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Interview with Jeremiah Tower Upon the Release of the Biopic Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent

Jordan Wright
April 28, 2017 

With the release of Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, a film produced by his old friend Anthony Bourdain for Zero Point Zero Productions and distributed in the US by The Orchard, Tower can finally claim his due as the creator of California cuisine as the first celebrity chef in America.  It’s an appellation he richly deserves.  As a result of his early efforts sourcing local ingredients and California wines, he engendered the movement which became known as American regional cuisine.  After Tower’s meteoric rise in the 70’s at Chez Panisse, where he partnered with Alice Waters’ in the famed Berkeley hot spot, he held Executive Chef positions at a number of successful restaurants, ultimately opening his widely acclaimed Stars restaurant, a glittering French-inspired brasserie frequented by celebrities, socialites and city politicians.

His first book New American Classics won the James Beard Foundation Award in 1986 for Best American Regional Cookbook and, after opening a string of Stars outposts worldwide, in 1996 he won the Beard Award for Best Chef in America.  In 1989 San Francisco’s massive earthquake destroyed his beloved Stars.  Soon after the elegant spot was shuttered, Tower went into hiding.

In 2002 he published Jeremiah Tower Cooks: 250 Recipes from an American Master and one year later America’s Best Chefs Cook with Jeremiah Tower and a wonderful memoir entitled California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution.  His latest effort, published last year, is the flippantly titled and indelibly humorous, Table Manners: How to Behave in the Modern World and Why Bother.

After years of living around the world and off the grid, “I have to stay away from human beings, because apparently I am not one”, he surprisingly resurfaced to helm the spectacular rise and fall of Tavern on the Green, the swank Central Park watering hole owned by two neophyte restauranteurs. “Running a restaurant is difficult enough without people getting in your way,” he contends.

Lovingly directed by Lydia Tenaglia, beautifully edited by Eric Lasby, and tenderly scored by Giulio Carmassi with Morgan Fallon’s evocative photography, the film commences with scenes of Tower as a young boy, neglected by his alcoholic mother and abusive father and feasting alone in five-star hotels and ocean liners while they cavorted with café society.  It was in these splendid temples to gastronomy where he poured over hand-written menus and supped solo on lobster and caviar – his passion for haute cuisine engendered by the kitchen staff who “adopted” the impressionable child allowing him to roam freely in their vast kitchens.

One of the most fascinating and creative American chefs, Tower lends his personal diaries and family films to this emotionally alluring biopic.  Cameo appearances by Bourdain, Mario Batali, Ruth Reichl, “He defined what a modern American restaurant could be.”, Wolfgang Puck, Jonathan Waxman and Martha Stewart give us an insider’s view to his influence and legacy.

I spoke with Tower by phone and he surprised me with his puckish charm and self-deprecating humor.  A man at peace with himself, I thought – a man who had accomplished much.

Are you excited for the release of “The Last Magnificent”?

Jeremiah Tower – Oh yes!  It was very strange for me to watch it.  Lydia Tenali, the Director, did a great job.

Are you pleased with the result? 

It was very odd.  Actors see themselves in a role when they watch their films, but it was different watching yourself on film.  I was surprised I did it.  I’ve never really done anything like that before.  Looking at yourself on the big screen and having people talk about you is odd.

Does the movie augur your return to the culinary scene?

No.  I did that for 35 years.  I’m now getting my physical and mental health together.  I went to the beach.  Though I might, you know, if I had a beach bar in Thailand where I would cook whatever the fishermen brought up from their boats.

I read your book California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution in 2003 and noted what a raw deal you got in terms of recognition for your culinary direction at Chez Panisse.  Does it feel like some divine retribution to finally have the respect you’re due for creating and promoting California cuisine? 

I give thanks to Anthony Bourdain who produced the film.  He had the same reaction as you.  It pushed his justice button.  He wanted to tell the story.  He’s a wonderful guy.  He’s an outrageous guy.  Did you know my book has been revised and reissued?  It’s now called Start the Fire: How I Began a Food Revolution in America” and it’s just been released along with the movie.

Your influence was also enormous in terms of promoting local farms across the country.  Was that your familiarity with the French way of buying locally that inspired you?

It’s hard for people to understand that everything you can buy in Whole Foods today you couldn’t buy then.  So I reached out to local farmers and fishermen to find the ingredients – eels, cheese, mushrooms foraged from the Berkeley hills.  They would just show up at the kitchen door with whatever they had and I’d work with that.  The whole foraging thing started for me at Chez Panisse.  Also with the California regional dinner we held where I mentioned the Monterey Bay prawns and trout from Big Sur on the menu.

What was it like to cook for Julia Child so many years ago?

Julia was wonderful to be around because she had such great energy and knowledge.  But, you know, she couldn’t cook.  Neither could Craig Claiborne.  Pierre Franey did all the cooking.  I did cook for her at her apartment in Santa Barbara.  The first time was at her home in the South of France and I went with Richard Olney who was an amazing author on French food.   As soon as we arrived Julia said, “Start cooking.”  So we prepared the meal.

The movie is unsparingly honest about your misfortunes – the devastating earthquake at Stars in San Francisco, the vagaries of taking over a kitchen with partners that knew less than nothing about food and service, and even the AIDS crisis affecting your relationships with the gay community.  Do you feel as though you’ve had a run of bad luck or were these misfortunes just products of the times?

As for the controversial AIDS lawsuit [Tower was sued for discrimination by one of his waiters who had AIDS at the same time he was privately financially supporting other members of his staff who had AIDS], I had a letter from the attorney saying if you countersue, “I will hang you.”  The case was thrown out of court twice for insufficient evidence but the third time they brought it, I was found guilty.

I read somewhere that “the measure of your life are the chances you take”.  I’ve always pushed everything off to the edge.  A friend of mine, a restaurant owner in New York, told me, “It’s easy to run a successful restaurant, it takes a genius to run an empty one.”  When we closed Stars, it cost me millions and millions of dollars.

I thought the editing was superb, the interspersing of family films and the young actor who portrayed you as a boy depicting the events that influenced your future life as a chef.  Is there anything you would have liked to have said that wasn’t represented in the film?

I mean, they had to cut 20 minutes out of the final cut, and they didn’t explain that after I sold Stars for a lot of money I took off for the George V in Paris.  If that was a fall, I’d like to do it all over again.

You’ve always been the pioneer – out in front on the food scene.

When you’re out in front your neck is on the chopping block and then the guillotine comes down.

The movie portrays you as a person who enjoys his solitude.  After so many years of hobnobbing with celebrities, socialites and great chefs, are you happier being on your own or have you just had enough of the chichi scene after you reached the pinnacle of success only to have it snatched out from under you?

When you work very hard and achieve a lot of public noise, one needs to find a balance.  I’ve chosen the solitude of a beach in a great Mayan city.

How would you prepare iguana?

I haven’t but I’ve seen that done in the jungle and, you know, you clean it, put it on a spit and eat it.  It tastes like a reptilian chicken.

This interview was conducted, condensed and edited by Jordan Wright.

Smart People ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
April 23, 2017 

Clockwise (from top left): Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore, Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang, Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston and Gregory Perri as Brian White. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Clockwise (from top left): Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore, Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang, Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston and Gregory Perri as Brian White. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

When the lives of four Harvard brainiacs intersect while working out their personal challenges, what do you get? Smart People – a cerebral journey into self-analysis jam-packed with laughs and droll repartee.  Ensconced in the intellectual bubble of Cambridge, Massachusetts are four recent grads – Valerie (Lorene Chesley), an aspiring black actress and part time housekeeper; Brian White (Gregory Perri), a cognitive neuroscientist and researcher on race relations; Ginny Yang (Sue Jin Song), a clinical psychologist and shopaholic; and Jackson Moore (Jaysen Wright), a bright, black doctor who wonders if he’s being held to a different standard.

(L to R) Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston and Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston and Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Director Seema Sueko, Arena’s Deputy Artistic Director, creates tension in Lydia R. Diamond’s nifty play by pitting the characters’ self-absorbed egos, one against the other, in a feverish merry-go-round of insecurity and anxiety with each one desperate not to be misunderstood in a world where motives are misjudged and innocent intentions are fraught with suspicion.

The interaction is broken down into small solo vignettes until the couples begin to pair off, Valerie with Jackson and Ginny with Brian.  Set Designer Misha Kachman along with Lighting Designer Xavier Pierce and Projection Designer Jared Mezzocchi lend focus to the characters by setting them into boxes on a two-level set until they begin to connect emotionally from the catwalk and onto the lower level.

(L to R) Gregory Perri as Brian White and Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Gregory Perri as Brian White and Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

White professor Brian, whose impending tenure is shaky, is convinced the world is dominated by whites with a predisposition to racism, discrimination and prejudice, though he has a blind spot in his treatment of Ginny who believes he is treating her as the stereotypical Asian woman. And Valerie believes Jackson demeans her because she cleans houses while waiting for her big break.  The miscommunications and assumptions keep us in stitches and Chesley’s depiction of an actress called to audition the stereotypical angry, ghetto girl is uproarious (she’s been told the casting is “brave” because it’s diverse) as is Song’s representation of an Asian hooker and Wright’s mischaracterization of Ginny’s attempts to study Asians in his health clinic, as racist.

Clockwise (from top left): Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston, Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang, Gregory Perri as Brian White and Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Clockwise (from top left): Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston, Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang, Gregory Perri as Brian White and Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

It all comes to a head when they converge at Ginny and Brian’s for a dinner party and Valerie sees that Brian, whom she has been trying to avoid since he told her she was not “black enough”, is one of the guests.

“It’s complicated,” Valerie tells Brian.  And indeed, it is – in the most hilarious way.

Highly recommended.

Through May 21st at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information visit www.ArenaStage.org or call 202 488-3300.

The Fabulous Lipitones ~ The Little Theatre of Alexandria

Jordan Wright
April 24, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

(L-R) kneeling in front is Gurpreet Sarin, back row, Jerry Hoffman, Peter Halverson, John Brown (walker). Photos by Howard Soroos

(L-R) kneeling in front is Gurpreet Sarin, back row, Jerry Hoffman, Peter Halverson, John Brown (walker). Photos by Howard Soroos

Chuck Leonard’s LTA directorial debut has gotten off to a rousing start thanks to a last minute casting choice of Gurpreet Sarin in the role of Baba “Bob” Mati Singh.  Sarin, a graduate and semi-finalist on American Idol, apparently turned up at the same moment final casting decisions were being made and became the clear choice to play the role of a Sikh who auditions for a barbershop quartet.  Does life imitate art, or what?

Playwright John Markus (accidentally omitted in the playbill) is an accomplished veteran of TV comedy shows, selling jokes to Bob Hope before going on to write for Gimme a Break!, Facts of Life and The Cosby Show where he was part of the comedy writing staff for six years.  With Hollywood street cred like that, you know it’s gonna be a zany show.

(L - R) Jerry Hoffman, John Brown, Peter Halverson, Gurpreet Sarin. Photos by Howard Soroos

(L – R) Jerry Hoffman, John Brown, Peter Halverson, Gurpreet Sarin. Photos by Howard Soroos

The story centers around four aging high school buddies who have been performing together in a barbershop quartet called The Fabulous Lipitones – aptly named after the cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor.  When their lead tenor drops dead with a major competition looming, the remaining baritone, lead and bass have to decide whether to find a replacement or disband.  During a speakerphone conversation with a garage mechanic pal, they hear an unknown in the background and decide to audition him.  When “Bob”, a turbaned, sword-carrying (the kirpan is an article of faith) Sikh shows up to Howard’s basement these small town, a capella amateurs must face their prejudices as well as their cultural ignorance.  “Everybody is new until there’s someone newer,” Bob gently reminds Phil Rizzardi (Peter Halverson) who insists Bob’s a terrorist.  Ever the peaceful philosopher, Bob counsels the group to understand that, “Music is the opposite of anger.”

(L-R) Jerry Brown, Peter Halverson. Photos by Howard Soroos

(L-R) Jerry Brown, Peter Halverson. Photos by Howard Soroos

Auditioning before the three men, Howard (Jerry Hoffman), Wally (John Brown) and Phil, Bob, in a hilarious bit, is forced to alter his classic Indian style of vibrato singing to dovetail seamlessly into the sound of “Wait ‘Till the Sun Shines Nellie” and they’re off and running.  Eventually Bob’s influence has the gang dancing to Bollywood tapes, “You look like holy rollers getting tasered,” he teases, as they prepare for the finals competition in Reno against such groups as The Sons of Pitches and The High Colonics.

(L-R) Gurpreet Sarin, John Brown, Peter Halverson, and Jerry Hoffman. Photos by Howard Soroos

(L-R) Gurpreet Sarin, John Brown, Peter Halverson, and Jerry Hoffman. Photos by Howard Soroos

Between fourteen classic numbers sung in abridged form in the tradition of American barbershop harmony and with standards as varied as a “Yankee Doodle Dandy” medley, “A Bird in a Gilded Cage” and “Delilah” that caters to Phil’s obsession with Tom Jones, the motley quartet gets off plenty of clever one-liners.

Lots of surprises keep this sweet story humming.  See it if you’re looking for a fast-paced laughfest done to the tune of barbershop classics.

Through May 13th at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe Street. For tickets and information call the box office at 703 683-0496 or visit www.thelittletheatre.com

Chicago Brings Brandy Norwood to the Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
April 9, 2017

First you see it.  The hands.  The jazz hands.  Fingers spread wide and pivoting quickly from left to right.  A bit of moonwalk (a famous Fosse move before Michael Jackson came along) and the swaying of the arms behind the back with fingers again outstretched – another of famed choreographer Bob Fosse’s signature moves.  Bodies slither across the floor.  Face down.  Belly up.  Long before “The Worm” came along.  Gangsters. Conmen. Jailbirds.  It’s Chicago.  It debuted on Broadway in 1975 and has toured the world since then.

Then you hear it.  The sound of the Roaring ‘20’s.   Opening with the number “All That Jazz” and a ton of dancers, the razzamatazz never stops.  Not even in the murder scenes, the women’s prison and the love songs.  It’s just flat out visceral.

In this latest revival of composer and lyricist Kander and Ebb’s smash hit supersonic popstar and Grammy Award-winning singer, Brandy Norwood, stars in the role of Roxie, the cheating wife and boyfriend murderer, and, amazingly, she can dance – right along with all the other seasoned hoofers.  She can sing of course, albeit softer than you’d have expected, putting her own soul music spin on the end of each line.  The audience is digging it.  They’ve come for her and she doesn’t disappoint.

The plot isn’t much to write about in Chicago it’s just the vehicle for the music and dance.  And there’s a ton of dancing by long legged, hard body dancers in sexy, black lingerie.  There’s only one set – the prison (later doubling as a courtroom) where Velma Kelly (I saw it with the terrific Lauren Gemelli who subbed for Terra C. MacLeod, another Broadway company veteran) and Roxie play out their rivalry as two vaudevillian murderesses whose slick-as-a-brick lawyer, the movie star handsome, Billy (Brent Barrett), flimflams the jury with a sob story to spare them the death penalty.  Barrett is terrific in the soft shoe number “Razzle Dazzle”.

With the orchestra on stage throughout, Roz Ryan plays Matron “Mama” Morton with a voice as deep and strong as blues legend Big Mama Thornton’s.  In this jail Mama takes care of her girls and her girls take care of her, handing over cash for prison favors.  In her show-stopping solo “When You’re Good to Mama”, and later in the duet “Class” with Velma, she really shines.

Roxie’s cuckolded spouse, Amos Hart, is played admirably by Paul Vogt, who played the role on Broadway.  His rendition of the iconic tune “Cellophane Man” about a man so ignored he is transparent to everyone, is a classic – and so is the show.

Through April 16th at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

A Raisin in the Sun ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
April 10, 2017 

Lizan Mitchell as Lena Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Lizan Mitchell as Lena Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Smack dab in the middle of the civil rights era, African-American playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play “A Raisin in the Sun” premiered on Broadway and it’s just as relevant today as it was in 1959.  This sensitive, often humorous, and searing drama based on African-American life in Chicago’s Southside ghetto still resonates, though today’s real world challenges may read differently.  As Lena (Lizan Mitchell), the matriarch of the family, tells her son Walter, “It used to be about freedom.”

(L to R) Dawn Ursula as Ruth Younger and Will Cobbs as Walter Lee Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Dawn Ursula as Ruth Younger and Will Cobbs as Walter Lee Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Walter (Will Cobb) is a 35-year old man trying to find his place in a white man’s world that offers little hope of his success.  His sister Beneatha (Joy Jones) is a radical feminist and pre-med student whose idea of defining her culture is to deny her American heritage and embrace her African roots guided by her adoring suitor, Joseph Asagai (Bueka Uwemedimo) a Nigerian transplant.  His wife Ruth (Dawn Ursula) is a loving wife and supportive mother to their boy, Travis (Jeremiah Hasty), and together with Lena they live in a modest apartment carving out a respectable existence on their meager salaries while toiling in service to wealthy whites.

(L to R) Bueka Uwemedimo as Joseph Asagai and Joy Jones as Beneatha Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Bueka Uwemedimo as Joseph Asagai and Joy Jones as Beneatha Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Hansberry was ahead of her time, looping in issues of feminism with Ruth’s dilemma of whether to have an abortion to avoid the expense of another child, Walter’s disapproval of Beneatha’s desire to be in a man’s job, Beneatha’s desire to be a free spirit in a strict religious household, and Lena’s position as moral leader of the family.

(L to R) Will Cobbs as Walter Lee Younger, Joy Jones as Beneatha Younger and Dawn Ursula as Ruth Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Will Cobbs as Walter Lee Younger, Joy Jones as Beneatha Younger and Dawn Ursula as Ruth Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Taken from the poem “Harlem” by Langston Hughes, the title is a metaphor for the family’s dashed dreams – the slow withering of hope.  As Walter says, after he has squandered the insurance money Lena’s late husband left them to pursue a better life, “I didn’t make this world.  It was given to me.”

(L to R) Will Cobbs as Walter Lee Younger and Dawn Ursula as Ruth Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Will Cobbs as Walter Lee Younger and Dawn Ursula as Ruth Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Director Tazewell Thompson guides a brilliantly interlocked cast to powerful performances – most especially from Mitchell who is the centerpiece of the play.  Her gestures and facial expressions are both economical and meaningful and her delivery is pure magic reflecting a time when Southern gentility could dominate with an iron hand in a velvet glove.

Donald Eastman’s 1940’s one room kitchen/dining/living room set in the round frame the humor, tough love and inspiration that take the family on a journey from poverty to the promised land.

Highly recommended.

Through May 7th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information visit www.ArenaStage.org or call 202 488-3300.