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Jeremiah Tower Talks SF Critics, and the State of California Cuisine

‘The Last Magnificent’ is a look into the chef’s world, from childhood to Chez Panisse and Stars to present.

The Last Magnificent

As the mastermind behind Stars, the 1980s celebrity hotspot that shaped San Francisco’s restaurants scene, Jeremiah Tower was, and is, one of the city’s most glamorous, and polarizing chefs. Now comes a documentary from directory Lydia Tenaglia about the chef’s life and career, including his attempt at redemption in the kitchen of infamous NYC albatross Tavern on the Green.

Tower’s young life is the key to the documentary, capturing the loneliness and neglect that characterized his early years. Fabulous trips to exotic places, the grand hotels of Europe, a trip on the Queen Mary, and a stint at a British boarding school shaped Tower, whose intelligence and penchant for the finer things in life were part of his later success.

The documentary also takes a look at Tower’s relationship with Alice Waters, including vintage footage of the restaurant during that time, and gives a glimpse of the frenetic glamor of Stars during its heyday. For more details and thoughts on the film, check out Eater National’s in-depth review.

Read on for excerpts from Eater SF’s interview with Tower in the Penthouse of The Kensington Hotel, during his visit for the San Francisco debut of The Last Magnificent.

Jeremiah Tower in the Chez Panisse kitchen, 1974

On writing the menu for the “New California Cuisine” dinner at Chez Panisse:

“The revolution that that menu started in 1976 has succeeded all too well. Everybody has all those ingredients now, and they’re all over the country. I say too well because everybody’s got all these ingredients now, and they want to put 15 of them on every plate, which boring, silly, and not very good.

It’s like a paintbox you get as a kid. There are eight colors. Then you get one that has 30 colors and you think it’ll be five times better, but you mix it up and you get brown. The world is full of brown plates.”

On Dominique Crenn, who once worked in the kitchen of Stars:

“Dominique Crenn is a genius. She’s the best. She really gets it, and pays homage to simple ingredients.”

On SF Chronicle critic Michael Bauer’s review of Tavern on the Green:

“A few years ago, I was coming through SF and though I should bury the hatchet, if there’s still a hatchet out there bury it. So I took him to lunch, and we got along fine and sort of buried the hatchet. But then, when I was in Tavern on the Green, he flew from SF to NYC, stayed there two hours, had some food, wrote a hatchet job review, and then flew back to San Francisco. I just thought Michael, what the hell are you doing. He dug up the hatchet, and tried to wound me again.”

On Bauer’s long, 30 year as a critic in San Francisco:

“It was too long after one day, with Michael Bauer. Because he talked about himself =. There’s all that dirt that the chefs talk about that I can’t repeat here, but he had his own private agenda. Most people don’t get to go three times before they decide to go so [the critic] should talk about what happened. He is a bit of a twit.”

Jeremiah Tower at Stars

On whether there are any restaurants that still have Stars’ DNA:

“Well, I stole the DNA from several restaurants and injected it into Stars. I went and looked at brasseries in New York and Paris, and one day I was at La Coupole in Paris and there was this big white poodle sitting there, absolutely perfect manners. It wouldn’t look at the food as it arrived and you see him following it out of the corner of his eye but that’s all he did. I thought it was just so cool.

Then, at another famous brasserie, there were two models, rail thin beautiful women, with an enormous seafood thing in front of them. And with their long red fingernails, scooping out crab meat and sliding it across their tongues, and I thought ‘I want a restaurant like this.’ Also Lüchow's in New York, and Sardi’s with all the photographs on the walls, so I immediately stole that idea. We opened with all these photographs on the wall as if we were established with celebrities already. So yeah, I stole a lot of DNA in order to make my own new one at Stars.”

On his 1970’s cannabis dinners:

“I have a piece of advice for anyone who is using cannabs in cooking. You have to figure out how to have it hit everyone two minutes before dessert is served. I once misjudged that and we played with the dessert and threw it all over the place. I don’t think we ever ate the dessert, it was so much fun and we were so stoned out of our minds.”

The film is currently showing at Landmark Theater’s One Embarcadero Center. See here for showtimes.

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