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Thompson Hotels X Tribeca Film Festival: Q&A with Lydia Tenaglia

Film

A film and food fusion from a filmmaker to watch.

Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, directed by Lydia Tenaglia, charts the life of Jeremiah Tower, the man said to have single-handedly transformed the landscape of American food.

Tenglia is no stranger to the feisty antics of the kitchen—she’s the producer of the Emmy & Peabody Award–winning series Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown and The Mind of a Chef; and the Emmy-nominated The Hunt with John Walsh. And her innate knowledge of the food world makes for riveting viewing.

Featuring interviews by impresarios Mario Batali, Tony Bourdain, and Ruth Reichl, this doc will leave you excited (and ravenous) for your next meal. Here, Tenaglia shares her favorite restaurants in New York, what makes a celebrity chef relevant today, and why she needed to tell Tower’s story now.

You’ve spent your career working with world-renowned chefs. Why was it important to tell Jeremiah Tower’s story now?

In a culture that has become increasingly obsessed with food, restaurants, and chefs it was important to tell the story of Jeremiah Tower. Tower had a significant and lasting impact on the American culinary landscape that has carried forward until today. He truly helped shape and define the direction of our current food/dining crazed culture.

Starting in the early 1970s, Tower’s work at Alice Waters’s Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, put the seminal restaurant on the map and later earned him the moniker, “the Father of the American food revolution”. From the mid 80s to late ‘90s his famed San Francisco restaurant, Stars, with its open kitchen and long bar, as “engine generating all of the heat and energy”, became the prototype for the modern American restaurant.

Tower understood that a restaurant could not only be a place to eat but could also be entertainment, a theatrical experience… a scene.  Many chefs today credit their time and experience at Stars with helping them shape their idea of what a restaurant could truly be.

Why was he at risk of being forgotten? 

Jeremiah’s empire at Stars crumbled for a number of reasons in the late 1990s and then he left San Francisco for Mexico in what many assume was a self-imposed exile. Additionally, his very public arguments over who deserved credit for the success of Chez Panisse probably did more damage than good. He pissed a lot of people off and so he was either written out of or peripherally treated in many accounts of the American culinary revolution.

When did you first experience Jeremiah Tower’s cuisine? Was it a memorable experience for you? How did it transform your relationship with food?

I experienced Jeremiah’s food twice – and very recently. I was not around during his heyday at Stars so never got to experience that food directly. However, what I did experience was his changing menu at Tavern on the Green in January 2015, which was not only delicious but beautifully presented.  He then cooked for me again in May 2015 in Mexico when we were there shooting scenes for the film. He made an impromptu lunch of baby octopus that was one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever eaten. The crew was equally blown away. What I took away from these experiences was that Jeremiah was a naturally gifted cook; one who implicitly understood the dynamic relationship between food, flavor and presentation.

Jeremiah Tower is said to be America’s first celebrity chef. What does a “celebrity chef” mean to you? 

A celebrity chef in the best sense means someone who understands the important and inextricable relationship between the food, the customer and the dining experience and is synonymous with that whole experience.

What made Tower such a phenomenon? 

Jeremiah (by all accounts) was the dynamic and charismatic central figure at Stars who pulled the trifecta of food, customer and restaurant together in one extraordinary experience. People wanted to see him when they went to Stars; they wanted to know the man behind the restaurant. He was the place where the chef and restaurateur really came together for the first time in one dynamic package.

How was the American food scene in the ’70s and ’80s different to the food scene now? What impact did Tower have on this evolution?

In the 70’s the food movement in the United States was at a very nascent phase and very localized. We were not nationally conscious of the food movements happening in different cities around the country. When Jeremiah Tower convinced James Beard (who had a powerful nationally syndicated column) to come and dine at Chez Panisse, a small local restaurant in Berkeley, CA, Beard reviewed the restaurant as one of four “must visit” places in the United States. Suddenly what was happening at Panisse became thrust into the national consciousness and set fire to the idea of “California regional cooking”. Jeremiah’s menus at Chez Panisse epitomized this movement by highlighting local farmers and dairies and fisherman produce on the menu… Something very new for the time.

In the ’80s Jeremiah’s opened his own restaurant, Stars, which changed the whole idea of what a restaurant could be. Prior to that restaurants were for eating only. The chef was a figure in the back of the house and the restaurateur, if present at all, would be the front. Jeremiah’s vision for a restaurant was a confluence of great food and an almost theatrical experience. It was dining as a source of entertainment. Again, something very new for the time.

How does a celebrity chef stay relevant today?

They must continually reinvent themselves. They must continually strive to stay in front of the public either through a restaurant, or books or products or through television.

Having also produced PBS’s Mind of a Chef, can you share what you’ve learned about the psychology of a chef? What drives Tower?

Jeremiah has always been driven by a need to create beauty, a celebration, to create the perfect experience. His deep love of food and cooking has always been anchored in his memories.

In addition, you produce Anthony Bourdain’s CNN series Parts Unknown and now you’ve collaborated with him again to make this film. When did you first meet Anthony, and in your opinion, what is unique about his approach to food? 

Chris Collins, my husband and co-founder of Zero Point Zero, and I met Tony in 2000. He had just written his best seller, “Kitchen Confidential”, and was still working in the kitchen as an Executive Chef. He was getting ready to write his follow up book, “A Cook’s Tour” about traveling around the world when Chris and I approached him about doing a television demo about that concept. We shot the demo in the kitchen – it was mostly Tony working the line and waxing poetic in his inimitable way about what it would be like to travel the world and experience firsthand what he had only read and seen in books and films. We sold “A Cook’s Tour” as a television series to Food Network and were out the door on our first shoot in December 2000. The series in a sense has continued to evolve and develop over the past 16 years through various iterations from “A Cook’s Tour” to “No Reservations” on Travel Channel to the current “Parts Unknown” on CNN. I would say that Tony has now become a professor emeritus in this genre-defining space of food/travel television. The combination of his story telling with incredible cinematography and editing allows audiences to travel vicariously through him as the consummate journeyman.

What are your three favorite restaurants in New York?

Hand down my favorites are Gramercy Tavern (Danny Meyers understands better than anyone the relationship between the restaurant and the diner); The Breslin (April Bloomfield’s food and personality is perfect in every way); and Prune (Gabrielle Hamilton’s restaurant is personal and intimate—a true extension of her very soul).

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