Greetings again from the darkness. Maybe the line between megalomania and genius doesn’t exist, or a more likely explanation has the two as mutually exclusive. Director Lydia Tenaglia (an Emmy winner) tackles the profile of ultra-fascinating Jeremiah Tower, one of, if not the first U.S. celebrity chef. Her approach seems to carom between idol worship, psychoanalysis and mythology, often creating a rudderless feeling for viewers – viewers who remain captivated by the man and the story.
Mr. Tower performs voice-over during much of the segment on his childhood, and one of his first lines, “I have to stay away from human beings because somehow I’m not one”, sets the stage for a childhood that explains much. His wealthy parents took a hands-off approach, though young Jeremiah (when not in elite boarding school) often accompanied them on international travels, luxurious Ocean cruises (including the Queen Mary), and first class resorts and hotels. The solitude of these trips invariably found the young boy in the kitchen with food, his favorite travel companion. An evening on a beach with a stranger who is grilling a barracuda provides a particularly harrowing memory, and clearly helps us understand how that 6 year old grew to be an adult who never found a humanistic rhythm with others.
Anthony Bourdain is a producer on the film and also provides commentary throughout. He states “We should know who changed the world”. Specifically he is referring to the pioneers of food, and he puts Jeremiah Tower as high on the pedestal as any. Bourdain, other chefs, Tower’s Harvard friends, and even food critics chime in on the impact of Tower joining Alice Waters at her Berkeley Chez Panisse in 1972. The idealism of the times and the people created a cultural clash that resulted in what Martha Stewart termed New American cuisine, or perhaps more accurately, California cuisine. Some terrific photos and clips of those early days really add an element of depth to an era which is typically lacking in such documentation.
After the split between Ms. Waters and Mr. Tower, his explosion into the global food world occurred with his Stars restaurant in San Francisco in the mid-1980’s. This seemed to be the meld of Tower’s personality, his creative menu ideas, and his quest for the perfect eating establishment, and soon became known worldwide as a must-visit for traveling foodies.
It’s at this point where the timeline becomes muddled – seemingly on purpose by the filmmaker – in an effort to add mystery to what otherwise would be expected erratic behavior from an artist who just can’t be satisfied. Tower’s self-imposed exile leaves his friends befuddled, and we get interspersed shots of him climbing pyramids and cooking in his Merida apartment. Philosophical meanderings are used to fill the gaps. “What are my great expectations?” How could such a genius be expected to live with “the horror of mediocrity”? On more than one occasion, we hear Tower’s life philosophy stated as “I long for the crown, but know the guillotine is close”. This would all seem overly dramatic if it didn’t so perfectly fit the profile of the man. The incomprehensible “comeback” at NYC’s Tavern on the Green after 15 years away, does allow us to more closely view his endless pursuit of perfection, and the price paid for a life of loneliness and ego. True innovators and true genius are often painful to look at once the curtain is pulled back.