“Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent”

One hundred and three minutes of being utterly fascinated by this paen to the man lauded as the father of the new American cuisine (1980-1990’s)  left me sated. This documentary has the pace and tone of a Thomas Lynley mystery novel. A poor little rich boy story where a six-year-old is left on his own to order his meals and roam  the kitchens of the likes of the Queen Mary. A lonesome prepubescent lad on family vacation with no family around the Great Barrier Reef, an aboriginal fisherman instructing him on how to cook barracuda with herbs from the jungle, and the subsequent molestation of said child, all set the stage.

His family wealth provided amazing travel opportunities like six weeks in India. Often left alone with aspics and racks of lamb, Jeremiah Tower reflects that, “Food was my pal, my companion”. “There was nothing to do on those cruises , but order and eat,” Tower recalls. Trees of caramel – glazed profiteroles  and dark, meaty consommé made him fall in love with 1st class. Schooled in France and earning a Harvard degree in architecture, Tower did live in an Edwardian dream world of romantic perfection on one level ,and he was a neglected child on another. In his grand hotel upbringing, at one time each parent thought that the other had enrolled him in school. The culinary staff adopted him, and he read menus before he read books. His parents’ martinis started early; and subsequently, his day was orchestrated around commercial kitchens and food.

Director and writer Lydia Tenaglia and her film have taken me back to my 1982 Alice Waters’ “Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook” where Jeremiah Tower is mentioned on two pages ( 29 & 239) . The cookbook’s assembled 120 inspired transformations of classic French dishes now seem more of her former partner’s, Jeremiah Tower’s. Waters acknowledges only his innovation and inspiration. Page 29 reads, ” My friend Jeremiah Tower used to tell stories about his Russian uncle when he cooked blinis and couliiacs at Chez Panisse. To know if you had enough butter on the blini it had to be dripping off your elbows as you put it in your mouth, and he recalled his uncle washing this down with lemon-flavored Russian vodka.”

I do wish the film had more of his dishes, cooking, and anecdotes. But I have his book ” Jeremiah Tower Cooks” ( 2002) for this. Waters does on page 239 write,”Many of the menus were conceived and executed by Jeremiah Tower,who was the chef at the restaurant during its formative years. He developed the idea of regional dinners celebrating the food of Provincial France, Morocco, Louisiana, and ultimately, our own region of Northern California; his innovation and adventurous menus gave the restaurant its reputation for ambitious experimentation and exploration.” Tower was co-owner of Chez Panisse.

The British Jeremiah Tower believed “you could read a culture through its food, and you could change a culture through food.” His own four books and his twenty-five PBS ” America’s Best Chefs” programs attest to this thesis, though none are mentioned in Tenaglia’s documentary. The film notes that Tower reads deeply into ancient and classic food writers. He writes that “the soft and precious flavors and techniques of the past have given us a framework in which to use the riches of the present.

Though I liked the film tremendously and was intent on seeing it, I would had liked more snippets of his blending his early experience with his actual cooking. For instance, Tower writes of Kedgeree: “This grand pilaf is one of the many good things that came out of Anglo-Indian cookery and is an example of one of the first “fusion” dishes. The word comes from the Hindi ” khichri”, a breakfast rice that contains cooked lentils and a lot of butter with fried onions on top. If you were rich in the 15th c. , you fed it to your elephants as well. Kedgeree made mt first reputation as a cook when I was twelve. I cooked it for the family Sunday breakfast, as a change from our usual, either haddock or huevos rancheros.All I remember is everyone asking me, ‘How did you do that?’ ‘Easy’, I thought privately, ‘I’d do anything to avoid eating that smoked haddock in milk and onions again.’ Years later, when I cooked the haddock for myself, it was fine, and I realized that my mother had been cooking the fish too fast, letting the milk boil, and toughening the fish to dryness.”

Seeing the handsome Tower clad in his white chef jacket with a wooden spoon in the breast pocket is the picture of his influential, self-confident flair. Having Jacque Pepin, James Beard, Ruth Reichel, Mario Batali, Wolfgang Puck, and Anthony Bourdain praise him on camera was more than merely collegial, all acknowledged his genius.

Though some bitterness is shown toward Alice a Waters, (she the Joan of Arc/ I the footnote) much of the film is focused on Tower’s San Fran restaurant “Stars”. Here map-cap antics and cool celebrities partake in seeing and being seen indulging in magnificent food. He stepped out of the kitchen as celebrity chef. He recreated ocean liner reality. Dinner became entertainment with whimsy. Tenaglia even re-posts Tower’s Dewars profile. At 46, he was the rock star chef. And then, he was gone, rumored to be scuba diving in Italy and Mexico. Jacques Cousteau was his hero even in architectural school, but the rest is a mystery.

Fifteen years out of the profession and Jeremiah Tower is making news again as the chef-savior for NYC’s “Tavern On The Green”. He has problems with management and a court case with the firing of a worker, who had AIDS. He addresses the camera under a five-foot oil portrait of himself at five, velvet suit, white collar, and holding a stuffed bunny. He seems at peace with his aristocratic self, the last magnificent, so to say.

The final credits show him deep-sea diving and culling the ocean beds. All is blue, silent, and well-deserved. I could see this documentary again, just as I could savor his Montpelier butter.