Bite San Diego was invited to a private screening of the film, “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent.” This film chronicled how one man coped with the stresses of life through food. As people who recognize food as art, we loved seeing Tower fall in love with self expression through cooking, and recognized many parallels in his cuisine with his life. He was one of the pioneers of American cuisine. He began the farm-to-table movement before the movement! He owned one of the premier eateries of San Francisco, everyone wanted to work with him; yet it is likely you’ve never heard of him. The story behind the chef, and his great disappearance, had us at the edge of our seats. We’re sure you’d be just as moved by Anthony Bourdain’s latest biopic.
Jeremiah Tower was born into a life of both privilege and deprivation. His parents were wealthy, successful, and completely unaffectionate. He fell in love with the life of luxury at a young age, often sitting alone at the dining room table surrounded by servers, but lacking both parents. He began to traverse the seemingly endless menus, tasting foreign delights that both excited and refined his palate. Tower recounts eating his way through the menus at the many grand hotels and ocean liners he visited as a boy, collecting these like maps through his memories. He also tells us of his teenage years, where he would retrace his steps through these menus, recreating courses from long ago. We also learn that, in his adolescence, he began to step up for his family. When his mother would get too drunk hosting her high society gatherings, he would run back to help the kitchen staff finish the meal preparations. We begin to see a very broken young boy who dove headfirst into the culinary world to distract from his own loneliness.
In fact, Jeremiah Tower never intended to become a chef. He was a Harvard man, earning an MA in architecture. During the volatile and protest-heavy 70’s, Tower’s friends would often ask if he was coming to the next demonstration, but he always insisted, “I’m too busy cooking!” One day, after passing a protest he noted, “just give me a smoked salmon and glass of champagne, that’s my kind of protest!” In college, he really only cooked to entertain his friends, never losing the aura of high society. His college friends remember him always in the kitchen with a champagne glass in hand.
After college, Tower’s allowance was cut off and he was basically broke. A close friend suggested he apply for the head chef position at Alice Water’s free spirit french brasserie Chez Panisse. He was, like the entire eatery at the time, completely unprofessional. What had started as a small southern-French inspired cafe would soon expand. Jeremiah Tower began serving five course meals paired with the finest French wines. It was at this time that he and Alice Waters realized that they didn’t need to be ashamed of local produce, seafood, and wines; but that they should be celebrated! This would begin the American Food Revolution. Chez Panisse would create weekly, coursed menus that featured all-American wines, locally fished seafood, and all local produce. It truly was the foundation for the farm-to-table movement that we’re all crazy about now!
He crafted menus, wine pairings; course after course, he revolutionized Chez Panisse from a small hippy restaurant for Alice Waters and her close friends, to a sophisticated brasserie. He revolutionized California Coastal Cuisine…
..then Alice Waters published a cookbook with all of his menus,recipes, and claimed them as her own.
He was furious. He walked away from Chez Panisse and bought a building in a back alley in San Francisco. With his architect experience, he transformed the space into a beautiful dining room and open kitchen where his food could be spotlighted. Aptly named Stars, the restaurant was an instant success. Tower attracted both socialites and celebrities every night to his lavish, revolutionary restaurant. He interacted with guests, coming out from the kitchen to engage and personalize each guest’s experience. Stars was the first of its kind, opening in 1984 and burning bright through 1999. Unfortunately, the San Francisco Earthquake devastated the area surrounding Stars, and Tower could never quite get the restaurant back on its feet. When Stars doors closed for the final time, Tower left for Mexico’s seclusion and anonymity. He had done so well, only to fall again.
And now, almost 16 years later, we see the chef’s chance at redemption. He was hired as head chef for Tavern on the Green in 2014. Just like Chez Panisse, he began to change the menus in new and exciting ways. His vision: to offer the freshest and most exciting menu in New York. He improved the ratings, worked so hard for his vision; but still ended up parting ways with Tavern on the Green. Anthony Bourdain summed up Tower’s time at Tavern on the Green or for any chefs as an absolute chef killer. The reason being the perfection that most chefs seek in their food is lost in the sheer numbers needed to be produced there. It is a recipe for mediocrity and that would not sit well at any dinner table no matter whom the chef might be. Tower leaves Tavern with an unmet need for validation and returns to Mexico.
This film is deeply moving. We intimately see Jeremiah Tower’s side of the story. He is a man troubled by both childhood and career; but still he continues on. He is a creative genius in the kitchen, a pioneer of American cuisine, and we can only hope he chooses to share his talent again with the world someday. Fellow foodies, you NEED to see this movie! It reveals the emotion and art behind the plate, and we at Bite San Diego loved every minute.