This is the second installment of In the Belly of America, a new series in which Canadian Ivy Knight explores the United States through profiles of average (and not-so-average) Americans through their connections with food.
Remember Trauma: Life in the ER? Somebody had to stand in those emergency rooms getting sprayed with blood to get that footage. That was Lydia Tenaglia.
"Lots of blood and guts. Sitting in the emergency room at all hours of the night," she tells me over lunch at what might be the ugliest diner in New York. Tenaglia now produces Emmy-award winning shows for PBS and CNN, and this month her directorial debut, Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, opens in theatres across North America.
But before all that, it was just one horror show after another.
"I was feeling like, I gotta get away from this medical shit. If I do another year of watching brain surgery or someone's leg get cut off, my soul is going to collapse."
She and her buddy Chris Collins had clung to each other in the ER trenches, but both were looking for a way out. That was when they came across a chef named Anthony Bourdain, whose memoir Kitchen Confidential had put his star on the rise.
"We heard he was going to write a second book called A Cook's Tour, where he wanted to travel the world," Tenaglia recalls. So she and Collins decided that they would meet this Bourdain character and convince him to turn A Cook's Tour into a travel show.
"I made an appointment with him, and I remember the day we met. When he stood up I was struck by the fact that he was really tall," she says. "First thought I had in my head was: How are we going to shoot him?"
Tenaglia pitched him her idea. Bourdain wasn't exactly keen on it; he was focused on writing at that time. But she was determined to get the hell out of the ER.
She eventually convinced him, however, and she and Collins shot a ten-minute demo at Bourdain's restaurant Les Halles, where the chef talked about his dream for A Cook's Tour.
"Nobody greenlights things like that these days, but we pitched it to Food Network, and they bought a 23-part series off of that demo," she says.
In the midst of excitedly planning their first shoot for the show, Tenaglia and Collins fell in love. After all, they'd spent so much time working together in the craziest of environments, their camera lenses dripping with blood and gore. So they got hitched, and their first trip with a very tall chef/writer they barely knew became their de facto honeymoon.
A very awkward honeymoon, it turns out.
"We would go back to the hotel and be like, 'We're so fucked. This is terrible!'"
"We went to Japan, Vietnam and Thailand and Cambodia. Four countries back to back to back," she says. "We were staying in the shittiest hotels imaginable. Tony's thread count has gone up over the years, but back in the day it was bare bones."
The first shoot was a disaster: the formality of Japan; the fact that Bourdain was a chef, not a TV show host; and that he was being asked to perform off the cuff for a couple of lovebirds he'd only just met. Add to that his height, which only exacerbated his awkwardness in front of the camera.
"That first episode, you can see Tony's like a deer caught in the headlights," she says. "We would go back to the hotel and be like, 'We're so fucked. This is terrible!'"
Their next stop was Vietnam, and it was there that something clicked.
Somehow, perhaps because they were old enough to connect to the atrocities of the war, they were able to begin exploring it and explaining it to an audience, through its food and people, in a way that would become the blueprint for all of Bourdain's shows to follow.
"Tony knows everything about Vietnam. He's read everything about Vietnam, he's seen every movie about Vietnam, he knows the history, he's read all the books. And all of a sudden, he had all these reference points that engaged him in a completely different way," Tenaglia says. "The energy of the show started to take off. Our relationship started to take off, 'cause we had all the same cultural references and we started to percolate with ideas. We started to become easy with each other. From that point forward, we had an incredible synergy, the three of us. That's where we found our rhythm."
And all those long nights in ER? They paid off in spades.
Having spent hours shooting in the cramped and high-stress confines of operating rooms, she and Collins knew how to be observational in an inconspicuous way. "With Tony we found ourselves in tiny kitchens or in a small hut or in some rice paddy, and we took that unobtrusive style of shooting and applied it to the food genre. And I think in many ways at that time—and I'm talking 17 years ago—that was very, very new. It became genre-defining, to follow somebody, to have a strong point of view, but then also to just capture people in their own settings and in the most intimate of fashions."
From there, she and Collins launched the production company Zero Point Zero in 2003 and produced three more Bourdain shows— No Reservations, The Layover, and Parts Unknown— as well as PBS's The Mind of a Chef.
Recently, Tenaglia has moved into documentary territory with Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, a feature film that attempts to restore Jeremiah Tower, the controversial maniac who made his mark on Chez Panisse and Stars, to the celebrity chef canon.
"I had the film set out into three acts," she explains. Act One would focus on Tower's childhood, one that she describes as "monied neglect." Act Two would center on his time at Chez Panisse—where he and Alice Waters fucked and fought and essentially shaped California cuisine—and at his own restaurant in San Francisco, a kind of Studio 54 of fine dining that also shaped the way people eat, and do coke, in restaurants. Act Three would look at him now, living a life far removed from it all in Mérida, Mexico.
But when she was preparing for the final leg of shooting, she saw a headline in the New York Times saying that Tower had taken a job at Manhattan's Tavern on the Green.
"Needless to say, I picked up the phone. I was like, 'What the fuck is going on?' And he kind of chuckled in his mischievous way," she says. "And really at that point, it was just a kind of creative decision that I had to make, whether or not I was going to follow that Tavern story or not."
She did follow the Tavern story, and if you know anything about the New York restaurant scene, it should come as no surprise that Tower didn't make any kind of a triumphant return there.
"I couldn't have foretold that the thing was going to fall apart, but the fact that it did certainly made for a dramatic ending of the film. But it also ensconced that ending of Stars period very, very beautifully, in that there are a lot of parallels of what is truly great about Jeremiah and what is challenging about Jeremiah's personality that sometimes makes it challenging to work with him," she says, summing it up diplomatically.
In addition to directing The Last Magnificent, Tenaglia recently produced Wasted! The Story of Food Waste, which just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. and more are in the works. Fermented, a documentary made with chef Edward Lee, just got into the Seattle Film Festival, and Stars and Sky, about the philosophy behind hunting, is currently in post-production.
As we finish our lunch at the ugly diner—"I have an emotional attachment to this place," Tenaglia confides—I ask her about her work ethic. She's documented blood and guts, launched the TV career of arguably the most famous living celebrity chef, and profiled the fall from grace of one of contemporary American cuisine's pioneers. She has even more films in the works. What keeps her going?
"That is a huge question!" she laughs. "I'm first-generation Italian. My parents were from Italy. So I grew up part of an immigrant enclave. I watched a good many of them, including my own father, live that American dream."
"And what is it?" I ask. "Can you sum it up for me in one sentence?"
"Put your head down and work like a motherfucker."