Thursday, May 4, 2017

The story of an enigmatic chef

It seems almost quaint to remember the days before committed foodies became commonplace and chefs emerged as celebrities. Director Lydia Tenaglia's documentary Jeremiah Tower, The Last Magnificent reminds us that the current obsession with restaurants and their chefs had a beginning. Regarded by some as the first celebrity chef, Tower worked with Alice Waters at Berkeley's famed Chez Panisse. He later opened a San Francisco restaurant called Stars. Tower grew up around wealth but was mostly ignored by his patrician parents. Even as a kid, he was obsessed with food and menus. After Harvard, he applied for a job at Waters' Chez Panisse with no prior experience. At the time, Chez Panisse was a kind of hippy hang-out with great food. Did Tower -- an enigmatic but charismatic gay man -- do more to establish Chez Panisse's culinary importance than anyone else? Before his break with Waters, Towers shifted the restaurant's cuisine to locally grown ingredients and was instrumental in creating the so-called "California Cuisine" -- at least that's the impression I took from the film. After an earthquake ravaged Stars, Tower withdrew to Mexico, where he resided until he made an improbable attempt at a comeback. In 2014, he took over Tavern on the Green, a heavily trafficked New York City restaurant that couldn't accommodate Towers' idiosyncratic but entirely committed approach. I could have done without Tenaglia's attempts at recreating scenes from Tower's boyhood, but watching various big names in food -- Martha Stewart, Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain -- talk about Towers' career proves fascinating and Tower himself adds an elusive but compelling quality. The film's best achievement may be the way it reminds us that restaurants have become entertainments unto themselves; Tenaglia shows us the life -- and trendy commercial heat -- that the best of them generate. Waters, by the way, isn't among those interviewed.

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