There is something about Anthony Bourdain and Alice Waters. In 2009, the acerbic culinary personality Bourdain infamously declared that Waters, the slow-food pioneer and founder of Chez Panisse, "annoyed" the hell out of him; not long after, he doubled down, calling her "Pol Pot in a muumuu" (he apologized for both remarks and backtracked further in his 2010 book, Medium Raw). Now, Bourdain is on Waters's trail once again, but this time, he's not looking to knock her down. Instead, with a new documentary, Bourdain is hoping to prop up Waters's closest collaborator Jeremiah Tower who, if Waters planted the seeds for the local-food movement in North America, made sure it grew to fruition.
But if you've only heard of Waters, don't worry: Tower isn't a household name. And that, Bourdain says, was the problem. "I read his memoir and I was just sort of shocked at how many of the things I had been cooking for years had directly come from him and how much of the world I lived in had been changed by him," Bourdain says in a recent telephone interview. "He had been written out of history, it appeared. I saw this film project as a means to correct the record."
In fact, Tower agreed to the film because he, too, was hoping to set the record straight – though on a slightly different level. "There's been so much said over 30 years about a feud between [Alice Waters and I]," Towers says in a separate interview, "but it was all made up. When people would write about the restaurant, I would make sure she was front and centre. And she would also make sure she was front and centre." Towers laughs. "That's just who she was."
It's difficult to point out to a man whose biographical film is subtitled The Last Magnificent that he ever played second fiddle to anyone. But Tower welcomes the observation – actually, he urges it, and soon after dives headlong into a frank admission that assuming the head chef position at New York's doomed Tavern on the Green, which he did in 2014, was a fool's errand. He spent too much of his ascendancy as, arguably, the world's first celebrity chef carefully managing his public relations, he says. That he'd be able to clear the air regarding Waters was his first stipulation when Bourdain and director Lydia Tenaglia approached Tower with the project; the second was that he'd have no creative input. "If the film was going to be a fluff job," he says, "it would be boring."
Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent is not boring. But it doesn't answer many questions about why, exactly, Tower's name ended up as a footnote when in fact it was him – not Waters – putting together Chez Panisse's menus for much of its heyday; or why none of today's rock-star chefs cite Tower's see-and-be-seen San Fran resto Stars, of which Mario Batali is an alumnus, as an inspiration. The film doesn't focus too heavily on the Dewar's whisky deal that made Tower one of the first (if not the first) chefs to become a recognizable face or have Tower explain what the hell he was thinking when he abandoned the whole thing and disappeared to Mexico.
(In fact Bourdain, reluctant celebrity himself, explains that last bit over the phone better than the film does: "I don't think he was interested in staying famous for fame's sake," he says. "I think he enjoyed the world he created and, when that world changed, diving with sharks in Mexico seemed like a very good idea.")
Tenaglia's film, instead, is a sort of slow, quiet, oddly captivating meditation on what happens when someone who never set out to become a cook ends up at the top of his game. Tower was the child of wealthy parents who, largely left to his own devices, adopted food as comfort in the most bourgeois way possible (one moment in the film hears Tower, now in his mid-1970s, reflecting on why he opted out of much of the rebellion and revolution of the 1960s: "Drink Champagne and eat smoked salmon. That was my revolution"). He essentially walked into Chez Panisse and asked for a job; he succeeded at Stars because of a talent for extravagance that he came by honestly. And, of course, he could cook – but, oddly enough, cooking was always secondary to Tower. At Stars, he says, "It wasn't so much about the food as it was about the way a restaurant should be."
For a film about a man who had it all and gave it all up, The Last Magnificent doesn't contain even a whisper of cautionary tale (outside of the gentle suggestion that, once you hit your 70s, coming out of retirement to helm a gigantic restaurant in the middle of Central Park is perhaps ill-advised).
If anything, by the end of the film, Tower will seem more of an oddity than ever, whether you'd heard of him before the opening credit reel or not: There's no great high, no profound low, no flame-out, no spectacular rebound. Just a talented man who did some incredible stuff, made a huge impact, and without a huge ego – or any sort of precedent to do otherwise – kept mostly quiet about it all. To imagine such a thing today, in the golden age of food-as-fame, is unthinkable.
"Now it's absurd," Tower says. "It's not the hospitality industry. It's the TV industry. Someone asked Anthony Bourdain in my presence the other day, 'How do I become a TV chef?' He said, 'Don't.'"
Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent opens May 5 in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Halifax and Ottawa.