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The documentary "Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent" is as vibrant as its subject, who charms as he deflects the filmmakers' best efforts to plumb his depths.
Tower is considered to be as Martha Stewart, one of the familiar culinary figures interviewed here, says "a father of the American cuisine." He is best known for his work with two establishments: Chez Panisse, where he collaborated with restaurateur Alice Waters in the 1970s to celebrate California foods in a fine-dining setting; and Stars, the '80s San Francisco hangout where he was owner, chef and ringmaster for celebrities and power brokers alike.
After establishing Tower's reputation with famous chefs Mario Batali, Jonathan Waxman, Wolfgang Puck and Anthony Bourdain (one of the movie's producers) are among those interviewed director Lydia Tenaglia sets forth on a fairly straight chronology of Tower's life. He lived in luxury as a child, joining his wealthy but inattentive parents on trips to gorgeous hotels and on ritzy ocean liners, soaking up the joys of first-class food and four-star service.
Tower became determined to replicate those luxuries wherever he went. A largely self-taught chef, he read menus like novels and studied the cookbooks of the legendary Auguste Escoffier. He applied those gifts to his first chef's job, at Waters' Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif.
Through archival footage and interviews, Tenaglia captures the vibe of Chez Panisse, where Waters' hippie sensibilities somehow merged with Tower's luxe style. The creative tension, the movie reports, even led to an affair between Waters (who declined interview requests for the film) and Tower, even though he was a closeted gay man.
After a falling-out between them an issue of credit that still rankles Tower the chef opened Stars, an ultramodern San Francisco restaurant with an open kitchen that allowed the patrons to watch him and his crew at work. "Stars defined what a modern American restaurant could be," food critic Ruth Reichl says in the film, which depicts the place as a never-ending party with Tower as the convivial host.
When Stars went under for various reasons, including the 1989 earthquake that changed San Francisco's landscape Tower largely disappeared, retiring to a home in Mexico where he scuba-dives with turtles and shops the local markets. But Tenaglia was given a surprise finish to the movie when, in November 2014, Tower took over as chef at New York's infamous Tavern on the Green. Bourdain, among others, openly questions why Tower took the job, which he called a "chef killer" because of the restaurant's high profile and the city's cadre of sharp-tongued restaurant critics.
Through all the footage, including following Tower around in Mexico and New York, Tenaglia is at a loss to penetrate his emotional armor. As Bourdain says, "There's a locked room inside Jeremiah. I haven't been there. I'm not sure many people have." The most frustrating thing about this fascinating documentary is that it knocks on the door of that room, but is never allowed inside.
'Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent'
A thorough, but ultimately confounding, look at one of the pioneers of American cuisine.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens Friday, May 12.
Rating • R for language.
Running time • 103 minutes.