Those who haven't ravenously pursued the history of food can be forgiven for never having heard of Jeremiah Tower but, fact is, he's a titan in the culinary world known to everyone from Batali to Bourdain, Stewart and beyond. He is (or was) the blueprint for the modern celebrity chef and the single most important pioneer of California cuisine.

In The Last Magnificent, from director Lydia Tenaglia (better-known as a producer for Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations), we learn the hows and whys of Tower's path to veritable superstardom (at least in the culinary world), observe his meteoric rise to fame and, sadly, his self-inflicted fall into isolation and relative obscurity. Tower says it himself in the doc's opening minutes: He can't really be around people.

As a child, Tower's parents whisked him across the globe on luxury ships, exposing him to the first-class fineries of travel and food. By his late 20s, however, he left Harvard never having worked and with essentially no tangible skills. But through a serendipitous position in the early '70s alongside restauranteur and founder of the legendary Berkeley eatery Chez Panisse, Alice Waters, he honed his skills and proved a stalwart and studied food obsessive.

But Tower was also a stubborn visionary, unwilling or unable to collaborate effectively. At the hands of this inability to sacrifice his own wants, he left Chez Panisse, helmed his own ill-fated San Francisco restaurant, Stars, retired from cooking for 15 years and finally took position at NYC's famed Tavern on the Green. It did not go well.

The Last Magnificent follows the objective purity of all good documentaries, alternately painting the picture of a chef who was operating before his time and a socially inept perfectionist who may very well never know what it is to be satisfied. There is no denying Tower's place at the table, but there's also no denying he is a difficult man with ideas and ideals that may have ultimately been his undoing.


+ Important chapter in food history; makes you hungry
- Confusing timeline; we can never quite root for Tower

Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent
Directed by Tenaglia
With Tower, Batali, Bourdain
Center for Contemporary Arts,
103 min.