The Last Magnificent tells the intriguing and mysterious story of one-time celebrity chef Jeremiah Tower who chose at the height of his career to leave the restaurant business and retreat to a beach in Mexico, where life is considerably quieter than inside the kitchen of a high-profile San Francisco eatery. The film was screened for LAWAC members on Tuesday April 25th.
“Before I read books, I read menus,” says Tower, who grew up with globe-trotting parents who seemed indifferent to the upbringing of their son, leaving him in the charge of stewards, waiters and concierges in the world’s finest hotels and ocean liners. “I got used to first class early on,” he says. He went to Harvard to study architecture, but liked to cook for himself and his friends. He turned this into a career, dedicated to producing first class dining, with little tolerance for sloppiness or unprofessionalism. Tower became the main chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley in 1972, and “put Chez Panisse on the map,” as chef-turned-TV-star Anthony Bourdain says in the documentary “The Last Magnificent.” After falling out with the owner, Alice Waters – whom he claims stole all his recipes for her own cookbook – he set up his own restaurant in San Francisco, Stars, which became the go-to place for celebrities and one of the top-grossing restaurants in the country in the 1980’s.
As director Lydia Tenaglia’s film shows, Tower was one of the main instigators of the beginning of “new American cuisine,” which ditched snooty French cooking customs, focusing instead on local ingredients in California, and making the dining experience fun. And yet, as Martha Stewart says in the film, “today most people would not know who Jeremiah Tower is.”
And this is what makes the film so captivating – because although Tower reveals much about his lonely but gilded childhood and his days studying at Harvard, drinking champagne and eating smoked salmon as others went out to protest the Vietnam War – he remains an elusive character, the man who always seems able to slip away. “There is a private room, a locked room inside Jeremiah Tower,” says Bourdain.
One of his college friends says Tower “was working for some utopian version of living because that is what kept the darkness away.” But what that darkness might be remains a matter for conjecture. At a Q&A after the LAWAC screening, director Tenaglia said when she initially approached Tower about making a film, “I thought it would be an interesting biopic, but then I saw it was going to be much more about the journey of an artist.” And the life of an artist, particularly one who is so dedicated to perfection in a high-volume business like cooking, is not always easy. Explaining the ups and downs of his life, Tower said, “I seem to piss people off a lot.” And when asked why he gave it all up, Tower laconically said that after working flat out inside kitchens for almost three decades, “I needed a bit of quiet.” So he moved to the beach.