consumers about the magnitude and impact of food waste. The result, Wasted!: The Story of Food Waste, examines a seemingly intractable problem that threatens to overwhelm limited resources.
According to the Foundation's statistics, a third of all the food produced is never eaten. In the U.S., 40 percent of food goes to waste. And 90 percent of that ends up in landfills. Food waste costs roughly a trillion dollars a year.
Wasted! is bookended by outtakes of Bourdain arguing against making the documentary at all. Starting with how he "hated the whole idea of this movie," he concludes, "I would have made this movie a lot darker, made people feel horrified and guilty."
In fact, one problem with many documentaries like Wasted! is that they only reach viewers who already agree with their messages. "There's nothing worse than preaching to the converted," Bourdain agrees. "I'm looking to convert people who may not have thought about it, and that requires a different narrative style."
Bourdain points to Gillo Pontecorvo's 1966 The Battle of Algiers as an example of how to change hearts and minds. "It made me deeply uncomfortable, it completely changed my world view. If you're making an argument, even if it's a complicated and nuanced one, that's the way to go.
"I'm not an activist," he continues, "but this particular issue resonated with me. I'm not going to pretend I am as involved in food issues to the extent that some of my colleagues are. Guys like Tom Collichio have been out there fighting hunger and trying to raise consciousness over many years. I have not. And suddenly, with no warning, I became involved in this film. I'm as surprised as anybody that I ended up caring about this issue."
Wasted! has its share of dire statistics, but directors Anna Chai and Nari Kye also film potential solutions from around the world. A nonprofit grocery in Dorchester, Massachusetts, that brings recovered food to an underprivileged neighborhood. A brewery in Britain that makes beer from stale bread. A government-sponsored project in Japan that uses recycling to improve feed for livestock.
Bourdain notes that any positive steps we can take will help in the long run. "There was this wonderful scene in 'Mad Men,' where they have a picnic in a park and leave all this litter behind. That was very much the way I grew up. It wasn't that long ago we lived very, very differently, we thought differently about litter, about child safety, about alcohol. We're a different society in a lot of ways now, so I don't think change is hopeless. And I'm a pretty cynical guy."
Many chefs have won Emmys and written bestsellers. But few have used their success in as thoughtful and honest a manner as Bourdain.
"I've been very fortunate in that I can make a living by being myself at all times," he admits. "I've never had to be a TV-friendly guy, I've never had to lie on TV or be somebody I'm not. So I was very apprehensive about doing the Wasted! project.
"And this was not an attempt to address the entire issue with all its ramifications. We didn't want to make a Michael Moore film. But we identify the problem. We show some examples that people may not be aware of, and offer some alternatives, show how some people are dealing with it. The small ways we might all change our behaviors to make some kind of a change. You know, baby steps."