Jeremiah Tower helped start the locavore craze and ran a San Francisco restaurant that made him the first celebrity chef. Now, hardly anyone knows his name.
Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, produced by the very famous Anthony Bourdain, is an attempt to bring attention to the man Bourdain argues should be as well-known as his former business partner, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse. It’s a remarkable portrait of ego, hurt feelings, and what it looks like to see talent both burn out and fade away.
Tower’s childhood was one of neglect by wealthy and outrageously alcoholic parents: wandering alone through grand hotels, sexual abuse, saving dinner parties from failure when his mother was too wasted to cook. Tower walked through the doors of Chez Panisse in 1972 and was hired by Waters on the spot.
Told through the talking heads of food luminaries—Mario Batali, Ruth Reichl, Jonathan Waxman, Wolfgang Puck, and Bourdain—along with Tower himself, The Last Magnificent charts how he brought French refinement to Panisse and put on the first California-focused dinner that would become the restaurant’s trademark.
Then he walked—opening Stars, where he was as much of the show as the food. But that too disappeared; since then, Tower’s gone quiet.
You can still see the resentment when he talks about his erasure from food history. (Waters, tellingly, declined to participate in The Last Magnificent.) Part of me cringes that this documentary chips away at the legend of America’s most important female restauranteur and chef, but the film also notes that part of the reason Tower has been pushed aside is because he was a giant asshole to those who would lionize him. That, perhaps, is the strongest argument for Tower as proto-celebuchef.