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.
So goes the tale of Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent — a recounting of Tower’s triumphs in Northern California and his recent stint in New York City. It’s a tidy comeback narrative, easily packaged for the food-loving masses. But thrumming beneath the surface is something bigger: A meditation on art, and a reflection on the quest for greatness.
Last week, we spoke with Tower about the life of an artist, the importance of simplicity, and his scheme to cook on a beach in Thailand.
I find the documentary to be fantastic and fascinating and really, in a lot of ways, a story about what it’s like to be an artist. Is that something of what you felt for it, or… I’m sure you have wide-ranging feelings…
Well, I do have wide-ranging feelings, but I think that’s spot-on. Given we were a week in New York and then Los Angeles and here, that’s what everyone is saying when they’re coming out of the theater, they really get it, it’s not just about me, it’s about somebody in general, and that adds to the appeal.
It’s also a reminder that art is fucking hard. So that decision you made, to go back to making art at Tavern on the Green, must’ve been a tough one.
Being an artist makes you crazy, so you have to take time off, but you never really can give it up.
Did you always feel that? Did you always feel like there was going to be a day when you wanted to step back into the kitchen?
Oh, yes. I mean what I didn’t want to do was run an entire restaurant again, a huge one like Stars, where you’re dealing with the administration and the hiring and the firing and the staff meals and the complaints and all of that sort of thing, but I never got tired of what it was like to be in the kitchen and putting out wonderful food.
The film does such a good job of romanticizing that magical moment in time when California cuisine was blowing up, obviously much thanks to you, and people felt like they were a part of a “scene.” There was this certain moment that was really special, maybe two moments — once at Chez Panisse and once at Stars.
I think we did capture it twice. Certainly in the day in 1976, when I came up with the idea of making California a region for the restaurant, and writing that California Regional Dinner, where for the first time ever we named the farmers and the suppliers and the locale and we had the menu in English, and we had only California wines. Certainly that’s the moment that the Wine Spectator later called “the match that lit the revolution in food in America.”
Then, at Stars, as people — Mario and Martha Stewart and Anthony Bourdain — say in the movie, that was the one that changed what the people thought a restaurant could be.
Did you feel like you always had such a clarified voice, like you always knew, “No, this is the thing”?
Well, I think, if we are calling it art and artistry and calling me an artist, I think what they have in common is they don’t know where it comes from. You just do it. Don’t you think?
Yes, I really do. And you introduced this idea of the chef as performance artist, is that close to how you’d describe it?
I quickly learned, after Chez Panisse and that moment in 1983 where at the Santa Fe Bar and Grill we did that lunch in Newport for a hundred food journalists, I realized, “Oh, we can really fill the restaurants by being glamorous performance artist chefs.”
I’ve never done it, but imagine you’re Pavarotti or Rudolph Nureyev or Baryshnikov or somebody, all of whom were at Stars, they would get 20 minute standing ovations at La Scala or Carnegie Hall or the San Francisco Opera House. That must be amazing, but … a microcosm of that was a Saturday night at Stars when everything’s running smoothly, and you have a naked homeless person running through the dining room 30 minutes before Pavarotti shows up and takes a bow. Very exciting.
It seems like part of what everyone admires about you is that you also embraced the messiness of life. As much as what you said about being an artist and wanting everything to be perfect resonates with me, it sounded like at Stars there was also kind of this inherent messiness that made it exciting and gave it an edge.
Well, you know that the messiness in life is going to occur anyway, so instead of it being the enemy, embrace it. I always thought you should choose your compromises before they choose you, so when the naked homeless man streaked the dining room, I would go out, walk out of the kitchen into the dining room and say, “Ladies and gentlemen, a round of applause for that guy!” Instead of it being a shock, and everyone getting upset or revolted, they all thought it was very funny and it really made their evening.
Because you owned it in that way.
For many of them, the very wealthy, they were sequestered from a lot of that.
They thought it was sort of exciting to be close to the edge, with the people.
Where are your passions with food right now? What excites you and what interests you, and what do you feel like cooking?
For me, it’s always been ingredients, and that was what California cuisine and the revolution was, was all about fresh ingredients, and treating them very simply, and letting them be the rock stars rather than the chef… though it’s weird for me to say that.
But it’s true. I know it’s true, because two weeks ago I was in Seville in Spain, and I came across the central market and there were 16 different kinds of fresh, wild prawns, not farm-raised ones. There were huge turbot, and little legs of lamb for two that were nine euros, and I thought, “My god, I have to come here immediately and rent an apartment with a kitchen and start cooking.” That’s what gets me going these days, as always.
Those ingredients speak to you. They say, “Grab me and cook me.”
Do you find that — because you’ve had so many repetitions in the kitchen and you’ve tasted so many things — your aesthetic gets simpler and simpler? I see that a lot with chefs. Is that what you’re finding, or do you add back some of the complication now at this point?
Well, that’s a very brilliant, insightful question that no one’s asked me before and I certainly don’t talk about, but that’s exactly what’s happened to me. I now sort of hesitate to cook for people, because they’re expecting high drama, and what I want is the taste of just two or three ingredients on a plate, when one of these three is olive oil and the other is shrimp stock.
I want absolute directness, and … I want three ingredients on the plate and one of them is the main one. The other ones are perfumes, if you like. You’re right, that’s exactly what’s happened to me. If it’s really, really great it doesn’t need anything.
What’s the next step for you? Obviously this is, is this weird for you, you’ve just been documented in this movie.
As I say in the movie, I’m a very private person. There were always two Jeremiah Towers. There was a commercial one that went out in the dining room and went on morning TV in New York and everywhere, and then there was the private one where I just didn’t talk about myself or my life or anything, it was all about the restaurant. This was very odd to do, merging those two.
Do you have chefs and food that you really admire around the country right now?
Oh, yes, but I can’t tell you who they are until I get back to Mexico and I’m safe.
Is that where you’re going to live right now, is Cozumel?
I live in Merida, in the Yucatan and go to Cozumel for diving. I also go to New Orleans a lot.
Do you find yourself wanting to learn more and more about Mexican cuisine?
Well, yes, all the time. That’s one of the reasons I stayed there. Especially in the Yucatan, it’s different from the rest of Mexico. They have three or four dishes that are absolutely world-class.
Are you seeing more and more people who are in it to get TV time or to try and get set up financially, or … do you admire what you see young chefs doing and the route they take?
I was with Anthony Bourdain recently, and some of the young culinary student or wannabe came up and said, “What is your advice for becoming a TV chef?”, and he said, “Don’t.” I think that sums it up. If you want to be a cook, cook first.
What do you see about modern food that you really have a love for or a fondness for or that you want to experiment with? Is there anything new that you’re hooked on and excited about?
The point is that the revolution has worked. All the ingredients you can buy at any Whole Foods did not exist, any of them, in 1972 when I first started at Chez Panisse. There’s amazing farmers markets like the one in Santa Monica or Union Square all over the country, and I think that’s brilliant, but of course it’s brought its own problems, which is now there is so much available and the young chefs are putting 18 ingredients on the same plate. It’s a lot of noise, and often not much content.
It feels like fast casual has pulled the focus of so much of the food world and fine dining is sometimes hard for people to access. Have you been intrigued by that at all, have you been intrigued by some of the ideas that you were developing in California in the ’70s and the ’80s transferring over into the fast casual world?
That’s what Stars did for the restaurant scene and dining scene in the United States. It showed that you could have a great and famous restaurant that you could slide into the bar and have a hot dog and a glass of Chateau Lafite if you wanted to. Or a beer. Or you could sit there and have a three-hour, six-course meal. Stars really showed that you didn’t need to have a French maitre d’ in the black tie being nasty to you in order to have a good time, to be at a great restaurant.
The day we opened I said the motto of the dress code here is “everything from blue jeans to black tie”.
Do you see yourself getting back in the kitchen full-time, is that something that could be on the horizon?
Not really, unless it’s on the beach in Phuket in Thailand or the beach in the Caribbean, or on the Italian coast or something that … and just the food, with a blackboard, so you change the menu every two or three hours. Yes, I, that would be intriguing, but a whole big new restaurant? No.
Lastly, any dish that our readers might not have eaten that you would recommend for them to have? Anything you would recommend someone trying to expand their palate to try?
I think one should delve into the mysteries of cooking your evening meal in 15 minutes. There are so many, there are hundreds of dishes you can do, and everyone says they don’t have any time, but a sauce you make by cutting up tomatoes, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper, fresh herbs, mix it all together, and chopped up garlic, mix it all together and chuck it on pasta which you are cooking while you’re in the shower after you came home with your first glass of wine. When you get out of the shower, the water’s boiling and you cook the pasta, it’s all done. Fifteen minutes, something fantastic, fresh, and healthy.
Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent is in theaters now.