According to the new documentary “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent,” chefs were once considered servants.
Today, they can be celebrities and great artists — or unsung, under-appreciated and lonely.
Food lovers know about legendary Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse and its equally legendary owner Alice Waters.
While fewer are familiar with Chez Panisse chef Jeremiah Tower, longtime San Franciscans remember his ultra-popular, high-profile restaurant Stars, near City Hall, which opened with a storm in 1984 (and operated until the late 1990s).
After Stars, Tower more or less disappeared, but filmmaker Lydia Tenaglia — a producer for TV celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain — caught up with him again.
He’s slightly grumpy and slightly aloof, but the film’s still revealing,
It uses re-enactments, looking a little like Guy Maddin’s stylized re-creations of silent-era cinema, to tell his story.
Tower is forthcoming with a potent, harrowing tale about a family vacation to the Great Barrier Reef. A fisherman entranced the 6-year-old with the sights, sounds and smells of a roasting barracuda on the beach, but also made inappropriate sexual advances.
He grew up with largely absent, indifferent parents, spending countless hours — and eating — in hotels all over the world. It doesn’t take a doctorate to guess at how these experiences may have shaped him.
Eventually hired at Chez Panisse, the charismatic, gay, prickly sensation helped transform it from a wannabe French bistro to a center of California cuisine, championing local ingredients.
Waters is not interviewed in the movie; though their relationship was complex, and though Tower complains that Waters took credit for his work on a cookbook, the film is careful to give both chefs recognition for the restaurant’s success.
Among Tower’s friends and family interviewed, many claim that they don’t really “know” him. So do other celebrity chefs.
One, Mario Batali, worked at Stars for a time. “I cooked for Gorbachev!” he says, amazed.
The movie catches up with Tower in 2014 as he takes a job at New York’s failing Tavern on the Green, a struggle that provides interesting drama and character depth in the film’s final third.
There is, of course, beautiful food to salivate over, but “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent” is far from “food porn.” It explores the necessity of art and creation and the betrayals and hurt than can result.
Finally, it suggests that sometimes success and fame can be far less satisfying than being in one’s own kitchen with a beautiful bunch of radishes.
Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent
Three and a half stars
Starring Jeremiah Tower, Anthony Bourdain, Martha Stewart, Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali
Directed by Lydia Tenaglia
Running time 1 hour, 42 minutes