One fateful evening in 1972, a dashing, mildly dissipated Harvard graduate named Jeremiah Tower dropped in for dinner at a new, little-known restaurant in Berkeley, California.
He didn’t think much of his meal at Chez Panisse but, recently cut off from an enviably lavish trust fund, he needed a job badly. The restaurant needed a chef. Tower wasn’t one by training, but he had spent much of his time at architecture school hosting wildly elaborate dinner parties inspired by the art culinaire of Escoffier and Carême.
So he made his case, Alice Waters and her business partners agreed to hire him, and the rest is history. What came out of Chez Panisse a few short years later—after Tower got that old-school French fixation out
of his system—was a whole new cuisine built on homegrown ingredients and unapologetic simplicity on the plate. It was big enough that nearly a half-century later, Waters and Tower are still fighting over which of them deserves the credit for California cuisine. The issue is clarified somewhat by this new film, co-executive produced by Anthony Bourdain and directed by his long-time collaborator Lydia Tenaglia.
“In my view, we should know who changed the world. We should know their names,” Bourdain says.
Such is the tone of the tributes throughout this hagiography—from Mario Batali, James Villas, Wolfgang Puck, Ruth Reichl and a host of other American culinary celebrities. Still, despite slo- mo sequences of Tower walking barefoot down a beach and dodgy dramatizations of his formative years, there is some great stuff here. Mostly the original footage—the home movies from early hippie-dippie days at Chez Panisse, and later, of Tower in his swaggering heyday at that seminal big American restaurant, Stars, in San Francisco. The film delivers a small taste of his cooking and a larger one of his complicated personality. Tower was unquestionably a great—and influential— chef. If you don’t know his story, you should read his highly entertaining memoir, California Dish.
Or in a pinch, see this film.