Celebrity Interview: Talking with Lydia Tenaglia on Jeremiah Tower; Getting the Greenlight, Challenges and Memorable Moments

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Arguably Lydia Tenaglia has the best job in television, as producer for CNN's Part's Unknown with Chef Anthony Bourdain, her gig that takes her to hidden corners of the earth showcasing local culinary customs and bringing cultural delicacies to the world.

Combining the love of food and travel, Tenaglia has become the go to producer and director for food media and her recent projects as director for Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, opening in select cities, and Wasted, which she produced, opening at the Tribeca Film Festival, are a testament to her dedication and love of the meat behind the menu of food media.

Having the opportunity to talk with Lydia, I can see why she is able to juggle so many projects, she is articulate, friendly, and has a welcoming style and mannerism that motivates. We spoke for nearly 30 minutes covering a wide range of topics of which she freely spoke on and off point. Below is an excerpt of our interview.

Janet Walker: I understand you've worked with Anthony Bourdain for some time and I have read that he was instrumental in making this documentary, you've also said each of you had different reasons for making the film so could you describe those initial meetings where the idea developed.

Lydia Tenaglia: Yes. I have been working with Anthony Bourdain for almost 17 years now. I have a production company Zero Point Zero Productions with my husband Chris Collins and we met Tony before he even stepped out of the kitchen. He was still working as an executive chef. And so, we've been working together for a very long time, a sort of long creative collaboration on different projects and we've done all his cooking travel food series shows from Cooks Tour to New Reservations and we're doing Parts Unknown on CNN now.

It's been a long marriage in many ways. A one point some time ago CNN had started their Documentary Originals program and thought it would be interesting for us to pitch a few of our ideas to them. Tony had read Jeremiah's autobiography, it was called California Dish and has been re-titled to  Start The Fire, and detailed his life story and contribution to the culinary landscape of the United States.

Tony gave me the book, I read the book, I was fascinated by the book, too, I had not heard of him before. I had certainly heard of all the other places he had been to but not him and then there was the question where is he now? And what happened to this guy.

And I think that was really the center of the questioning that we followed. We actually put together three pitches to send to CNN on different Chef's and that was the one they were intrigued by and I think we all had the same question. This guy had an incredible impact and where is he now?

So CNN said, "We're going to move forward with some further development on this idea but we're not going to greenlight it we want you do an interview with Jeremiah see what he is like on camera. So that was the beginning of my conversations with him. Is he willing to participate it had turned out that he was going to be in San Francisco for a short trip and so we coordinated.

So I asked "Can I come out and do a short interview with you?" That short interview actually turned out to be quite long. And I think that's certainly where my curiosity turned in to intrigue because it was very clear and certainly clear to CNN when I cut together this 10 minute thing that he was very charismatic on camera he clearly had an interesting backstory he certainly knew how to deliver that with dramatic flair and I think we all sort of became further intrigued about where is this guy and what is he doing now and what happened to him?

And so, at that point they greenlite the film officially and that was in 2014. And that was kind of the start of the whole process. Bourdain had read the book, he gave me the book, and we're like let's see if there is something here and then this journey really started in earnest after that.

JW: So I would say that would what two years from concept to completion?

LT: The film premiered at Tribeca Film Festival last year (2016) so it took nearly two years to complete.

Everyone's A Critic

JW: New York is tough culinary town with many of the players still active and what was the was screening at Tribeca what was it like Tell me about the first full audience screening and the reaction?

LT: My heart was racing it was actually quite filled with the culinary universe in there and there was a lot of quiet and I was feeling, "you title a film The Last Magnificent you better deliver" in a big way and what does that mean and is that going to piss people off and do they really agree, disagree with the presentation of what his impact and influence was and the first big laugh that came when it should, I breathed a sigh of relief.

And the questioning that followed in the Q & A, Charlie Rose was the moderator was really, really, fantastic. Really wonderful and they were very much, a lot of the people in the audience had experienced Stars [restaurant] in particular, at the time, just their opening salvo was I remember Stars, back in the day and it is everything you said it was in the film. And so, there was a lot of that. So, I think the reception was very warm and I think a lot of people were surprised to see Jeremiah after so many years of him being out of the scene.

Missing Ingredients

JW: There is a rumor that Alice Waters cancelled at the last minute, although she was initially planned. Describe the conversations pre-cancellation and post cancellation if any?

LT: Yes. I very much wanted Alice in the film. Having her voice in the film was very important to me and I think it was very important to Jeremiah as well. She, actually, I was coordinating through her office, and she did agree to do an interview.

There was a whole series of San Francisco interviews we group them all together and she was going to be part of that and at the penultimate moment she decided not to participate in the interview.

I was sort of given the out that she had a scheduling conflict which I completely respected and I continued to reach out to here office and I was texting her directing as well explaining I really want you in the film. And then we had a conversation and again I truly respect her position and I respect her privacy but her relationship with Jeremiah was a very, very, personal one. And I think it was she didn't not want to expose herself in that way. She had a very long term personal relationship with him and that was something she wanted to keep private and that was the reason.  And so she made a decision not to participate.

The Course of Fine Dining Never Runs Smooth

JW: What challenged your most about this project?

LT: He did. (laughs) I mean we're dear friend now and I love him dearly. He has a very strong, like every artist, very strong ego. And I think for years, and years and years, running his own empire at Stars, he was used to having things done a certain way and he was used to portraying his image in a certain way, he was used to controlling that image in a certain way.

A lot of that in the beginning, you need to talk to these people and here are the photographs you can use, and make sure you cover XYZ and at one point, and it was fairly early on, we had a heart to heart, and I said, I think in order for this to be successful, to be a documentary feature, and not just a puff piece about your life, you really have to give into the process.

And allow us to creatively let this be what it needs to be it will both be celebratory where it needs to be and it will be critical where it needs to be; it will be an exploration where it needs to be so let the film have its narrative and stop controlling that.

And I think much to his credit because again he is not someone who is used to allowing himself that kind of vulnerability he did give into that process and we certainly had a number of skirmishes along that way where he called me XY and Z and I call him XY and Z and a little bit of that and I think it was all ultimately all in a very mutually appreciative way.

I could see where the film needed to go  and I think was fighting me and think it just eventually let go and he let me do what I needed to do.

Tavern Time

JW: Was making the film different that you expected it to be and if yes how? Where any of the experiences tone down or cut? Sure you had to edit and how much did you edit?

LT: There were a lot of crazy roads we followed. When I started, the film had a three-act structure it was Jeremiah's Youth and what did he experience as a youth that influenced his outlook; his period at Chaz Panisse and then his period at Stars.

And then the final bit was it was almost ensconced was going to be his time in Mexico. It was really a self-imposed exile he decided after Stars I'm done with everything and I'm just going to retreat to a beautiful little town and not have to deal with the chaos anymore.

So that was the structure of the film and that got blown to bits. Pretty late into the process and the last thing we had to shot was him in Mexico, the shoot was planned, the shoot days were planned, the crew was hired, I had four scenes wanted to do there, him cooking and then him going to the market just to get a sense of what his life was like and then, it was via email, he said "hey we may have to delay that shoot in Mexico, can we push it off by a couple of weeks."

I said sure, what the problem and he said nothing something had come up and of course what had come up was he had taken the job at Tavern on the Green. He didn't tell me that; he had already moved to New York; he didn't tell me that either; so there was a lot of crazy, swirling around, what do I do with that now, with that piece of the equation.

Is it something we follow, is it something we don't follow, is it part of the story, is it not part of the story, it could just be flatlined, it could be incredibly triumphant or end in a fiery ball of flames so what was it going to be so I think I just went with my gut and said, okay he's here now, he is literally up the road from where my office is so I'll start shooting this and see if there is anything.

And I think it was pretty clear, cause I got him on day three of the job, that it a potentially an opportunity to see someone kind of in the golden years of his life in action, on the line, commanding a kitchen, in real time, see the vision he truly had all those elements were really clear it was also clear that while all of his great strengths were on display a lot of his tragic flaws were on display as well.

So, there was that big piece and then I think stylistically the film was suddenly turning into a follow doc while before it was a construct of interviews, archival, limited recreations, etc., and suddenly we are moving into a new visual paradigm of following him around at Tavern on the Green.

And so, I was struggling on how that visually coalesce. His tenure at Tavern lasted three months; it did end in a fiery ball of flames, I saw the unraveling of all of that and it ultimately provided a very dramatic backdrop to tell the story of the ending of stars all the factors that eventually went into Stars falling apart and why you decide to slough off and go to some tiny little town in Mexico so, it actually, provided some very interesting dramatic pulse at the very ending of the film so that was kind of interesting pivot in the road. And the other one came when we unearth at the penultimate moment a box of 8mm films from his childhood which I didn't know we would have and that should have changed the visual complexion of the film as well.  

Making Magic from Ruins

JW: What was your most memorable moment from this project?

LT: My most memorable moment and there were so many in the run of that whole production when we finally did end up in Mexico shooting that production with Jeremiah, and this was after Tavern had blown up in this big explosion, we went to Mexico and he was there two weeks before I was there and the Director of Photography Morgan Fallon, he showed up before I did, so he could scout one or two locations.

Myself and the associate producer and all the equipment had to get to Merida and the first thing we were to shoot was the ruins and the cultural association that allowed us access said you can only shoot the ruins on this day at 2:00pm that's your only access and I'm thinking "Oh God, that's the height of tourism walking around so we'll try to figure that out."

My flight was delayed, some of the equipment was lost, everything was fucked up, so I didn't arrive until 12 hours later we missed our 2:00 appointment with the ruins and the guy was so adamant. Well, that's the benefits of having a great fixer, the fixer's like "'I know a guy, who knows a guy so hold on, let me see if I can work any magic for you."'

"'Okay they're going to let us in, don't tell anyone, at 5:45am the next morning before it opens and you have to be out by 7:45am when it opens."'

That's was my most memorable moment. Because we arrived at those ruins just as the sun was coming up, there was not a soul in sight, it was magnificent, and the sound of the birds and the wildlife, and then we got those incredible images of Jeremiah walking around alone in the midst of all these ruins with the opening line, I have to stay away from human beings because I'm not one."

And so that to me was probably the most memorable moment.

A generous second portion of my interview with Chef Jeremiah and Lydia Tenaglia will follow.

Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent is playing in select cities. A must see for foodies and culinary groupies and a great fusion of the life and backstory highlighting the beginnings of a fine dining revolution that was as a cultural shared experience.