I think I went to Jeremiah Tower's Stars Restaurant only once when it was close to the height of its fame. I remember this occasion because it was around 1988 or '89, and it was the first time I had gone out to a "fancy" dinner, just me and a friend, no parents and no parents' money.
It was just post high school, those days when we lived at home, didn't have to pay rent, but did have jobs and spending money. I'm not sure if it was for a birthday, or us just wanting to "to do it up," but it was certainly true that in those days, when you wanted to celebrate anything with a fancy night out, Stars was the first choice. We sat in one of its slightly raised dining areas; I'm pretty sure we ordered wine, and perhaps that buzz contributed to the effect, but I do remember Stars living up to the hype, with the whole evening making me feel like some kind of fancy adult for the first time in my life.
And then, a few years later, as tends to be the case with the majority of "it" restaurants, Stars was no longer the place to be, and soon after that, it wasn't a place at all. The new documentary tells the story of the Stars Restaurant creator, his formative years as the child of rich but neglectful parents, his rise in the kitchen at Chez Panisse, his success and stardom, and his eventual disappearance from the spotlight.
The documentary makes the case that Tower was one of the most influential chefs in America that most have people have never heard of. Perhaps that is true for the majority of the country, but for those who lived in the Bay Area any time between the late 1970s and 1999, Jeremiah Tower was a very familiar name. But that doesn't mean people actually knew him, and the film illustrates that even his closest friends never really did. And still don't.
Utilizing a combination of Tower family home movies and reenactments, along with voiceover from Tower, often reading from his own journals, we learn about his early life, the child of rich parents who lived to travel the world and throw fancy parties, with their children in tow, for better or worse.
"The worst thing that ever happened to me is that I wasn't an orphan," Tower reminisces, after recalling an event involving him alone on a beach, with a local fisherman who teaches him how to cook a fish, along with things a six year old probably shouldn't be taught.
On those frequently lonely trips on ocean liners and stays at fancy hotels, Tower took shelter in the kitchens and dining rooms, pouring over menus like they were books of fairy tales. Tower never took any kind of culinary training, instead utilizing those childhood memories and skills picked up having to help out his mother when she'd be too drunk to finish the menu for a party she was hosting, to cook for friends in college. His hobby eventually landed him job at a Chez Panisse in 1972.
His eventual split with Alice Waters and Chez Panisse has become the stuff of legend, and it's a shame Waters declined to participate in the documentary; it might have helped solidify the truth once and for all. But regardless, there's no denying that their partnership changed the landscape of American cooking and restaurants forever, basically inventing what would eventually become known as "California cuisine." (The archival footage of Chez Panisse in the 1970's and Stars in the 1980's are especially sweet additions for local viewers.)
Many famous chefs are interviewed throughout the film, which in itself is amusing since the concept of "celebrity chef" didn't really exist before Jeremiah Tower. Anthony Bourdain, Mario Batali, Wolgang Puck and others all offer words of praise, acknowledging his influence, while also admitting Tower is an enigma...and a bit of a prick.
The Last Magnificent does shed some light on why Tower remained such a mystery, even to his closest friends, but it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. We never really learn just why he stepped away from the spotlight for so many years. And a film that began as a portrait of the rise, fall, and disappearance of a maverick hit a road bump when, during its filming, Tower stepped out from retirement to head the kitchen at a high profile restaurant.
That story in itself could be its own movie. Instead, director Lydia Tenaglia weaves it into the last quarter of the film, which interrupts the linear flow she has going for the rest of the picture. But that's a minor complaint for a documentary so visually rich and centered on a man so endlessly fascinating. Like any great meal, Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent leaves you wanting more, not less.
Chef Jeremiah Tower and director Lydia Tenaglia will be at the below theaters for post-screening audience Q&A's this weekend:
Friday April 28th
Landmarks Embarcadero Center Cinemas, San Francisco
Saturday April 29th
Landmark's Embarcadero Center Cinemas, San Francisco
Q&A moderated by former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown
Shattuck Cinemas, Berkeley
Q&A moderated by Narsai David
Sunday April 30th
Rafael Film Center, San Rafael
Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent