The Troubled Genius of Chef Jeremiah Tower, On The Big Screen

On the heels of Lydia Tenaglia's documentary, 'Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent.'

May 5, 2017 ● 4 min read

By Richie Nakano 
Photographs courtesy The Orchard

Chef Jeremiah Tower is what you might call “famous.”

Like, really famous. The kind of famous where you’re like, eh, I don’t really get star-struck, and then you walk into the room and realize that, oh shit: there is a culinary deity just sitting there in that chair, and you start sweating.

Like anyone, Tower’s resume and reputation dictate how you prepare to meet him face-to-face. Chez Panisse. Stars. Peak Café in Hong Kong. Tavern on The Green. Known hard-ass and perfectionist. Today’s food world is inundated with celebrity chefs, merited or not, but Tower was the first to show us what it could look like. His cooking was as much about bringing himself pleasure as it was about bringing pleasure to his guests, and he killed it at both. His influence on the way we eat today cannot be (and yet, often is) understated.

Here’s something you won’t see coming: he’s funny. He cracks jokes with a mischievous look sneaking across his face, punchlines landing in his signature clipped accent—a blend of genteel elegance from another time, cobbled together from his worldly education. He wears alligator loafers.

So, you’re in this room (feeling underdressed and perhaps under-intelligent) because somebody finally came to their senses and made a film about him. Executive produced by Anthony Bourdain and directed by Zero Point Zero’s Lydia Tenaglia, Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent begins as a look at the factors and forces that created one of history’s greatest and most misunderstood chefs. It develops into a something much more sobering—a study on impermanence, aging, and the question that plagues every chef of a certain age: is it better to burn out or fade away? Is there an in-between?

The genesis of the project began when Bourdain tossed a copy of Tower’s recently reissued memoir, Start the Fire: How I Began A Food Revolution in America (notably updated from its former title, California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution), on Tenaglia’s desk. “He came at it from a strong sense of, as he puts it, ‘hitting the justice button,’” she says. “Wanting to set the record straight.”

She was intrigued, sure, but wasn’t entirely convinced until she met him. After a short meeting morphed into a long, meandering conversation, Tower’s words began to paint a nuanced and complex picture in her head. “[There’s] a complicated character at the center of it. Someone who felt that he had been written out of this story for a variety of different reasons,” she says. “What was he, figuratively, bringing to the table?” She compares him offhand to Leonard Zelig, an enigmatic character immortalized by Woody Allen who, in his desire to be liked, takes on the strong personalities of those around him. The “human chameleon,” they call him.

It seems like a stretch, but you start to get a sense of what she means right from the film’s first scene as Tower walks among Mayan ruins. “I have to stay away from human beings, because somehow I am not one,” he says. “Everything that is real to me is hallucination to others.” His upbringing, as shown in the film, was both privileged—first class cabins on the Queen Mary, wandering the finest hotels in Europe—and isolating.

"Food filled up my life,” he tells you, “It was my emotional content.”

Tower in the Chez Panisse kitchen.

That early independence manifested into a meticulous, composed way of being that crept into every part of his life. Everything he did was measured, thought out. Tower wasn’t content being the smartest person in the room: He wanted you to know it, too.

“[My cooks] probably thought I was micromanaging a lot of things. Like the big trips, before we were leaving in the car going to the airport, I would make them unpack everything and recount it,” he says. The ritual was instituted after a key ingredient was left behind by a cook who assured Tower it was safely packed. “After that, I checked everything myself, as it was being loaded into the truck.”

Those cooks who went on to open and run their own kitchens, he says, have thanked him for being so psycho about the details. “Now we are the assholes,” they tell him, “and now we know how to do it. We see why you were being so obsessive.”

“Cooking in a restaurant is like a centrifuge going in the opposite direction,” he continues. “To hold it all in as it’s trying to spin into madness. So, of course, you need control.”

From the center of that centrifuge, he has seen things you will never see, tasted things you will never taste. At the peak of his hold on the restaurant industry, his public life was like the world’s most ornate rap video; Bacchanalian shit all shrouded in mystery and rumor. And though he carries himself with the cool confidence of a man who has the gift of hospitality at his core, there’s a simmering tension lurking just beyond his wry smile. As one of his college friends says, “No one really knows Jeremiah.” (The film, Tenaglia points out, only hints at the depth all around him. The histories of Chez, of Stars, could easily fill their own respective films. They should.)

These days, Tower is happiest in places like the markets of Seville, Spain. “There were eight different kinds of fish roe,” he says, describing his last trip. “12 different kinds of prawns—fresh, not frozen. And little lamb legs for two that cost nine euro. I thought, ‘Holy shit, I gotta get an apartment here, and just stay and cook my way through this.’”   

A giant manta ray once followed him for days while diving 350 miles west of Cabo San Lucas. (This is, you think, exactly the kind of thing that would happen to Jeremiah Tower out in the middle of the ocean.)

“I made a point of finding peace,” he says. “That's why I went to the beach. You know, when you finish work, you don't just have a cup of tea. You need to do something almost as dramatic as the workload. After 35 years of 90 hours a week, and [the] pressure, and the fame, and the work, and the fatigue, I just needed that equal weight. So, that's what I did.”

Before you leave, you ask for a picture. He asks to take it in front of a painting of a young Queen Elizabeth on the wall. “IT’S ALL MINE NOW.” is scrawled around her in Corvette red.

Basically, look out, people of Earth: Jeremiah Tower may not be done with you yet.    

Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent is now playing in select theaters.