Much of Lydia Tenaglia’s diverting documentary, “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent,” about one of America’s first celebrity chef-restaurateurs, is framed as a battle against vulgarity. Mr. Tower, an epicure raised as a lonely child amid chilly affluence, attended Harvard around the late 1960s before finding his calling. On camera, he remembers how, when student protesters invited him to “become a revolutionary,” he replied, “I’m too busy cooking.” He adds: “Drink Champagne and eat smoked salmon. That was my revolution.”
After college, in 1972, Mr. Tower alighted at Alice Waters’s pioneering Berkeley, Calif., restaurant, Chez Panisse. Together, he and Ms. Waters gave birth to the so-called California Cuisine, based on local ingredients and championed by the likes of James Beard. After a falling-out with Ms. Waters, Mr. Tower founded the restaurant Stars, a magnet for San Francisco’s political and show-business glitterati, and was bestowed a Dewars endorsement deal. But Stars, overextended (it had branches elsewhere in Northern California and overseas), was damaged and ultimately undone by an earthquake in 1989. After years in retreat, Mr. Tower resurfaced in 2014 to resuscitate the ailing Tavern on the Green in Manhattan. Despite his efforts, he was out a year later.
Ms. Tenaglia’s camera lends a polished veneer as food authorities like Ruth Reichl, Mario Batali, Wolfgang Puck and Martha Stewart attest to Mr. Tower’s gifts, with Anthony Bourdain, one of the film’s producers, especially forceful. Throughout, the solitary Mr. Tower maintains an unflappable refinement, dedicated, a college friend says, to “looking for some utopian possibility of living, because that’s what kept the darkness away.