Planning on seeing “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent," the critically acclaimed biopic about the influential California chef Jeremiah Tower?
You should. It was produced by Zero Point Zero, the production company behind “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” and “The Mind of a Chef," and, if nothing else, it's worth seeing to catch the appearance of Gianni’s Steakhouse chef Steve Vranian.
Tower (pictured, above, from the film) is Vranian's mentor and friend. They met through mutual pals and Tower -- who by then had made a name for himself at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. -- hired Vranian as a cook (“We didn’t have titles then,” he said) when Tower launched the Santa Fe Bar and Grill in Berkeley in the fall of 1981.
Tower (and Vranian) opened Stars in San Francisco in 1984 (on July 4, naturally), and it revolutionized the dining scene, quickly becoming the country's most talked-about dining establishment.
“Back then, to have a great meal, you had to sit through course after course after course,” said Vranian. “At Stars and Santa Fe Bar and Grill, one could have a burger or hot dog, or oysters, or a thousand-dollar bottle of wine.”
It was Tower’s approach to ingredients that changed American cooking, said Vranian.
“He committed to the best possible ingredients, and it didn’t matter where they came from,” he said. “It just happened that the best ingredients were found in the Bay Area, due to the climate, the culture, or the leftover hippy [expletive deleted]. The best was local, and directly from farms and ranchers, who would show up at the door and trade for dinner."
With those ingredients, Vranian said that Tower's cooking philosophy was KISS, or "Keep it Simple, Stupid."
“Three to four preps on a plate, and everything was prepped for that day," he said. "The menus at Stars changed daily.”
The menu wasn't the Tower's only revolutionary act.
“He integrated the dining room into the kitchen,” said Vranian. “Stars was an open kitchen, and not just physically. The chef was in the dining room with the guests, entertaining the guests, approachable. He taught us research and reference. Old recipes and cookbooks. It was like a history lesson but with food, drink, culture and even above the food part: the proper napkin – 100 percent cotton -- the weight of the silverware, the feel of the wine glass, the artwork on the wall, the chairs, the sound of the dining room to judge how the night was going.”
With the exception of a two-year break to cook in Chicago, Vranian remained with Tower until 1996 (Stars closed in 1999). Vranian's three interviews for the movie were done over a two-year period, first at San Francisco’s Zuni Cafe, and then in Chicago.
“ZPZ also used many of my photos of the period – I fancied myself as a photographer then -- along with other memorabilia that I’d collected and kept,” he said.
Discussing the movie was bringing back a flood of memories for Vranian, and for those who can't make a screening of "Magnificent," he recommended reading Tower’s autobiography, “California Dish” (where Vranian is described as “thin, wiry, and pale-skinned to the point you could see the blue veins pumping with energy”), or “Inside the California Food Revolution” by Joyce Goldstein.
He and his wife, Jule Vranian -- they met when Tower hired her at the Santa Fe Bar and Grill; today, she and Hope Klocker now run Sweet Jules Gifts in Minnetonka -- attended the documentary's premiere at last year's Tribeca Film Festival.
"We got to play movie star and meet all the behind-the-scenes people," he said. "Jule supplied Zero Point Zero with caramels during the production/editing."
Star Tribune movie critic Colin Covert gave the movie three (out of four) stars. This was his analysis:
If this celebratory documentary is correct, Jeremiah Tower was the love child of Thomas Edison and Julia Child, the gourmet inventor who revolutionized American dining, saving us from wedge salads and overcooked T-bones. The acclaimed chef and restaurateur is on hand to remember it all, with big-time food writers joining in to back him up. As the neglected child of socialite parents, he fell in love with cruise ship menus, designing feasts the way that a kid interested in architecture would design imaginary towns. Tower made his dreams come true after stumbling into a kitchen job at a little hideaway in Berkeley, Calif., called Chez Panisse, creating gustatory galas, festivals and special-occasion meals with magical skill. His creativity caught on with copycats across the nation, but Tower always stayed several steps ahead of the crowd, pushing American cuisine to new heights.
Director Lydia Tenaglia has a challenging task, balancing the rise-and-fall business saga of Tower’s career with a warts-and-all portrait of a singular, sometimes difficult man. A child actor portraying his Lord Fauntleroy years sends the film tumbling at the starter’s block, but as he moves into adulthood and commentaries from awe-struck observers, balance is restored. The film shows him as a largely lonely man today but one with memories that money couldn’t buy. You don’t need to love chefs, or even fine food, to be impressed.
“Magnificent” is playing at the Landmark Edina 4 Cinema through Thursday.