Just to break the monotony of all Hair Führer all the time, last night I attended the Seattle Premier of the documentary Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent. For those of you who do not know or remember who Tower is, at one point in the 1980s he was arguably the original celebrity chef; his start was at Chez Panisse and his finale (in the Bay Area) was at Stars. He disappeared at the end of the Reagan Years from his very successful business and didn’t resurface until 2014 in NYC. The documentary teases that it will explain Tower to us. It doesn’t.
Many people know Chez Panisse as the birthplace of California Cuisine, and give full attribution to Alice Waters; for some of us when we look at Chez Panisse, we mark it in two parts (no, not the opening of the Cafe upstairs): before Jeremiah Tower and after. The before part is not the stuff of legends; it was a French restaurant offering classic haute cuisine in a brown shingle Berkeley craftsman bungalow. The food was well made, but hardly original, or revolutionary. Tower’s arrival was a lightening bolt of obsessive professionalism and creativity.
As a kid living about 15 minutes away from the restaurant, I had sort of a table-side view. My parents did go to the pre-Tower Chez Panisse, they didn’t like it much. They went again after Tower arrived and loved it. When the more reasonably priced cafe opened upstairs, we were frequent diners. When my friends and I became drivers, we would sometimes end up having pizza there after our high school extracurricular activities. Growing up in Oakland had some real advantages I would not trade with anyone.
There’s a history lesson you can learn if you have a copy of the Chez Panisse cookbooks. The first one, ‘The Chez Panisse Cookbook’ is the pure French stuff. The tone changes once the ‘Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook’ is released. If you flip through the menus, they change from French set pieces like cassoulet to local, seasonal items giving both the farmer and farm top billing. If you know to look for the change in tone, it is telling. Something happened, and that something is Tower.
The film touches lightly on the falling out of Waters and Tower, which was legendary, often fought out in public. While Waters is credited as being the mother of local/seasonal California Cuisine, arguably Tower is the person who first brought it to Chez Panisse. After a few years their dynamic flamed out, he left and she stayed; she took the credit and sort of erased him from the legend (that’s his take, anyway). And it was always my belief that she worked very hard thereafter to make the Cuisine (and Chez Panisse) a thing. He left to pout. He says as much in the film.
Pouting over, he opened Stars in San Francisco during the Reagan Years. It was as if Studio 54 had landed on the west coast as a restaurant and bar; it was the place to be and to be “scene,” and the socialites were there mingling with us proles. I went to Stars exactly once; I was comp’ed by the great man himself — they needed to move my table to make room for a large party; we ended up at a better table and paid nothing all night; the restaurant sent us a bucket of champagne for being good sports. Tower came by himself and sat with us for a moment. He was charm personified.
All good things come to an end, but what happened to Stars remains a mystery, and the film doesn’t help decipher the story. There was a controversy during the AIDS crisis (the documentary touches upon it); but that wasn’t the coup de grace. The end of the decade was the big earthquake, and the documentary positions that might have been the end, but the restaurant was still standing; the neighborhood had one of the freeways that collapsed and so that might have been it, but in the early ’90s Hayes Valley was more desirable than ever. The documentary shows the restaurant is still there, empty after all these years. As far as I can tell after watching the show is that Tower just walked away from it all, went to Mexico and started fixing and flipping houses. For real.
The documentary had extraordinary access to the reclusive Tower, and yet he remains a mystery. It never really explains what he did for the nearly 20 years of hermit-like absence (lived in Mexico, flipping houses? Why Mexico? Was he alone?) or why he returned to a disastrous stint in NYC at Tavern on the Green in 2014. If you wonder what lured him back into the spotlight, you will still wonder. And he returns again to Mexico. The film concludes with him measuring a house, and then with him scuba diving. It’s not a bad life, but we have no idea how or why he ends up there, what the draw is, or what’s next.
There are many celebrity chefs and famous food writers opining throughout on Tower’s importance, and they do an admirable job putting his career in context.
It’s a good show, and I am glad to see Tower getting the recognition he deserves; and I was delighted to see that he is still feisty and charming. I hope that there is another Act in his story, but I have my doubts that anyone can catch a lightening bug three times (Tavern on the Green clearly was not catching it again).