Film sets record straight on 'California Cuisine'

Posted at 9:51 PM, Apr 20, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-21 13:48:09-04

Do you know the name of the man many call the first celebrity chef? The man most credit for creating California Cuisine?

Our 10News anchor Kimberly Hunt got a rare one-on-one interview with Parts Unknown’s Anthony Bourdain, who wants you to know the name of the man who changed the way we all eat in restaurants today. Bourdain is the Executive Producer of a documentary called "Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent."

Bourdain said he wanted to correct a historical oversight. He wants people to know how Jeremiah Tower created a style of dining we take for granted today.

“(Jeremiah Tower) may be the most important prime mover in the American food revolution, the creation of what is called California cuisine. He was the first guy, or among the very first to start contributing ingredients to American sources and producers on menus," Bourdain said. “He pioneered the open kitchen.”

Bourdain said what we call "California Cuisine" today, can be tracked back to Tower's menu at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. But not everyone will agree. 

“I think many, many chefs who cook what we call California cuisine...I think many of them don't even know his name," Bourdain said. "They’ve never eaten at Stars, never bought one of his cookbooks, and yet much of what they're cooking can be directly tracked back to the things he did first.”

"Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent" is a documentary that tells how Tower walked into an informal French restaurant in Berkeley and began to source American ingredients and display them on the menu.

“Jeremiah Tower went into Chez Panisse, which at the time was a charming, informal, French bistro, in Berkeley, and transformed it into a place with a national and even international profile," Bourdain said. "But in doing that he took it away from its original identity. And that was not well received universally.”

But it was after Chez Panisse owner Alice Waters wrote a cookbook that all hell broke loose. Tower claimed that the recipes in Waters' cookbook were all his, and he walked out!

Soon after, Tower opened "Stars" in San Francisco. It was a magnet for socialites and celebrities and it brought Tower into the spotlight.

“So this was a big change, you know prior to Jeremiah, your expectations of a chef was a dumpy round guy, with a European style mustache...who was waiting in the back, waiting to do your bidding," Bourdain said. "In a lot of ways he changed things for the better, not only for how we eat in America today...but I think chefs everywhere owe him a debt… for their improved social standing and social lives...let's put it that way.”

Operating costs became too high though, and Stars shut its doors in 1999. After that, Tower disappeared without a trace.

“When he dropped off the face of the earth after his difficulty with his restaurant, Stars.. you know they say that history is told by the victors, and that history was left solely to those who remained," Bourdain said. “Jeremiah was not there to correct the record.”

“I think he was wittingly, through laziness and no small amount of dishonesty on the part of a lot of journalists, really kind of written out of the story, despite the fact that he really created an entire sensibility, not just recipes but a style of dining, that we take for granted now. Anytime you see an open kitchen or a scene restaurant with a vibrant bar, American food, much of this goes back to him.”

Bourdain wanted to produce this documentary to give Tower his due.

“I had an agenda, I was looking to correct what I saw as a historical oversight," Bourdain said. “But as we got into the project it became clear this was a much deeper, richer, nuanced story. No good guys and bad guys, a depiction of a number of fascinating characters, in a unique and fascinating period of American history.”

"Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent" premieres in Los Angeles and New York City on Friday April 21, with other cities to follow.