“Most people would not know who Jeremiah Tower is,” Martha Stewart says in the opening minutes of the recently released documentary Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent. She delivers this burn matter-of-factly—because the thing is, she’s not wrong.
While most of your friends who fawn over David Chang and have The Great British Baking Show on their DVR queue won’t raise an eyebrow at his name, Jeremiah Tower is regarded by his peers as one of the most influential chefs in American culinary history. Depending on who you ask, he either created California Cuisine, or helped turn it into a country-wide craze. These days, though, he’s known as much for his early-90’s disappearing act—when he quit cooking and moved to Mexico—and his subsequent abrupt year-long reappearance trying to fix the food at the notoriously terrible Tavern on the Green in 2014, as he is for transforming the country’s restaurant landscape in the 70’s and 80’s.
Given the food industry’s fascination with Tower and their reverence for his work, The Last Magnificent could easily be the kind of softcore hagiography famous chefs tend to accumulate nowadays, replete with close-ups of their knifework and effusive descriptions of their genius, their personal foibles dismissed as the price of art. Instead, The Last Magnificent is gossipy to the point of getting a little bitchy; it allows you to eavesdrop on the base human instincts that are inevitably at play behind a restaurant’s scenes, no matter how refined the plates are when they come out of the kitchen. It’s a nice reminder of why people say that food is sexy: not because of its cultural implications, but because it’s physical, and social, and occasionally messy. Chef documentaries are often about presenting us with food porn, a strictly visual tease. But restaurants are much more crude than that, and The Last Magnificent isn’t afraid to reveal and revel in some of that crudeness.
Tower’s story starts with a name that has maintained its A-list celebrity chef status: he landed his first cooking job working under Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in 1972. Tower had a complicated relationship with Waters: “a muse situation, but a nebulous muse,” as chef and Chez Panisse alumnus Jonathan Waxman puts it in the film. It was never entirely clear who inspired whom, in the kitchen or out of it. They flirted constantly; though Tower largely preferred men, they had an affair. After he left, Waters essentially wrote Tower out of the restaurant’s history.
Its examination of relationships like this one is what makes The Last Magnificentso fun to watch. Even if you’re not intimately familiar with all of the food-world luminaries popping in to opine about how, exactly, the duo’s chemistry powered the restaurant’s unlikely success, it’s fun to see people get excited about gossip. This is elevated workplace drama; our hunger for it is the same instinct that underlies the public’s fascination with the number of condoms unwrapped in the Olympic village each year. You can be that inhumanly good at one thing, and still also be just as dumb and horny as the rest of us.
It also gives you a sense of how things fell apart: of the glamor and intrigue that Jeremiah brought, but also the intensity, the unsustainable hothouse intoxication of Chez Panisse during those years. Ultimately, practical concerns drove him to quit: disagreements about how money was being spent, about whether and how to expand. There (allegedly) wasn’t any bad blood when Tower left the restaurant in 1978—not until Alice published the Chez Panisse cookbook, that is, and signed her name to recipes he felt were rightfully his. (She does not appear in the documentary to respond to these charges.)
Tower’s story continues in this vein. He went on to mastermind Stars, a downtown San Francisco hotspot conceived to be, in his own words, “a place that is charming and perfect.” And it was, until it wasn’t: an earthquake devastated the surrounding neighborhood. Tower lost a wrongful termination lawsuit against an employee who had been diagnosed with AIDS. He tried to expand the brand too far, too fast. It wasn’t the food that did it—it was restaurant politics and economics that took Stars, and Tower, down. Restaurants are famously risky businesses, functioning on razor-thin margins and entirely dependent on the goodwill of the mercurial public. Getting the food right is often only a small piece of the puzzle. A segment on Tower’s time at Tavern on the Green (which Anthony Bourdain, who also served as Executive Producer for The Last Magnificent, calls “a chef killer”) invites meditations on the intricate difficulties of consistent service—not just making sure everyone in the kitchen is doing their jobs perfectly, but that the plates are still in good hands once they head for the front of the house. Tower explains at length the bureaucratic challenges behind getting management to approve cocktail napkins for his tables; he is shown berating his bartenders for having ugly limes on their stations. He is expected to be responsible for every single detail of the space, as well as every bite, on every plate, at every moment of every night.
There’s more than enough blame to go around for Tower’s failures, and the film lingers on this, too, allowing its commentators to voice opinions and recriminations that have sat on ice for decades. “Maybe the reason a lot of people don’t know who Jeremiah Tower is, is because he was eclipsed by a lot of other people who were mad at him…. and so as the story got re-told, he kind of got left out of it,” restaurant critic Clark Wolf says. “And that was kind of his own doing.”
It was Tower’s own doing: both to be demanding, which is fairly standard for high-level chefs, and then to go dark, which isn’t. Even The Most Hated Chef in Dallas John Tesar got two seasons of Top Chef with which to clear his name. We’ll forgive almost anything a talented white man does as long as he’s willing to ask for absolution, but Tower is not. Though he did make some moves to defend his legacy—at one point in the film he reads a letter he wrote to a critic who lauded Alice Waters as the visionary behind Chez Panisse—he isn’t willing to commit to fighting for it full-time. Instead, over and over again, he gets disappointed, and then disappears.
The Last Magnificent presents us with a visionary chef, a singular, generational talent, and instead of lionizing him, it contextualizes his failures, demonstrating that talent alone is not enough to make a career, or a legacy—especially in the notoriously capricious restaurant world. “When there’s something wonderful to be done, if you’re not right there with me, then get out of the fucking way,” Tower says—and we get to hear from the people who fled, as well as those who didn’t, and got flattened.
Tower himself is among them, the victim of his own uncompromising vision and ambition. He’s here to speak for himself now, but he wasn’t always, and so, just as Alice wrote him out of Chez Panisse, he’s largely been written out of the larger culinary history as well. The film aims to change that, but it seems to know that it may already be too late. It opens and closes with Tower alone among ruins in Mexico, where he now lives: a man who is resigned to being a monument of his earlier self.