The American food movement—local, seasonal, organic, chef-proud—has an undisputed mother: Alice Waters, the founder of the pioneering restaurant Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California. Its father, Jeremiah Tower, ran away to Mexico and has been periodically proclaiming paternity rights ever since.
The purpose of the strange and compelling new documentary “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent,” which was produced by Anthony Bourdain, an unabashed Tower fan (and sometime Waters critic), is to introduce to an amnesiac public a not-sung-enough culinary innovator, who, through his tenure at Chez Panisse and at his own place, Stars, in San Francisco, which closed in the nineties, brought personality, glamour, and intellectual rigor to the American restaurant scene. After Stars, Tower all but disappeared, eventually moving to the Yucatan Peninsula, where he spent his time scuba diving and fixing up houses until, unexpectedly, he returned to the limelight with a stint at New York’s Tavern on the Green. The melancholy, psychological documentary captures this brief curtain call, which ended disastrously. (Tower left the restaurant abruptly after a negative review in the Times that lost him the faith of his corporate bosses.) But the central drama of the film is the time he spent with Waters at Chez Panisse.
Tower arrived at the restaurant in 1973. He was tall, handsome, and spoke with an English accent acquired at a British boarding school and undiminished by an education at Harvard. Like everyone else in those early days at Waters’s fantasy café, he was not a professional. But his palate had been trained by first-class fare at home and abroad, where he had forged an emotional connection to food as a substitute for more standard forms of affection. In the film, Tower recalls a formative childhood experience that took place on a beach on the Great Barrier Reef, circa 1948. Tower was six or so, and, having slipped away from his parents to spend the afternoon exploring, encountered an old Aborginal fisherman, who showed him how to roast a barracuda, taught him about the stars, and introduced him to the birds and the bees. Night had fallen by the time Tower finally returned to his parents, who, in the midst of what seems to have been a decades-long trans-Atlantic cocktail party, hadn’t even noticed his absence. As Tower reckoned with how utterly alone he was, the day’s sensations fused and locked: freedom, abandonment, sex, the wonderful smell of barracuda on an open fire. A chef was born.
Reared on a blend of privilege and deprivation, which, combined with high intelligence and sensitivity, often makes an artist or a writer, Tower focussed his intellect on food. Alone in grand dining rooms, he pored over menus as if they were novels. “Before I read books I read menus,” Tower says in the documentary. “To me menus are a language unto themselves.” He adds, “From early on, I think food was really my best pal.”
Food was his friend, and, maybe more significant, cooking was the arena in which he could be heroic. His mother, entertaining, would drink too much and forget to finish preparing the food—young Jeremiah would swoop in and save her from mortification. “It was probably shame that started my cooking career, because I simply couldn’t conceive of that party going wrong,” he says. As usual, though, his efforts went unrecognized by his intended audience; his mother was too far gone to realize what had happened.
At Chez Panisse, Tower found a similarly dysfunctional party under way in the dining room and in the kitchen. (A “Hippie, drug-ridden explosion in a playpen,” is how one food critic recalls the scene.) And in Waters, Tower may have thought he’d found another mother to rescue. This time, he would make sure he got his due.
He was gay, and she was attached, but they had an affair anyway. As with rock bands, the tension was productive. They fought and flirted and together turned Chez Panisse from a place where friends gathered to eat food that reminded Waters of meals she’d had in Brittany into a world-class restaurant. Both were romantics, but Waters’s idealism faced forward, while Tower’s nostalgia sent him ceaselessly back to the grandeur of the past. During his four years in the kitchen, he produced, in the form of exquisite prix-fixe menus, scholarly treatises on the great cooks of France, and, eventually, manifestos for the future of food.
Waters had always struggled to find purveyors whose offerings conformed to her expectations; Tower helped her see the virtue in what was close to hand. Together, they helped to invent California cuisine, which in time has become American cuisine. In 1976, a few months before Tower left Chez Panisse, he produced a “Northern California Regional Dinner,” calling out the ingredients’ regional provenance on the menu: Monterey Bay prawns, California-grown geese from Sebastopol. It was a radical idea, one that Waters sustained, expanded upon, and brought into the mainstream. Nurtured by Waters and her followers for forty years, that idea’s moment has come. Even McDonald’s waxes locovoracious these days.
Tower went on to open his own restaurant, Stars, a super-buzzy place whose customers included politicians, socialites, celebrities, and drag queens. At Stars, Tower came out from the kitchen and received the adulation he was looking for—a celebrity chef, he predicted the kind of figure Mario Batali would become. (Batali, who also appears in the documentary, recently posted on Twitter that he and Tower are planning a restaurant on the Amalfi Coast.)
In spite of Tower’s success, he has remained affronted at what he sees as Waters’s erasure of his contributions to culinary history. The more that Waters’s legend grows, the larger the ambit for his grievance becomes. In 2001, dining with a reporter from the Times, he began by saying that he would not talk about Alice, and ended by saying, “She never knew a little vegetable from a rotten vegetable.” It’s an ungenerous, jilted kind of comment, with the quality of a mean-spirited kiss-and-tell. (When the Times called Waters, she denied Tower’s claim, and said, “That’s a pretty nasty thing to say.” Then she recovered herself, claiming the high ground of the more powerful, and graciously praised Tower as “very, very talented.”) Tower recently told the Los Angeles Times that his ground rules for participating in Bourdain’s documentary stipulated no Waters bashing, yet at one point he complains pointedly about her taking credit for writing Chez Panisse’s menus. He can’t help himself.
Tower has been seeking to correct the record for years, but the argument is more powerful coming from figures like Bourdain and Batali. Watching the film, I was struck by Tower’s elegance and vulnerability, his genius and the pure relentlessness of his perfectionism. He had—and has—vision. But I also found myself frustrated. In a field that is still male-inflected, where a “female chef” is different from a chef, Alice Waters is a rare exception. She doesn’t need the moniker, the special pleading. She gets the lion’s share of credit for building a movement not because every last idea was her own but because she stuck around and saw it through. Fathering can happen all of a sudden; mothering is slower, longer labor.
In the film, Tower says that he lit the match that started a conflagration. Waters did not take part in the documentary, and her silence is telling. When she does appear on camera, it is in beautiful archival footage where she, silk bandana on her head, moves around the kitchen, literally putting out fires.