Anthony Bourdain documentary puts acclaimed chef back in the narrative

Jeremiah Tower is considered by some to be the godfather of modern American cooking. But many don’t even know his name. A new documentary, executive produced by chef, author and TV personality Anthony Bourdain, aims to change that.

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“Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent,” which highlights the chef’s tumultuous career and long-lasting impact, was inspired by Bourdain’s “sense of rage and historical injustice” that Tower had been omitted from the narrative of American cuisine.

Tower and Bourdain joined “CBS This Morning” to discuss Tower’s recently republished memoir, “Start the Fire: How I Began a Food Revolution in America,” and why Bourdain felt so compelled to shed light on Tower’s contributions to American cuisine.

The thing that brought the two men together in the first place was Tower’s original memoir, “California Dish.”  Bourdain read it and realized, “I’d been cooking dishes that were influenced by Jeremiah’s work for much of my career without even knowing they were Jeremiah’s work.” For him, Tower is the “Chuck Berry of modern American cooking.”

“He changed everything,” Bourdain said. “He was somebody with a unique voice, a unique vision who came along and changed not just the way we eat — the way we looked at American ingredients and American sourcing and the role of the chef in the dining scene, as suddenly the chef became someone you wanted to see in the dining room and whose opinion you wanted.” 

Yet many people still have no idea who he is. “I think Jeremiah wasn’t around for a while and allowed people to create out of, I think, laziness, largely out of laziness, a narrative that persisted and people became invested in it over time,” Bourdain said.  

Tower, who had unexpectedly walked out of the spotlight for a quiet life in Mexico, explained, “Well, you know, after 35 years of shaking 350 people’s hands a day I just decided I needed a little quiet. You know, just to balance all that noise and then I wanted a little quiet from the beach.” 

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“CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King admitted that she couldn’t wait to meet Tower after seeing the documentary, in which he’s described with words like “darling” and “sexy.” 

Despite the glowing comments, King pointed out Tower’s reputation for being prickly and controversial in how he behaved in the kitchen.

“When you’re trying to do the best at every moment of every day — and that sounds pretentious but actually, you know, that’s what it takes in a good restaurant,” Tower said.  

When pressed on why he’s making a return to the spotlight, he insisted that his intention is not to get back into the kitchen, unless maybe “it was on the Amalfi coast or a little beach bar in Phuket.”

For Bourdain, it’s not just a story about what he did for the culinary world.  “I think it’s a great character story about what it takes to be a great chef and the potential perils and costs,” he said.

One of the major controversies explored by the documentary is who really created “California cuisine”: Tower or Alice Waters? Waters is the founder and owner of Berkeley’s famed restaurant Chez Panisse, where Tower also began his career. 

“The point is well made in the film that she claimed to have done everything, but it’s always teamwork and certainly the menus were my work. So I decided as long as Anthony said, you know, speak up, I thought I would,” said Tower.

“Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent” is in theaters Friday, April 21.