Film Review: Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent

This chef profile is magnificent in both style and substance and perfectly suits its subject, now living reclusively in Mexico after reigning atop the food world for decades.
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Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent provides only a mini-portion of food porn compared to similarly themed works whose cameras linger over perfectly crafted dishes. The reason is that the doc’s subject is Tower himself and, even now into his mid-70s, he’s a full meal indeed.

A towering, handsome, patrician presence born into tremendous wealth and a male line of Harvard grads of which he’s the latest, Tower suggests the kind of elusive, debonair hero that old Hollywood would have manufactured. He describes his father as a “prick” and his mother as a “royal alcoholic.” The couple spent their time traveling the world on ocean liners and staying only in the best places. Tower as a young boy was able to go along on these voyages but was left entirely alone. Enter the importance of food in his life, as he could order whatever, whenever, and cost was no concern. Food, in fact, became his best friend and he was reading Escoffier at 16.

Beautifully rendered re-enactments (even evoking the inimitable Technicolor of the ’50s) fill in this early life—feasting on ocean liners and in grand hotel restaurants, watching the action at his parent’s boozy parties, becoming dangerously comfortable with an older man on an Australian beach, and more.

Whether the beach encounter had anything to do with the gay man Tower was and is remains ambivalent, although his time at a British boarding school is more suggestive.

The doc follows Tower at Harvard, where he learns to cook for pleasure. He moves into architecture study, apparently not successfully, and during the late ’60s when the social revolution of free love flows, he becomes restless and roams. While in no need of money, he does need a purpose, so a Harvard friend sends him to Berkeley’s hippie restaurant Chez Panisse. Extremely attractive to women, he has a brief affair with legendary owner Alice Waters because, although he is gay, everyone is doing everything in the early ’70s.

When Tower changes the menu from French to domestic, he gives birth to California cuisine and the craze for localism in cuisine. Panisse thus becomes a dining mecca the old crowd can’t afford. But he and Waters have a huge falling out after he becomes a “footnote” in her best-selling Panisse cookbook, where his recipes go unattributed.

Tower maintains a distance from and mistrust of others, something he doesn’t hide and which has led to his apparently solitary life. Martha Stewart, one of many celebrity food personalities on camera, calls Tower “the father of American cuisine” and other food biggies like Anthony Bourdain, Mario Batali, Jonathan Waxman, Ruth Reichl and Florence Fabricant also heap praise.

Post-Panisse, Tower had his greatest success at his San Francisco celebrity- and high society-filled food mecca Stars, but that too ended badly in the mid-’90s, as did his much publicized return just a few years ago to the kitchen when owners of Manhattan’s storied Tavern on the Green brought him in as chef.

Beyond its irresistible, photogenic and hugely original hero and many delectable episodes, Jeremiah Tower teems with so much, it requires multiple viewings. And it’s a safe bet that foodies, gourmands and their like will hail it as one of the best docs ever covering the culinary. Not caloric, but definitely rich.

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