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‘Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent,’ a Documentary About the Most Significant Chef Whose Name You May Have Never Heard
December 2, 2017  | By David Hinckley

Revered chef Jeremiah Tower (top) may seem at first like an icon from a world – upscale food – that most of us do not live in and rarely visit.

That doesn’t matter to fellow food maven Anthony Bourdain, who is impassioned enough about Tower’s legacy to have executive-produced Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, a documentary that aired on CNN previously and can now be seen on CNNgo, CNN’s online streaming platform.

Directed by Lydia Tenaglia, The Last Magnificent portrays Tower as a god-like figure, the restless, troubled and brilliant father of modern American “nouvelle cuisine.”

A parade of celebrity food names, from Martha Stewart to Mario Batali, Wolfgang Puck and long-time New York Times food writer Ruth Reichl, rave about Tower’s skill and influence.

You can’t begin to explain his impact on American food, Reichl says. Bourdain says he changed not only American food but the way the whole world looks at food.

The testimonials echo Meryl Streep’s famous speech in The Devil Wears Prada, after her young assistant played by Anne Hathaway wonders aloud why designer clothes matter when so few people can afford or wear them.

Streep’s character explains that the blue outfit shown in Paris years earlier trickled down to the clothing that every woman in America eventually was wearing, with or without knowing it.

The Tower effect on food, Bourdain’s documentary suggests, was much the same.

Tower burst onto the food scene in the early 1970s at Chez Panisse (below right). He had little formal training, just a consuming love for food and an instinctive sense of how to prepare it in fresh and appetizing ways.

He caught the eyes, ears, and palate of the food world at Chez Panisse, then left to start his own restaurant, San Francisco’s Stars.

That was a fitting name, The Last Magnificent explains, because along the way Tower made the chef into the star. You didn’t just go out to dinner; you went to eat food prepared by Jeremiah Tower – or, soon, other chefs who became signature brands themselves.

And sure enough, fame attracted fame. As socialites and celebrities flocked through the doors, Stars became the place where you went to be seen. Ordinary people went there to tell everyone back home who they saw.

It became a hot spot, like Elaine’s in New York. It also followed the trajectory of many other trendy night spots. After a while, it cooled off, and Tower left.

That’s where Bourdain and Tenaglia take things to an almost mystic level. As it’s told here, Tower spent the next two decades roaming the earth in a quest for the truth and his own soul.

Tower speaks at length here about food, philosophy and the meaning of life, usually in some moody setting like walking alone through Central Park on a cold wintry afternoon.

He talks about a childhood in which he felt alone, with a cold, distant father and an alcoholic mother. They had loads of money and took vacations like a first-class voyage on the Queen Mary, but all that did, Tower says, was give him a fondness for the trappings of riches. Exotic food became his substitute, he muses, for any emotional support or connection.

A number of his friends say here that to this day he walls off his emotional life, with a “no trespassing” sign that he strictly enforces.

He returned to the food world in 2014 as head chef at the revived Tavern on the Green, a misadventure the documentary spends considerable time dissecting.

While he left after a few months, it did seem to jump-start a modest re-entry into the world. He’s become more visible since then, though not as a working chef.

No matter, The Last Magnificent suggests. Jeremiah Tower has already left his mark on the world, and like so many misunderstood and underappreciated geniuses, he has paid the price for his vision and innovation. He has led a lonely, nomadic life in which much of his reward had to come from his own realization of what he accomplished.

In The Last Magnificent, Bourdain says those who know his work share that appreciation – and it’s about time the rest of the world did as well.

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