At the Tribeca Film Festival on Saturday, executive producer Anthony Bourdain and director and executive producer Lydia Tenagalia premiered their new documentary Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent. Co-produced by CNN Films and Zero Point Zero, the film examines the life of Jeremiah Tower, a chef that — alongside people like Alice Waters and Jonathan Waxman — helped pioneer the idea of New American and California cuisines.
The documentary traces Tower’s life from his privileged but lonely childhood and Harvard dinner parties, through his ascent within the culinary world at Chez Panisse and his era-defining restaurant Stars, before moving to that establishment’s subsequent downfall, Tower’s time in the Yucatán, and even his brief stint at Tavern on the Green. Along with formers Stars employees, Bourdain himself, and journalists like Ruth Reichl, Tenagalia interviews influential food figures including Waxman, Ken Friedman, and Mario Batali. The result is a rare, honest, and compelling glimpse into the life of a man who has spent most of the last decade in self-imposed exile (“I did my best to be forgotten,” Tower said in a Q&A; following the film), done without skirting over the difficult details.
During that Q&A, moderated by Charlie Rose, Bourdain explained his and Tenagalia’s motivations for making the movie: “I wanted to show people how large a figure he is … Jeremiah had become inconvenient to the narrative.” Following that panel, Grub sat down with Bourdain to talk more about why he made the film, what Tower means to American cuisine, how Stars still influences restaurants, and what Tower means to young chefs working today. Here’s what he had to say:
During the Q&A, you touched on Tower’s role in the food world, and maybe his influence being negated a bit—
There’s no maybe about it. I mean, like those early Soviet photos where they airbrush out Trotsky. [Laughs.] You know. It just ain’t right. The man deserves his due.
Did you feel the need to correct that?
I did. I did. I think initially this was an agenda-driven project; I felt that Jeremiah is this enormously influential, important character that had been written out of history and that something needed to be done about it. Of course, it became something else. You know it’s much more nuanced and complex.
You spoke about your relationship with him, as not someone who had been to Stars but as a cook and part of that culture — “you could not avoid encountering his presence.” So I’m wondering how you got from the point of just knowing who Jeremiah was from a distance to saying, “Something’s wrong here, I want to do something about it.”
The book. I think reading his memoir and a few pieces about him. I saw somewhere his all-important early menus, which were basically important historical documents. I mean, that really proved how impactful he was on the culinary landscape. And I think he — that just had not been acknowledged to the extent that he deserved. He wasn’t around [for journalists] to have access to [him]. So people tailored the story a little bit to make it more convenient.
You mentioned John Birdsall’s wonderful article “Jeremiah Tower’s Invincible Armor of Pleasure.” In it, he poses the rhetorical question, “I’m wondering if any kid cooking today even thinks of Tower as significant.” There was that moment when the sous-chef from Tavern wrote him that kind email thanking him for his time there, but I’m wondering, well, how would you answer that?
I think a lot of people cook Tower-esque food, or food that can be directly traced back to Tower, without ever having known that. Maybe the most influential chef of the last 15 years or so, in my view, is Fergus Henderson. A lot of people cook like Fergus Henderson today who have no idea who is he. They haven’t read [Henderson’s cookbook] [The Whole Beast:] Nose to Tail [Eating], they haven’t eaten at St. John. But this chef gave them permission to cook the way they are cooking now. The received wisdom has come down, has been passed down.
I think he remains an important and influential chef, but maybe his name is not. Everywhere you go there are Stars-like restaurants or restaurants whose physical layout, vibe, and whole plan is based on that model. But I think you could go to most of those restaurants and mention Stars, and they won’t know what you’re talking about.
Right, I couldn’t help but think of Estela when Stars was being described.
Just the open kitchen, the first fuckable chef. It sounds funny, but that was a huge change. Um, that lifted all boats. All of our quality of lives, all of our chef lives, improved post-Jeremiah. Because before that we were these loathsome characters that people wanted to keep hidden.
How did you and Tenaglia convince him to do this?
Um, I had a conversation with him. Wrote him. We were upfront about our intentions. We thought this is a story that needs to be told, and to his credit, from the get-go, he understood he could not control what people said about him, and that we were going to make a film. That he would give us access, but he was not getting final cut. Or any cut, for that matter.
There’s a graciousness to how he handled it. There were things in it that must’ve been difficult for him to see.
There’s no doubt about it. He’s very careful about who he lets in. I spoke with him for hours on-camera, interviewing him; the questions are not included in the cut. Trying to get him to admit or concede, perhaps, that there was a downside to all those years alone in these hotels, never did he drop that insistence that it was a marvelous thing. So, that’s something we had to contend with. And everything Jeremiah tells us in the film, is all of it true? I don’t know. It almost, it doesn’t matter. He has constructed a reality that’s honest for him.
I like how honest he was about creating a personality. Like, when he said if he went to jail he wanted to go with Champagne, which is his whole shtick, but maybe that was just his charm.
Well, remember, Jeremiah has spent most of his life being desirable and desired. Frankness is something that the desirable can get away with. If you’re the best-looking guy at the party and everyone wants to sleep with you, you can be as frank as you care to be. Whereas someone with less to work with … I think [laughing throughout] one of my favorite moments from the film is when Ruth Reichl is describing Jeremiah, she is practically passing out from the vapors. Oh my God, it was an awesome interview. She really was terrific.
For those who haven’t seen it, what do you think Chez Panisse as an institution owes Tower?
Look, I think, Jeremiah in my opinion put Chez Panisse on the map. No doubt about it, he brought it to national — international attention. In doing so, he created something very, very important that went beyond Chez Panisse. But it’s how many years later? Forty-two years later, Chez Panisse is still there. It is still successful. It is still beloved, relevant, and important. It hews now closer to the original concept. In fact, I think Jeremiah, I hope it’s clear in the film, the crowd he brought in and the type of food and sensibility was not universally appreciated by a lot of the true believers there.
Alice Waters created a really important space, and an environment — maybe the only environment in the world — that would’ve allowed Jeremiah Tower to come in and do what he did. But I think, there are two different, really important things that happened at Chez Panisse. It would be wrong and foolish to discount Alice Waters’s importance. I just think the description of her and what she has done in her life and at Chez Panisse is a more complicated, nuanced answer to that question than ultimately what we’ve been given.
And ultimately more interesting.
And ultimately more interesting. I hope that this film doesn’t take anything away from her importance to American culinary history and the way we eat now.
Well, to your point about it still being relevant all these years later, to bring up a restaurant mentioned in the Q&A, you can’t say that about The Four Seasons now.
You can’t say that about Stars. It ain’t there anymore.
Do you think you can say that, as much or more than anyone, Jeremiah Tower is American cuisine and American cuisine is Jeremiah Tower?
I think the documentary evidence is there. That is overwhelmingly the case. Chez Panisse was a French-Mediterranean restaurant and still is. What he did, you can literally track through his menus the birth of what we call New American cuisine.
You said that we won’t see anyone like Jeremiah Tower again for a long time. Do you think there is anyone that is cooking on his level right now?
It’s not a matter of level. I mean, we’re talking about a pioneer. He changed the world already. Remember, we’d been playing catchup with Europe for a long time. Here’s the first guy to say, “We’re as good as them; in fact, in many ways we’re better. We can do this, we can attribute ingredients and recipes to regions of America.” No one had done that before. I just think that combination of iconoclastic, driven — seducer, creator, innovator, ego – as well as the times he lived in, I don’t see that repeating.