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Arts and Culture

Anthony Bourdain And Jeremiah Tower On 'The Last Magnificent'


In these days of Food Network stars and hot new restaurants, it's hard to remember that at one time being a chef was not an enviable job. It used to be if you were a chef, your mom didn't tell anybody. That's according to a new documentary, "The Last Magnificent." Produced by Anthony Bourdain, the film tells the story of Jeremiah Tower, who Bourdain calls the first celebrity chef. Tower began his career at the famous Chez Panisse, where, says food writer Ruth Reichl, everyone loved him.

RUTH REICHL: You know what he was like? It was like everybody else in the room was gray, and he was glowing red. I mean, he was just so juicy and sexy and intriguing.

NEARY: After Chez Panisse, Tower opened his own restaurant, Stars, which was San Francisco's it restaurant of the '80s. But when Stars closed, Tower disappeared from the food scene. Bourdain hopes to reintroduce him to the world in this film. Jeremiah Tower and Anthony Bourdain join us now from our bureau in New York.

Welcome. It is so good to have both of you.

JEREMIAH TOWER: Thank you, Lynn. Thank you for inviting us on the show.

ANTHONY BOURDAIN: Good to be here.

NEARY: Anthony, I want to start with you. Tell me why you wanted to make this film about Jeremiah, to put his story on film and out there in the world.

BOURDAIN: I belatedly read Jeremiah's memoir, and I was stunned to see that for years I had been cooking food, much of it inspired by - either directly or indirectly - by things that Jeremiah had done, his recipes, that I'd been working in restaurants whose physical look and atmospherics and everything were his work. And I then asked myself - well, where did he go, and why did he not get the credit that he deserved? And I set out to tell that story in a film - in the beginning, anyway - to kind of address what I saw as a historical injustice.

NEARY: Of course, Alice Waters has gotten much of the credit for the food revolution that began at Chez Panisse. You were the chef there, Jeremiah. And I think things started out well with Alice Waters but didn't end so well. And I know you feel you didn't get the credit you deserved for some of the revolutionary changes that occurred there. Why? What happened?

TOWER: Well, I mean, Alice should get a huge amount of credit for what happened at Chez Panisse. She was half or more of the restaurant. And we would get along fine. It was sometimes tumultuous, sometimes absolutely brilliantly creative. But when she wrote the first book, the Chez Panisse cookbook, she claimed to have done all the menus, all the food, everything.

NEARY: Anthony, maybe you can explain what the effect of Chez Panisse was on the American cuisine at that time.

BOURDAIN: Well, look, I think it's worth saying that Alice Waters and her partners created a space - the kind of a space, the kind of an environment that would hire a Jeremiah Tower, who walked in off the street with nothing but a Harvard degree and an experience in underwater architecture, to take over as head chef and do all of this brilliant work.

And it's also worth mentioning that Chez Panisse is still open all these years later - still beloved, still respected and relevant. If you look at the menus at Chez Panisse before Jeremiah and then you look at the - these were truly transformative, brilliant menus that, for the first time, attributed to American ingredients and regions and farmers and producers the kind of status and romance and interest and respect that previously had only been paid to European and imported ingredients.

NEARY: And of course we're not just talking about the written menu but the decisions to buy that food that way. Correct, Jeremiah?

TOWER: Yes, absolutely. I mean, it did start from the fact we had no money at all at the beginning of Chez Panisse, you know? And in those days, the early '70s, a serious restaurant was usually a French restaurant or a highfalutin Italian restaurant. But French restaurant - and they had to have foie gras to be serious. You had to have Dover sole.

We just didn't have the money to buy those ingredients, and I didn't have an inclination to want them anyway. So I just was, you know, fishing around in whatever - Chinatown in San Francisco, farm stalls - the beginning of that - in Sonoma. So you know, I cooked with what we had.

NEARY: You know, one little detail I loved was that you actually love to read menus, which I had never really thought of before in my life, honestly. I know people like to read cookbooks, but I never thought about reading menus. And that's something that you liked to do, Jeremiah.

TOWER: Well, you know, as a very young child, I was allowed out with the adults occasionally. And there's nothing for me to do while they chatted and drank cocktails. So - but I had in front of me these huge menus. So that was my - my entertainment was to try and figure out what those things meant and why they were in that order.

BOURDAIN: I think this is an important feature of the film, his ability to read a menu and imagine what the room looked like, who was in the room, you know, what the room smelled like, the atmospherics. And then later, he wrote such masterful menus that would change from night to night, often with completely different themes - sometimes very elaborate, sometimes very simple.

But that imagining of the menu as part of a larger picture - an atmosphere, a scene - I think that, you know, came to full flourish at Stars, which revolutionized the restaurant industry in yet more ways.

NEARY: Which is, of course, the restaurant in San Francisco that you opened after you left Chez Panisse. Anthony, what was the key to success with Stars? It was, as we said, the it restaurant of the '80s in San Francisco.

BOURDAIN: It was one of the first restaurants that deliberately opened in a really nondescript, undesirable neighborhood yet created a scene that was special, that made everybody feel - when you arrived at Stars, you felt as if you'd really arrived someplace. It catered to people wealthy and people who had very little. It had an open kitchen, where previously the chef had been a, you know, invisible person, the last person in the world a customer wanted to see, much less hear from - so the power shift, the move towards celebrity chefdom.

Stars was a place you could walk in and sit at the bar, have a few oysters and look around, and there would be movie stars and socialites and politicians and gangsters, petty criminals, bikers and drag queens.

NEARY: So Jeremiah, I know the restaurant closed - Stars closed after the San Francisco earthquake. But the film shows you living in Mexico, a very quiet life, very far away from this very grand place. Why did you leave it all behind?

TOWER: What the film doesn't show is that I sold the Stars group to a Chinese investor. And when it closed, I was on the beach in Mexico, (laughter) you know, because, you know, restaurants are very loud places, and Stars was like a full - the Berlin Symphony Orchestra with von Karajan leading, you know. So the balance for me was to have, you know, a bit of quiet and solitude after that so I could get on with phase three.

NEARY: Well, what made you decide to come back recently, in the last few years, to Tavern on the Green in New York City, a restaurant that, as the movie points out, serves something like a thousand customers a day, one of these places that's almost impossible to manage and to be as perfect as you want everything to be. What made you take that on?

TOWER: Well, as I told Anthony before, I have, you know, a fatal attraction to the slim chance. I didn't know how slim that one was.

NEARY: What about now? OK, you're no longer at Tavern on the Green. Do you have any desire now to go back into the restaurant business, to have a restaurant where you're in total control? And do you think you could have that? And do you want it?

TOWER: No. I'll say absolutely not. But then I'll say - except - you know, if I had a restaurant on the Amalfi Coast with Mario Batali, I'd do it in a second.

BOURDAIN: (Laughter) We all would.


NEARY: And we'd all love to go eat there as well.

TOWER: I hope you're listening to this, Mario.


NEARY: Jeremiah Tower and Anthony Bourdain - their documentary is "Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent." Thanks so much to you both. It was great talking to you.

TOWER: Thank you very much.

BOURDAIN: Thank you. It was fun.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Previous audio for this story said that Jeremiah Tower began his career at the San Francisco restaurant Chez Panisse. In fact, Chez Panisse is in Berkeley.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: April 23, 2017 at 10:00 PM MDT
Previous audio for this story said that Jeremiah Tower began his career at the San Francisco restaurant Chez Panisse. In fact, Chez Panisse is in Berkeley.