Alice Waters, the chef who some credit with creating California cuisine as we know it, haunts Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, Lydia Tenaglia’s new documentary opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, April 28. Her spirit only appears on camera in the form of outtakes from Les Blank’s 1980 film, Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers. Unlike other contemporary culinary stars who bear witness for Tower, Waters does not directly share memories of her former Chez Panisse chef and co-worker in Tenaglia’s film. While Towers and Waters only collaborated at Chez Panisse for five years, from 1972 to 1977, the documentary makes clear that their time together was the turning point in Tower’s life.
Broke after studying architecture at Harvard University, Tower was on his way to Hawaii when he made a stop in Berkeley. A friend of his, knowing what a good cook he was, encouraged him to answer an ad for a job as chef at Chez Panisse (after all these years, the original faded newspaper clipping somehow materializes). There, he wrote the menu for a California regional dinner in 1976, and many menus that followed, all featuring locally-sourced ingredients.
Forty years later, the fuel that Tower continues to run on is his contention that Waters took credit for his recipes in the Chez Panisse Café Cookbook. Tower, filmed alone on a dark set, says, “She had taken all my menus, all my dinners, all the special events that I had dreamed up, written the menus for, and cooked, and said that she did.” The anger is still palpable for him when he remembers reading the book’s first galleys; an acknowledgement in the forward is the only credit given him.
The Last Magnificent is set for theatrical release in tandem with Tower’s memoir, Start the Fire: How I Began A Food Revolution In America. Anthony Bourdain is the executive producer of the documentary and the publisher of Start the Fire. As the most impassioned of talking heads, Bourdain is championing one of his heroes, and he has a financial stake in making sure the film and the book succeed. He’s taken a side to make sure Tower gets his due.
Tower is portrayed as a solitary figure who has never recovered from the isolation of his early, formative years. The first half of the film concerns itself with his privileged, but appallingly indifferent parents. The circumstances of their wealth exposed him to the meals that he would attempt to recreate at Chez Panisse, and then later at Stars, the San Francisco restaurant that made his name.
It’s at the film’s midpoint when Tower’s ire toward Waters arrives. From there, we listen to stories that chart his ongoing struggles: the rise and fall of Stars, his retreat to Mexico and disappearance from the culinary world in the ’90s, his unhappy return to cooking in 2014 at New York City’s Tavern on the Green. He is an embittered man, justifiably so or not. In every scene, the most important palate he wants to please and impress is his own. Tower, the neglected, quasi-orphan, can’t see beyond his plate and the accolades he’s now hunting down.
The film closes on Tower scuba diving alone in a bright blue sea. Should credit be given where credit is due? Indubitably. Waters’ silence on the subject, though, remains deafening. Despite her reticence to reply or comment, what the documentary never leaves in doubt is which chef you’d rather break bread with regardless of who wrote those groundbreaking menus.
Jeremiah Tower and filmmaker Lydia Tenaglia will appear for a Q&A at the 7 p.m. April 29 screening of Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent at Shattuck Cinemas.
Jeffrey Edalatpour’s first published article was a 1999 film review of Pedro Almodovar’s ‘All About My Mother.’ Since then, his writing about arts, food and culture has appeared in a variety of publications including KQED Arts, Metro Silicon Valley, The Rumpus and SF Weekly.