April 28, 2017
With the release of Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, a film produced by his old friend Anthony Bourdain for Zero Point Zero Productions and distributed in the US by The Orchard, Tower can finally claim his due as the creator of California cuisine as the first celebrity chef in America. It’s an appellation he richly deserves. As a result of his early efforts sourcing local ingredients and California wines, he engendered the movement which became known as American regional cuisine. After Tower’s meteoric rise in the 70’s at Chez Panisse, where he partnered with Alice Waters’ in the famed Berkeley hot spot, he held Executive Chef positions at a number of successful restaurants, ultimately opening his widely acclaimed Stars restaurant, a glittering French-inspired brasserie frequented by celebrities, socialites and city politicians.
His first book New American Classics won the James Beard Foundation Award in 1986 for Best American Regional Cookbook and, after opening a string of Stars outposts worldwide, in 1996 he won the Beard Award for Best Chef in America. In 1989 San Francisco’s massive earthquake destroyed his beloved Stars. Soon after the elegant spot was shuttered, Tower went into hiding.
In 2002 he published Jeremiah Tower Cooks: 250 Recipes from an American Master and one year later America’s Best Chefs Cook with Jeremiah Tower and a wonderful memoir entitled California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution. His latest effort, published last year, is the flippantly titled and indelibly humorous, Table Manners: How to Behave in the Modern World and Why Bother.
After years of living around the world and off the grid, “I have to stay away from human beings, because apparently I am not one”, he surprisingly resurfaced to helm the spectacular rise and fall of Tavern on the Green, the swank Central Park watering hole owned by two neophyte restauranteurs. “Running a restaurant is difficult enough without people getting in your way,” he contends.
Lovingly directed by Lydia Tenaglia, beautifully edited by Eric Lasby, and tenderly scored by Giulio Carmassi with Morgan Fallon’s evocative photography, the film commences with scenes of Tower as a young boy, neglected by his alcoholic mother and abusive father and feasting alone in five-star hotels and ocean liners while they cavorted with café society. It was in these splendid temples to gastronomy where he poured over hand-written menus and supped solo on lobster and caviar – his passion for haute cuisine engendered by the kitchen staff who “adopted” the impressionable child allowing him to roam freely in their vast kitchens.
One of the most fascinating and creative American chefs, Tower lends his personal diaries and family films to this emotionally alluring biopic. Cameo appearances by Bourdain, Mario Batali, Ruth Reichl, “He defined what a modern American restaurant could be.”, Wolfgang Puck, Jonathan Waxman and Martha Stewart give us an insider’s view to his influence and legacy.
I spoke with Tower by phone and he surprised me with his puckish charm and self-deprecating humor. A man at peace with himself, I thought – a man who had accomplished much.
Are you excited for the release of “The Last Magnificent”?
Jeremiah Tower – Oh yes! It was very strange for me to watch it. Lydia Tenali, the Director, did a great job.
Are you pleased with the result?
It was very odd. Actors see themselves in a role when they watch their films, but it was different watching yourself on film. I was surprised I did it. I’ve never really done anything like that before. Looking at yourself on the big screen and having people talk about you is odd.
Does the movie augur your return to the culinary scene?
No. I did that for 35 years. I’m now getting my physical and mental health together. I went to the beach. Though I might, you know, if I had a beach bar in Thailand where I would cook whatever the fishermen brought up from their boats.
I read your book California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution in 2003 and noted what a raw deal you got in terms of recognition for your culinary direction at Chez Panisse. Does it feel like some divine retribution to finally have the respect you’re due for creating and promoting California cuisine?
I give thanks to Anthony Bourdain who produced the film. He had the same reaction as you. It pushed his justice button. He wanted to tell the story. He’s a wonderful guy. He’s an outrageous guy. Did you know my book has been revised and reissued? It’s now called Start the Fire: How I Began a Food Revolution in America” and it’s just been released along with the movie.
Your influence was also enormous in terms of promoting local farms across the country. Was that your familiarity with the French way of buying locally that inspired you?
It’s hard for people to understand that everything you can buy in Whole Foods today you couldn’t buy then. So I reached out to local farmers and fishermen to find the ingredients – eels, cheese, mushrooms foraged from the Berkeley hills. They would just show up at the kitchen door with whatever they had and I’d work with that. The whole foraging thing started for me at Chez Panisse. Also with the California regional dinner we held where I mentioned the Monterey Bay prawns and trout from Big Sur on the menu.
What was it like to cook for Julia Child so many years ago?
Julia was wonderful to be around because she had such great energy and knowledge. But, you know, she couldn’t cook. Neither could Craig Claiborne. Pierre Franey did all the cooking. I did cook for her at her apartment in Santa Barbara. The first time was at her home in the South of France and I went with Richard Olney who was an amazing author on French food. As soon as we arrived Julia said, “Start cooking.” So we prepared the meal.
The movie is unsparingly honest about your misfortunes – the devastating earthquake at Stars in San Francisco, the vagaries of taking over a kitchen with partners that knew less than nothing about food and service, and even the AIDS crisis affecting your relationships with the gay community. Do you feel as though you’ve had a run of bad luck or were these misfortunes just products of the times?
As for the controversial AIDS lawsuit [Tower was sued for discrimination by one of his waiters who had AIDS at the same time he was privately financially supporting other members of his staff who had AIDS], I had a letter from the attorney saying if you countersue, “I will hang you.” The case was thrown out of court twice for insufficient evidence but the third time they brought it, I was found guilty.
I read somewhere that “the measure of your life are the chances you take”. I’ve always pushed everything off to the edge. A friend of mine, a restaurant owner in New York, told me, “It’s easy to run a successful restaurant, it takes a genius to run an empty one.” When we closed Stars, it cost me millions and millions of dollars.
I thought the editing was superb, the interspersing of family films and the young actor who portrayed you as a boy depicting the events that influenced your future life as a chef. Is there anything you would have liked to have said that wasn’t represented in the film?
I mean, they had to cut 20 minutes out of the final cut, and they didn’t explain that after I sold Stars for a lot of money I took off for the George V in Paris. If that was a fall, I’d like to do it all over again.
You’ve always been the pioneer – out in front on the food scene.
When you’re out in front your neck is on the chopping block and then the guillotine comes down.
The movie portrays you as a person who enjoys his solitude. After so many years of hobnobbing with celebrities, socialites and great chefs, are you happier being on your own or have you just had enough of the chichi scene after you reached the pinnacle of success only to have it snatched out from under you?
When you work very hard and achieve a lot of public noise, one needs to find a balance. I’ve chosen the solitude of a beach in a great Mayan city.
How would you prepare iguana?
I haven’t but I’ve seen that done in the jungle and, you know, you clean it, put it on a spit and eat it. It tastes like a reptilian chicken.
This interview was conducted, condensed and edited by Jordan Wright.