In this episode, Ragnar talks with Jeremiah Tower, a father of New American Cuisine and the first celebrity chef.
Anthony Bourdain said “Jeremiah changed the world of restaurants and restaurant cooking. His menus made a complete re-evaluation of not just American food and ingredients – but food.” Alongside the American food movement’s mother, Alice Waters, he is viewed as a preeminent pioneer of modern American cuisine.
But back in the early 70s, with a globetrotting childhood and a Master’s degree in architecture from Harvard University, he was ready to pursue a career in design of underwater structures, and to find Atlantis.
All that changed when he found himself broke in California. He heard of a small Berkeley restaurant that was looking for a chef. With $25 left in his pocket and enough know-how to cook for friends, he went for it. That restaurant was Alice Water’s Chez Panisse.
“If I had known what it meant to be a chef, I would have run a mile,” says Tower. On his first days with the unfamiliar title of Executive Chef, he was thrown into lunch and dinner service. Lucky for him, and for the future of American cuisine, he took to it: “My advantage was I had taste memories.” Through trial-and-error, he helped build a whole new fare.
During this time at the fabled Chez Panisse, they created what became known as California Cuisine. “There was a lot of opera and a lot of champagne and a lot of cooking. 90-hour weeks, all that,” he recalls.
“We were not really conscious of what we’re trying to do. We were just trying to make a little money and stay alive and have fun.”
Inspired by the French classics, he wanted his next restaurant to capture the essence and indulgence of big brasseries. Stars, opened in 1984, was just that. “Chef Panisse was all about food,” he explains. “Stars, it’s really all about the restaurant. So I became a restauranteur instead of just a chef.”
Famous food critic Johnny Apple said of Stars, “it’s the most democratic restaurant in America.” Celebrities dressed to the nines shared the dining room with real people, and out blossomed a scene where fine dining met the inevitable comedy of California cool. When a naked homeless streaker came through the restaurant, he offered him a glass of Champagne.
For Tower, the dining room was theatre. Nestled next to San Francisco’s City Hall and civic center in what was considered a slum, Act 1 at Stars was lunch service with politicians and lawyers. Act 2 was what really made it interesting.
“My dream was – you’d come to Stars, valet park, come in, have dinner or a snack or a sip of Champagne… go to the opera or the ballet or the symphony, then come back and have more oysters or a hamburger with a glass of Chateau Lafite at 10 o’clock. And that’s how I worked. And meanwhile, in between those two times, we were full with just regular customers. That was brilliant.”
Stars was one of the highest grossing, most innovative and profitable restaurants in the United States. It was also the first restaurant to serve Champagne by the glass. From that kitchen, Tower won James Beard Foundation’s “Outstanding Chef of the Year” in America (1996), “Regional Best Chef” California (1993). With 500 to 600 covers a day, the open kitchen buzzed.
“We broke a lot of rules.”
In 1989, California asserted itself again with an earthquake that shook the civic center. They went from 300 covers at lunch to 60. It was time open elsewhere.
First, it was his favorite, The Peak Café in Hong Kong. Soon came Manila, Seattle, Palo Alto, and Singapore. He made enough through this remarkable expansion to support the struggling San Francisco Stars, allowing him to keep the doors open without laying off any staff.
Then came his own earthquake. “After 35 years of 80, 90-hour weeks, I thought it was time to go to the beach. And it’s what I did when I sold Stars in San Francisco and all the others, all the restaurants,” shares Tower. With that out of the way, he went in search of adrenaline off the line. He learned to dive; he swam with sharks. “I used to cook lunch at Stars in San Francisco for a bunch of sharks, all the people from City Hall,” he says. “So I was used to it.”
But the story doesn’t stop there. After disappearing from the culinary scene since the late 90s, Tower made a comeback in 2014. And not just any comeback, a swimming-with-the-sharks comeback, at New York’s behemoth Tavern on the Green.
Tavern and the Green had been a sort of rival during the years of Stars. But after nearly 20 years on the beach, it was a bold move to try and turn around an institution, to say the least. “[Anthony] said that was the stupidest thing you could ever have done. You could never succeed,” says Tower with a laugh. “I wanted to see if I could still do it.”
He could, but his time there was shortlived. He left the restaurant after 5 months.
“Talking about all the things you can do; it’s not the secret to success. The secret is doing it.”
Tower has never been a stranger to risk. Admittedly, he says, “I do have a fatal attraction to the slim chance.” Perhaps it’s a sort of prerequisite for leaving a mark in this industry. “I think everyone’s afraid here. I used to have nightmares that I’d show up at Stars and there would be no one there. We have no customers. It’s restaurant business. There’s always a bit of a panic. But it’s a question of how you deal with it. Now – the pandemic. All of us, no matter what age, this is the moment of the greatest possible opportunity.”
So what is secret to success from a man who’s hired, trained, and mentored top chefs? “You can teach skills, but you can’t teach attitude,” says Tower. “Attitude is everything. That you want to do it, that you’re dedicated. No matter how crummy the job is that day, you’re still gonna do it.” The goal is to become a great chef.
For Tower, embracing celebrity was a way to make money, so he leaned in and played the part. But now, with so many young chefs yearning for limelight, he cautions them. Don’t just learn what you see on TV. Ingredients should drive you. Chefs should step back and let the ingredients shine. “The power of that simplicity should be in whatever food you’re cooking,” he says.
“When we were doing the tour for The Last Magnificent, and I was going around with Anthony Bourdain, this young woman came up to him. She was in whites, culinary school or something. She asked him ‘How do I become a TV chef, a celebrity chef?’ And he said ‘Don’t,’ and walked away.”
What’s next for Jeremiah Tower? He’s just helped a friend open a restaurant in Cabo San Lucas. Now he’s planning a train tour of Mexico, an online cooking show, a new book on hospitality, a farm and a restaurant, and whatever else life might throw his way. “I’ve never been bored,” he says. Cheers to that.
In 2016 Jeremiah was the subject of the feature length CNN documentary film “The Last Magnificent” produced by Anthony Bourdain. Find it on Nexflix – it’s a must watch.
For more, check out his 2018 interview with the BBC’s The Food Chain called “My Life in Five Dishes,” and WGBH’s film “Moveable Feast” in the Yucatan, Mexico.
He wrote his first book in 1986: New American Classics. It won a James Beard Award for “Best American Regional Cookbook”. Tower has since written Jeremiah Tower Cooks (2002), America’s Best Chefs Cook with Jeremiah Tower (2003), a revised edition of Henri-Paul Pellaprat’s The Great Book of French Cuisine (2003), California Dish (2004), Escoffier, A Dash of Genius (2013), Table Manners: How to Behave in the Modern World and Why (2016), Start the Fire (2017), and his first e-book Flavors of Taste (2018). You can learn more about where to find these here.
On the pandemic: “This is the opportunity to remake everything. Jump into the saddle, take the bit between your teeth, and run.” We can help you get started, from Pre-Commis Chef training, finding your next job, showing your skills, to preparing for the future.
Special thanks to Jeremiah Tower for joining us.
World on a Plate is supported by Nestlé Professional, making more possible.
Photo credit: Sam Hana