Few people have had an impact on the United States culinary scene like Jeremiah Tower. Yet, for nearly 20 years, he disappeared from the scene and few people seemed to know what had happened to him before he took up the challenge to become chef of New York legendary restaurant Tavern on the Green.
Having accepted to take part in a documentary about his journey, Jeremiah was in the middle of filming when he accepted what many considered to be an an impossible task. Why would he do something like this particularly having been away from the cooking scene for so long. What did he want to prove? Did he do it to add a dramatic effect to the film?
In an interview with Food and Wine Gazette, Jeremiah says that when he accepted to return back to cook at Tavern on the Green he believed that he could turn it around and was close to achieving this. “I thought that the filming was over when I accepted the challenge. I looked at the owners, the staff and thought that while the challenge was difficult, we could turn the restaurant around. And in three months we nearly managed just that . We were back on track and as you can see from the documentary the sous chef wrote to me to tell me that we had almost turned it around,” he said.
“The problems were enormous but I also realised that there was enormous potential. I saw that there were people who knew what they were doing. When I took the offer, Lydia (the director of the film) was furious at me because she had nearly finalised the story and now needed to start again.”
In the interview, I did not manage to find out what led him to accept to go and cook again saying that he never felt the urge to return back before despite the fact that he missed cooking.
Someone who has been described as a control freak, Jeremiah was horrified the first time he saw the documentary. “It was at the Tribeca Film Festival, I had not seen it before. At the end of the film, there was a standing ovation. I stood up. The people clapped and clapped and it lasted 10 minutes. People seemed to have liked it so I thought to myself that I had been let off the hook. It was however only after I had seen it for three to four times that I saw it for what it was. The Director, Lydia, who was the force behind the documentary film had done a very good job,” Jeremiah said.
The chef began his career at the renowned Chez Panisse in Berkeley in 1972, becoming a pioneering figure in the emerging California cuisine movement. After leaving Chez Panisse, due in part to a famously contentious relationship with founder Alice Waters, Tower went on to launch his own legendary Stars Restaurant in San Francisco. Stars was an overnight sensation and soon became one of America’s top-grossing U.S. restaurants. After several years, Tower mysteriously walked away from Stars and then disappeared from the scene.
The restaurant was a success in many ways. With an open kitchen and a huge bar, it was way ahead of its time. The restaurant Stars defined what we know as the California scene today. “It left an impact not only on the US culinary scene but also on the global scene. I recall that two famous journalists from Sydney had come to celebrate a dinner there. That was no small undertaking but the food I was created had made them come. Sydney has today become an important food destination but at the time the eyes were on California,” he said.
Did he miss the cooking I ask him? “Of course you miss the cooking,” he says. “But at the same time, I was too comfortable on a Caribbean beach with the sea close to me where I could just cut a fresh lime and squeeze it to make a Margherita after diving.”
What made Stars so special and is there a restaurant today that resembles this restaurant I ask him. He tells me there are a few examples including the Wolseley in London but there were a series of circumstances that made Stars special and which are extremely hard to replicate. “The location was special in that it was close to the theatres, politicians used to frequent it, there was the mayor’s office close by and the courts. The place was packed with drama. You can never create that even if you try.”
Jeremiah studied architecture at Harvard University before he chose cooking as his career and he says that this had a huge impact on his work and in particular Stars. “Architecture gave me the perfect training in organisation. You need to be logical when you practice architecture in terms of the steps that you need to take. It also helped me in the design of the restaurant,” he said.
Read books for inspiration and to find your passion
So what words of advice would he give aspiring chefs? “Reading is essential. When I speak to young chefs I ask them what they read and some tell me magazines. That is not good enough. That tells you what is happening today but you need to read the classics. Read books to be inspired and to develop your passion,” he said.
The first book he would recommend is the great classic by Auguste Escoffier. “Just go to the preface before each chapter and read that if you are not into recreating his dishes. Read his take on making stock because nothing has changed since then. Go and read Elizabeth David, read Simple French cooking, the Larousse Gastronomique to find out what people were doing before. Before you can deconstruct anything you need to have ample knowledge of the past. Of the new books, you can look at French Laundry by Thomas Keller which is amazing and then all the others. But you have to look into the past to figure out the future,” he says.
His view of cooking has not changed since the beginning of his career. “Great cooking always starts with great ingredients. Even if its molecular cuisine you always start with top quality ingredients. The challenge is to keep it simple and perfect and let the ingredients do the talking.”
“I have just returned back from Seville and the market was unbelievable. All the fresh produce was incredible. It is all about the ingredient. That is where passion and inspiration comes from – great ingredients. That is the real farm to table and not ingredients that are screwed by the big commercial companies.”
Food is looking the same everywhere
He believes that there is a problem in today’s gastronomic world in that everyone is imitating each other. “Today you can eat in Hong Kong, Sydney, New York, Barcelona and the food is looking the same everywhere. I always tell the chefs to develop their own plating style and not copy.”
“There are chefs who are geniuses and who come up with something really new but when there is something new it needs to be incorporated into your style and not copied. That is a shame,” he said.
Jeremiah may be considered as the first proponent of farm to table cooking in the United States. He says seasonality is still important even with today’s global supply chain since chefs can be tempted to use raspberries or asparagus even when these are not in season. “You need to taste and remember that raspberries that are not in season have been cut with the intention to spend two weeks travelling. If you love wild asparagus you need to feel the urge to cook or eat them every day until they are no longer available and until you are tired of eating them,” he said.
He speaks about his favourite restaurant at the moment a place on a tropical beach in Tulum, Mexico where the chef cooks the most amazing food using fire either in a wood over or on a grill and its just wonderful.
If he had to start today he would look for a great location overlooking water. “I would have a chalkboard menu and change on the basis of what I have. If I have five lobsters, I will cook them and when they are sold out, I will rub them off the menu and serve something else. Using perfect ingredients in a beautiful location with a few good simple wines. It will not be a formal restaurant but one which respects the location and the ingredients. It will be a place you will want to return twice or three times a week. It will be like your local.”
I nod in agreement and tell him that I could subscribe to that. He jokes and asks me whether we open one together?
The documentary, Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent directed by Lydia Tenaglia (interview with her here) and executive producer Anthony Bourdain is being launched in the United States this week. The film is produced by Zero Point Zero Production Inc. and CNN Films.