While commenting on Jeremiah Tower’s tenure at New York’s landmark Tavern on the Green restaurant, Anthony Bourdain stresses how a chef must strive, above all else, to maintain consistency. Meals cannot taste worse than they did the last time they were served, everything must stay just as high-quality as the dish preceding it and the dish following it. It’s a difficult task at any restaurant and a near impossible one at Tavern on the Green, a restaurant with such a lavish, storied history. The same can be said for Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, a documentary that occasionally touches upon greatness, but lacks a consistent follow through to truly satisfy us.
Here’s what we know about Jeremiah Tower: he’s an innovative chef, he came from means, he’s gay, he’s has a strong personality, he created two of the most landmark restaurants in California and pretty much started California cuisine, he disappeared for a while and then came back to run Tavern on the Green. He’s clearly a person of interest, one that people hold strong opinions about, and there are multiple ways you can frame and tell his story.
But instead of settling into one method, this movie decides to foolishly sample multiple formats at once like a hastily-edited, all-you-can-eat documentary buffet. In this movie alone, we get samples and morsels of:
-The “Great chefs discuss Jeremiah Tower’s influence on cooking” film
-The “Jeremiah Tower discusses his family and love for food” film
– The “Biography of the historic Stars restaurant in San Francisco” film
-The “Behind-the-scenes look into Tower’s tumultuous run as chef of Tavern on the Green” film
-The “Chronology of Jeremiah Tower’s life from past to present” film
– and “The Jeremiah Tower’s lost years expose” film
Any of these films would be fine on their own. There’s enough backstory, mystery and zesty flavor to bring them all to life. But the documentary stumbles on its own ambition, believing that because its subject is great, it is automatically great too. The film starts off chronologically from Jeremiah’s childhood but then jumps back and forth between eras. One moment we’re talking about Jeremiah getting bad reviews at Tavern on the Green, the next we’re talking about the rise of the AIDS epidemic. There is no clear direction of where this movie wants to go, or what it wants to have said when it has arrived.
During some of the Tavern on the Green scenes, we see Jeremiah running around, dealing harsh criticisms to his staff with no smiles to be found. You get the feeling that nobody at Tavern on the Green actually wants to be there, that even though it should be a great thing having Jeremiah around, they’re all kind of sick of it but are too afraid to say anything because they have to buy into the “Jeremiah is the greatest of all time” myth. This is in stark contrast to footage from his earlier restaurants, where the joy and laughter were in ample supply. We get the impression from this movie that Jeremiah isn’t a culinary bad boy who said fuck you to the establishment and revolutionized food. He’s just a curmudgeon, toiling away in a kitchen he hates, reflecting upon days that were much better.
Even when Jeremiah’s friends and colleagues speak about him, its like they’re trying to describe an individual they once heard about through kitchen folklore but never actually met firsthand. His college friends depict their time with Jeremiah like they’re reading a passage from a boring culinary history book instead of happily sharing memories from a family photo album. When Jeremiah talks about his life story and his own personal experiences, those comments are made null by the film’s constant attempt to sell the myth of JEREMIAH, LEGENDARY, RECLUSIVE CHEF instead of Jeremiah the person. What’s telling is that we never actually see any of the people who speak about Jeremiah interact with him in the movie. It’s all from afar, crafting the image of who they think Jeremiah should be, instead of who he actually is.
This movie immediately reminded me of City of Gold, the documentary about the Los Angeles Times food reviewer Jonathan Gold. That movie wasn’t without its flaws, but it still was a more concise trip down food memory lane. We got a clear picture of who Jonathan Gold is and heard amusing anecdotes about how he helped out so many lesser-known LA restaurants get their name on the Angeleno foodie map. In short, the movie made us like Jonathan Gold, and that in turn made it a good film.
That may not be possible with someone like Jeremiah Tower, now in older age, no longer the dashing, charismatic young chef of yesteryear, but a walking reputation of a man that is trying to maintain its relevancy. Jeremiah was born into wealth, went to elite schools, and has a stand-offish attitude. Who knows, maybe Jeremiah is actually a likable person and the last true great chef. But by not digging deeper into the true ingredients that make his heart sizzle, we’re sadly left to send this doc back to the kitchen.