Sometimes doing interviews on location, rather than in the studio, is like living on the edge. Even in an upscale hotel room such as the one where I spoke with legendary chef/restauranteur Jeremiah Tower and director Lydia Tenaglia on April 26, 2017. It was the day before the documentary, JEREMIAH TOWER: THE LAST MAGNIFICENT opened in San Francisco, and while talking to them, the phone rang and sirens blared outside the 12th-story window. Ordinarily, I would edit out such intrusions, but Tower, known for his wit as much as for his talent in the kitchen, provided such, ahem, delicious ripostes that I’ve opted to leave them in.
My first question was something that had little to do with the film, but something I had wondered about and couldn’t resist asking. That would be whether or not Tower, who arguably changed the way restaurants operate with his iconic Stars, is able to go to a restaurant and just enjoy the meal without being acutely conscious of everything that goes on behind the scenes. I also asked Tenaglia, who, after all, has spent many year following Anthony Bourdain (executive producer of TOWER) around the world with her camera.
We moved on to the moment Tower realized that he had changed American food culture during his stint at Chez Panisse; comparing and contrasting his experiences, 40 years apart, at Chez Panisse and Tavern on the Green; under what circumstances he would run a kitchen again; and challenging what diners thought they’d like.
We finished up with Tanaglia talking about why, after so many years following Anthony Bourdain around, she wanted to do the same with Tower; how a meal is more than just food; why some food authors stand the test of time; and Tower telling me about the gift of stirring up trouble, and how far it has gone in his life.
The one subject I didn’t broach was the rift Tower had with Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters. That has been written about and speculated upon for decades, and, of course, the film touches upon it. People seeking more information can find it with ease. There was, and is, so much else to talk about with Tower and Tenaglia.
JEREMIAH TOWER: THE LAST MAGNIFICENT is the story of how a young man trained as an architect walked into Chez Panisse, a small restaurant in Berkley, California in the early 1970s and, never having cooked professionally before, changed the American attitude towards food. The world’s, too. The documentary starts with Tower’s sometimes difficult, if privileged upbringing, and considers his early success, including opening how his restaurant, Stars, also changed the world. Abruptly, Tower walked away from it all, living a much quieter life in Mexico, before re-emerging in 2014 to take over the kitchen at Tavern on the Green. Featuring interviews with Anthony Bourdain (co-executive producer of TOWER), Mario Batali, Ruth Reichl, Martha Stewart, and a host of others, the film contemplates the impact Tower had on our culture, and why after arguably becoming the first celebrity chef, is now largely forgotten outside food circled. Tenaglia directed and is an executive producer of the film. Her previous work includes Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, The Mind of a Chef, and A Cook’s Tour. With husband Chris Collins she is the co-founder of Zero Point Zero.