A new documentary film co-produced by Anthony Bourdain is opening at the Magnolia tonight. With appearances by leading culinary giants like Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali, and Ruth Reichl, it’s the work of director and documentarian Lydia Tenaglia, who has collaborated with Bourdain on his Travel Channel No Reservations series and Netflix series The Mind of a Chef.
Here, in a complex psychological portrait, they introduce those who might not know him to Jeremiah Tower. The chances are great that you have not, in fact, heard of Tower, even if you have heard of Chez Panisse, the small French-California bistro that Alice Waters made famous in Berkeley in the 1970s, where Tower was the chef. The chic bohemian wonderland they created was the first great American love letter to the local and seasonal, the place to which all future localist, farm-to-table endeavors are indebted.
The title itself made me skeptical, that bit after the semicolon: “The Last Magnificent.” Who was this Tower, whose name is hardly as well-sung as Waters. And yet that is the ploy and premise around which the film operates. You do not know Tower, they argue. (He dropped off the radar as part of the complicated turns you see play out in the film.) And yet you should.
Like Burnt (2015), which starred Bradley Cooper in a role of chef/enfant terrible, the film delves into the tempestuousness of the culinary world, full of creatives and money and high stakes. It feels, at times, dramatized. And yet it’s the character of Tower I can’t help but find interesting. Bourdain, being a person interested in the innate drama of humanity, steers directly into the most fundamental and galvanizing of human emotions.
We see the way food filled a young Tower—a void left by wealthy-but-distant parents who set him adrift in ocean liner dining rooms, crossing the ocean with consommé and chilled lobster while they entertained themselves elsewhere. He is like an eternal Lost Boy. “I read menus before I read books,” he says, poring over lists with words that sent him into reveries. And this I can relate to, the world that’s conjured by those simple descriptions. It’s a world he tried to recreate at his flagship restaurant, Stars. And that is part of what they mean by “The Last Magnificent:” he is a link to the romanticism of the 19th century.
From there, it’s a story of turbulence. Sunk below the radar before returning to the highly visible Tavern on the Green just off New York’s Central Park, his is a trajectory whose drama they try to milk. And here’s where the filmic machinery breaks down a bit. Bourdain begins to make more appearances as a talking head. We have the San Francisco earthquake of 1989, the specter of AIDS crisis. The timeline wavers.
Ultimately, the film pulls it together. Ultimately, it’s a striking portrait of someone at once maddeningly arrogant and visionary. (Notice that the tine in the fork on the movie poster is raised like a big “f-you.” In our restaurant climate, it’s a bit chilling to see the depiction of what can happen in the world of high stakes and high egos, the way something iconic can simply evaporate.
I was also left thinking: who would be our figures to emerge from the desert after 15 years? And where and how would they surface?