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Jeremiah Tower – Pre-Superstar
It is fitting that this post celebrates a documentary Anthony Bourdain produced, before his death stunned us all earlier this month. And this film is one that, like its protagonist, is mysteriously unknown, especially considering the popularity of Netflix’s Chef’s Table series, the BBC Great British Baking Show and films such as Julia and Julie or Big Night. I had my own curiosity, as I supplied cookware to Jeremiah Tower around 1980 when La Cuisine was in its pre-adolescence.
Time-Life Books had moved into Alexandria (and its arrival here was anticipated with a breathlessness similar to that surrounding Amazon’s search for a second headquarters). Tower was a consultant for food photography and recipe development for a series of 28 books about cooking. He worked in a photography studio fortunately situated on the second floor of the building next to mine. Although Time-Life hired another local chef-guru, Jeremiah was clearly the driving force. It was his hand and esthetic that determined how the recipes were cooked and presented for the entire series. Knowledgeable without being condescending, urbane but not a lounge lizard, courtly but possessing a wicked sense of humor, Tower was someone I enjoyed immensely.
I had occasionally wondered what had happened to him, knew that he had established a glitterati-studded restaurant (Stars in San Francisco), and that Emily Luchetti was his pastry chef (because I baked a lot out her first cookbook). But by the time I was able to visit San Francisco to dip my fork into some famed restaurants, Stars had disappeared and so had Jeremiah Tower.
Bourdain On Tower
This documentary is enjoyable because it reveals not only the justifiable fascination that Bourdain had with Jeremiah Tower but also our error in beatifying culinary celebrities such as Alice Waters or Mario Batali. Not surprisingly, he spoke of Tower as the most important chef in America.
“He was easily the most influential. Everyone cooked like Jeremiah Tower. Everyone wanted to be Jeremiah Tower or at least bask in his presence. His restaurant, STARS, became the template for the modern American restaurant. He was arguably the first celebrity chef. He was most definitely the first chef anyone wanted to sleep with. And yet, one minute he was there, then he was everywhere and then he was gone. Why did the man who nearly everyone agrees was absolutely instrumental in how and what we eat in restaurants today disappear? And why was he written out of history, his accomplishments dismissed, attributed elsewhere, the whole subject suddenly uncomfortable?”
And the Director’s Discovery
Lydia Tenaglia, the film’s director, said she thought this would be an interesting biopic of a successful restaurateur. “What I found instead was a rich and complex story of an artist, one who continuously endeavored to reconcile his artistic dreams and visions with the “vulgar reality of life….Driven perfectionist, egotist, seducer, ringmaster… Jeremiah Tower is indeed one of the most controversial, outrageous and influential figures in the history of American gastronomy. Almost overnight, the sexually-omnivorous, Harvard-educated Tower transformed the landscape of not just American food but its restaurants and dining rooms as well. And yet his name has largely been obliterated from history. The Last Magnificent explores the life of this complicated man,” she said.
This cinematic tale of an unwanted child, not unlike the character Mary in “The Secret Garden” – but Jeremiah wanted a bit of food instead of a bit of earth to transform – is compelling in its exploration of an immensely talented, complex man who was not afraid to disappear and yet live.
Watch the trailer below to get a taste of this remarkable film which was one of the last contributions of Anthony Bourdain