We live in a world dominated by an endless parade of contestants striving to become top chefs, iron chefs, stars on various food channels, cupcake bakers, cons scamming judges into thinking they are cooks. And then there are the traveling road shows with cooks and chefs sampling exotic foods, while offering cultural commentary straight out of a faded pocket guidebook.
It seems quite unfair to lay the blame for the dawn of the celebrity chef as the consummate cultural hedonist on Jeremiah Tower, but a new documentary, Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent by Lydia Tenaglia (a four-time Primetime Emmy-winning producer on Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown) more than flirts with this notion. More specifically, it lays out a narrative arc that’s similar in its nods to the sensational aspects of the story, to the trends at play all over current reality television shows.
We see Tower, a mysterious and striking figure alone against epic backdrops – in a random city or set before some wide expanse. Who is/was this dashing man?
His story emerges though voiceovers and interviews with chefs who idolize him, colleagues, contemporaries, and friends (all of whom wind up admitting that they never really knew him beyond the facts and details of his accomplishments). Tenaglia spices things up with re-enactments from his childhood (with Rocston Issock standing in) as he enjoyed an isolated upbringing in luxury suites in hotels and on ocean liners where upscale food served as his sole lifeline.
That exposure fueled his culinary passion. Leaping from preparing fine dining experiences for college friends to damned near taking over Berkley, California’s Chez Panisse restaurant from its renowned founder Alice Waters, to leaving a defining imprint on the American food scene during the 1980s with San Francisco’s Stars (and its subsequent iterations across the globe), Tower was the first chef that people outside the food world knew about. But his story, at its core, is a cautionary tale. It is a reminder that what made him so special was his devotion to food. He was at his best when driven by an attention to the details of taste. (Opens Friday at The Esquire Theatre) (R) Grade: B+