It’s almost taken for granted these days that major chefs are celebrities in their own right. Mario Batali, Gordon Ramsay, and the like have become household names. Each has multiple restaurants, his own TV show, enormous social media followings. You’d have to have been living under a rock not to have heard of them.
But this phenomenon is a development of only the past two or three decades and, somehow, the original celebrity chef of the 1980s and ’90s has been lost to the sands of time. Does the name Jeremiah Tower ring a bell? No? It should. The new documentary Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, produced by Anthony Bourdain, explains why.
Jeremiah Tower, the chef who led Chez Panisse to international acclaim before opening Stars in San Francisco, truly was the first celebrity chef. His influence on the world of dining cannot be overstated.
“He was, for a golden time, before and after the revolution, the most important chef in America,” says Anthony Bourdain. “He was easily the most influential. Everyone cooked like Jeremiah Tower. Everyone wanted to be Jeremiah Tower—or at least bask in his presence. His restaurant, Stars, became the template for the modern American restaurant.”
Tower, together with Alice Waters, revolutionized American cooking. Before the two joined forces at Chez Panisse, it had been de rigueur to import ingredients from Europe: A restaurant’s prestige came via its sole imported from Dover; its wine and cheese from France. Tower knew California’s bounty was every bit as good as that of Europe, and brought local ingredients to the table with the same reverence most chefs afforded to European imports, birthing what came to be known as “California cuisine.” It was the type of locavore-centric cooking that chefs like Virgilio Martinez and Ana Roš are earning awards and accolades for today. Tower charmed the powerful James Beard into visiting the restaurant, and the ensuing review launched Chez Panisse into the top echelon of destination restaurants.
After a notorious disagreement between the restaurant’s two figureheads, Tower struck out on his own, opening his own place.
Stars was a game-changer. It was the first restaurant to feature an open kitchen. Until then, dining was something you did before or after the evening’s main entertainment—a movie, say, or the theater. Stars made dining theatrical in itself; at Stars, dining became the evening’s entertainment. This was, mind you, at a time when chefs were expected to remain in their kitchens, out of sight; it was considered lower-class work. The tall, handsome, and charming Tower made it a position of glamour, often socializing with his guests. He cut a dashing figure in the dining room in his pristine chef’s whites.
The restaurant was also the first to become its own scene, a see-and-be-seen type of place. Socialites, Hollywood actors, rock stars, club kids—they all had a place there. Stars became an overnight sensation, and one of America’s top-grossing restaurants.
And then, one day, the restaurant was gone—and Tower along with it, seemingly gone from the face of the earth, in what many regarded a self-imposed exile.
Two decades later, he resurfaced in the most unlikely of places: New York’s fabled but struggling Tavern on the Green. Many questions arose: Where had he been for so long? Why choose this moment—and this place—to make a grand reentry into the restaurant world? And did he stand a chance of turning the troubled restaurant around?
“One minute he was there—then he was everywhere—and then he was gone,” says Bourdain, who poses a few questions of his own. “Why did the man who nearly everyone agrees was absolutely instrumental in how and what we eat in restaurants today disappear? And why was he written out of history—his accomplishments dismissed, attributed elsewhere, the whole subject suddenly uncomfortable? What began as a culinary mystery—Who was really responsible for the American Culinary Revolution?—became a more nuanced investigation: Who is Jeremiah Tower?”
The film charts the life, the accomplishments, and the mysteries of possibly the most brilliant, influential, and controversial figure ever to grace the American culinary scene. It features interviews with Mario Batali, Wolfgang Puck, Ruth Reichl, and many other people whose lives were influenced by this extraordinary man.
Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent opens in New York City and Los Angeles on April 21, expanding nationwide in May.