In 1972, a young cook named Jeremiah Tower stepped into the kitchen at Berkley bistro called Chez Panisse. When his composed plates and refined style collided with the looser, more chaotic riffing of chef Alice Waters, something magical happened. Before long, the restaurant was a hit — a place where life felt electric and meals were deeply important. James Beard, the godfather of all food writers, once said of Chez Panisse, “this was not a real restaurant.” It was meant to be a compliment of the highest order.
By all accounts, what followed was a golden season in the lives of everyone involved; an era in which ideas were the greatest currency and creativity ruled. In this kitchen — fueled by sex, drugs, and exquisite local ingredients — the notion of “California cuisine” was born and the “eat local” movement took hold. Then, six years after it began, everything fell apart. As Robert Frost once wrote, “Nothing gold can stay.”
Tower left Chez Panisse to strike out on his own. He soon launched a new restaurant, near San Francisco City Hall, called Stars. It was a place (the place) where socialites went to mingle with the common folk. Tower’s locally-sourced brand of fine dining smashed headlong into the wild, coked-up 80s and Stars quickly became a cultural phenomenon. The chef grew into a celebrity in his own right, beloved by the rich and famous, not to mention the nation’s top critics.
Eventually, this too crumbled (literally, to some degree, due to the San Francisco earthquake). Tower disappeared from public life. He moved to Mexico and lived like a SCUBA-diving monk. He cooked, but not on any grand scale. As the years passed, new chefs came to the fore (some of whom started in the kitchen at Stars) and the Food Network caught fire. Eventually, the man at the center of California’s culinary revolution was mostly forgotten outside of the community of chefs.
Then, more than 15 years after he left, Tower resurfaced. The New York Times announced that he’d be cooking at the vast, tourist-frequented Tavern on the Green — a task so seemingly-impossible that it could only ever be a spectacular success or a tremendous failure. It was both a thrilling and daunting prospect, not just for Tower, but for everyone who followed the story.