Jeremiah Tower, if not the father of American cuisine, is at the very least its very fun uncle. But a case for fatherhood can be made. He burned bright and then disappeared. This documentary finds him.
One of Tower’s earliest memories: sitting on the beach, maybe 6 years old, watching an old man prepare barracuda for dinner. Holding his hands as they held the knives, watching him rub some spice from the jungle on them, the aroma as the fish cooked. The old man said that next they would eat snake, or perhaps iguana, and those exotic dishes got confused as the old man also referred to the “little lizard” in young Tower’s pants. That child’s confusion, food and sex already mixed up in his head, is perhaps why he went on to be a renowned chef. But it’s not the only reason.
He had an unconventional childhood and perhaps not a happy one, travelling extensively with his parents who exposed him to culture and glamour while largely forgetting he existed. Food became his friend and companion, and he’d gluttonously study the menus of all the great restaurants he visited, making friends with the kitchen staff in all the best dining establishments in the very best of hotels.
He never intended to become a chef, but circumstance had made him a cook, and when opportunity knocked, Jeremiah Tower answered. Not only did he answer, he opened the door to a transformation of food and ingredients, and how we thought of them. He was perhaps the first celebrity chef but abandoned it all at the top of his game. Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali, Anthony Bourdain, and Martha Stewart all speak of him reverently, but it’s clear his legend is still shrouded in mystery.
A couple of years ago, Jeremiah Tower resurfaced, and the foodie community went bananas foster (that’s me making a foodie joke, fyi). He was to be the new Executive Chef at Tavern on the Green, a large restaurant in New York known more for its touristy location than the quality of its food. It seemed a strange move for such a king of the kitchen, but then again, what do we really know of this culinary superstar who walked away from his own fame and success?
This documentary is fun and interesting from start to finish, but a lot of Tower’s mystery remains intact. Lydia Tenaglia shoots him like the lone wolf he is, perhaps a little scattered and deliberately artsy at times, but the truth is, Tower is a force that pulls you in, his charisma alone enough to compel. The Last Magnificent made me hungry – sure, for some of his California cooking, but mostly just for more of him, of this fascinating, elusive man.
Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent opens Friday May 5th in select cities: Toronto,
Vancouver, Calgary, Halifax, and right here in Ottawa, luckily enough.