No small number of comparisons have been made between food and sex. Usually, though, these extend only as far as the sensual properties of both. In Lydia Tenaglia’s uneven but occasionally revelatory new documentary, Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, the two things become connected at a pathological level, at least for the film’s subject, the renowned and mysterious chef of the title. In one of the earliest stories Tower shares, a formative experience with food—the delicate and meticulous cleaning, preparing and cooking of a freshly caught barracuda—is inextricably linked with his having been sexually molested at the age of six. Tower’s life is a bizarre and often compelling one but Tenaglia is ultimately undone by a desire to make it a more conventional, palatable one and to overlook Tower’s bullheaded egocentrism.
Tenaglia, in loosely chronological order but with occasional returns and divergences, takes us through Tower’s life from his luxurious but isolated and painful childhood to his explosion onto (and partial creation of) the national food scene as the head chef at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse to the opening, massive success and sudden downfall of his own restaurant, San Francisco’s Star, to his self-imposed exile and finally to his recent return to the spotlight as the executive chef at New York’s notorious Tavern on the Green. It’s in this last section that Tenaglia truly stumbles, faltering into what feels like promotional material, first for the Tavern and then for Tower’s own cult of personality.
Tenaglia works in a number of modes. There are the standard documentarian forms of talking head interviews and footage captured on the fly. There is some footage of the past, particularly in the segments devoted to Chez Panisse and Stars. Then there are the sequences of Tower wandering through the centro historico of Merida, Mexico and cooking in his home there. And finally, there are numerous, wordless dramatizations of his various stages of childhood, self-consciously pre-distressed to look vintage.
It’s in these sections, and the narration from Tower that accompanies them, that the most interesting psychological clues are to be found. Tower spent his youth traveling the world in first class with parents who hated each other and ignored him. He was alone most of the time but that also meant he was free to do what he wanted, which was chiefly to eat and to watch food being made, eventually graduating to pitching in himself when his mother would host lavish parties. In some ways, it sounds like a dream world but Tower and Tenaglia never let us forget how tormented he was in his familial surroundings. “The worst thing that ever happened to me,” he says, “was that I wasn’t an orphan.”
Tower’s culinary autodidacticism led him to the kitchen of Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse, where he quickly made a name for himself before using his clout to become what interviewee Martha Stewart describes as “a father of the American cuisine.” Tower’s early claim to fame was that he did away with the gourmet scene’s baked-in Old World exceptionalism and embraced California produce, livestock, seafood, cheese, wine and more. The movie in general and Mario Batali in particular argue that the locavore, farm-to-table movements of today can be traced directly back to him.
In these early sections, though, Tenaglia’s coterie of talking heads are more than willing to contradict Tower’s version of things, giving a good amount of credit to Waters and resisting the mythologizing pull of documentary portraits. Unfortunately, though, they also can’t stop psychoanalyzing him (Anthony Bourdain speaks tantalizingly of a “locked room” inside Tower), putting him on a pedestal for reasons beyond his talents as a chef. Tower seems like a fascinating individual. You’ll certainly wish you could taste the food he prepares onscreen. You may even wish you could talk to him for an hour or so. But we tread dangerous ground when we glorify talented people for being unpleasant megalomaniacs.