Here is my interview with the legendary Jeremiah Tower. I don’t say this very often at all … But this man was a true hero of cuisine for me. Ever since learning of his contributions to the evolution of “Chez Panisse” restaurant founded by Alice Waters, and especially the menus he created there. I was in awe of his intellect and his daring. When he came out with his first cookbook, “New American Classics” I read every page and took copious notes. I still have them in his now autographed by him copy. I recall discussing Jeremiah late into the night after working service with my dear friend/brother Charlie (Trotter). We loved how Chef Tower was steeped in the classics but revitalizing cuisine in America with his passion for things fresh and local. And that was before it was even ‘a thing’.
The first time I met him in person I was speechless for a few moments. That is also something that doesn’t happen very often. I was thrilled a few years later when I was invited to cook a dinner for the ‘Tenth Anniversary of Food Arts Magazine” at The Plaza Hotel in NYC with him as one of the other chefs. Also cooking that night included Daniel Boulud, Nobu, Jasper White and the great Southern chef Elizabeth Terry. I remember him as if only yesterday walking into the kitchen with matching Pekingese on long leashes that danced out in front of him. He walked straight over to me as he eyed the large hearts of palm we’d brought along with for my dish. He picked one up and smiled saying, ‘hefty aren’t they?” I was like a little kid happy.
It troubles me that the current generation of chefs/cooks might not know of Jeremiah Tower. Or might only know of him from the last decade. This man needs to be known for the entire arc of his still vibrant life.
In this interview… which I prefer to view as a ‘conversation between friends’ in that is what we have become. I’m not a journalist after all. If you find this chat interesting it would be my suggestion that you go and get his cookbooks and his memoir. There are very few people in any profession as riveting, honest and bold as this man. I am proud to call him my friend. He’s been a mentor to me as well. I am grateful.
NVA: What is the very first thing you remember eating and enjoying?
JT: I have had four serious pineapple loves. And I remember them all the more vividly now as I sit on a twelfth floor balcony at the Royal Hawaiian “Pink Palace,” looking out at Waikiki and the vast Pacific, as the first surfers swim out at sunrise, the crests of the waves foaming rose-colored in the early sun against the baby-blue water. Fifty years after I first sat in these same rooms. But it was after we left Honolulu that I had my first pineapple love – in Fiji. We had flown on a DC-3 converted war plane, First class Pan American on our way to Sydney. I was five years old. The 16-hour trip on the way to Hawaii was nothing compared to the four days it took to get to Sydney, and by the time we reached Fiji I had had it. I fell to the tarmac and wrapped my arms around a pole of the tiny terminal. “Nyet!”, I screamed, “nein”, no more planes! They sent for the police. There was only one, and he was around seven feet tall if you count the hair combed straight up on his head and wrapped in a red ribbon, wore a white tapa cloth skirt, a military top, and no shoes on his size fifteen feet which were the first things I saw of him from my position of face firmly down in the dirt. If I couldn’t see the plane maybe it would go away. At a close up sight of the feet, it did. He sat me on his deck chair sized lap and fed me a huge glass of chilled fresh pineapple juice. After days of warm water out of a cistern in the plane, and stale sandwiches (all there was), and seventy hours of airsickness, I fell in love. With policemen if they are Fijian, calm tropical air that smelled of frangipane, and ripe pineapples. This was the easy love. After a couple of riotous days of charming but lascivious French convicts being transported in the seats behind us from New Caledonia we reached Sydney. Over the few years there my pineapple love continued, as on Queensland plantations where aborigines looking like my policeman lopped off the top of pineapples picked ripe from the fields, and I could eat them with cupped fingers since there was no hard unripe core.
NVA: Are you the first ‘Chef’ in your Family?
JT: Yes. The first professional chef. All in the family could cook. And my mother was a very good ‘natural’ in various cuisines.
NVA: When did you start cooking?
JT: When I was about 12 and helped with the food for the huge summer garden parties my parents gave at our country house outside London. I would decorate the poached salmons… slice the legs of mutton etc.
NVA: When did you realize that it was ‘serious’ to you?
JT: “Serious”, (not in terms of a job… that was the first as Head Chef at Chez Panisse… my first day on the job)… But in love of cooking… Senior year at Harvard College when we lived off campus and my beside reading was, (as it had been since I was 16) Escoffier’s “Ma Cuisine”.
Here is a menu from that house. The text is verbatim from my notebooks.
“SUNDAY, MAY 23RD, 1965
THE “WHO CAN TELL FOR SURE ?” DINNER FOR FRIENDS,
AS A FAREWELL TO CAMBRIDGE
(also in celebration of a New York Sunday News article called “A Growing Concern: Many British Lads Have Longer Hair than the Girls.” I had copied it to all the group, and reproduced for the menu the photo of long-haired and beautiful boys in a group on Carnaby Street corner, the caption “these may be boys watching all the girls go by – but who can tell for sure?”)
Colin Streeter – the most beautiful boy at Harvard
Mathew Stolter– who arrived late to shoot up the whole dinner party, blanks only
John Sanger and friend
(also an occasion to drink the 1884 Madeira that Michael Palmer had given me for my birthday in 1964)
Paté Frozen Buffalo Grass Vodka
Salmon en gelee aux truffes Pouilly Fume 1962
Filet de Beouf Perigourdine Chateauneuf du Pape 1957
Strawberries & French Cream Asti Spumante
Coffee “Napolean” Armagnac
Sercial Madeira 1884″
NVA: Where were you cooking when that moment took place?
JT: Our house on Green Street, Cambridge, with its little garden in the back where we grew herbs and lettuces. 1964-1965
NVA: For those fortunate readers whom have read your excellent memoir, “California Dish” there are many details to learn. For the readers here not yet so fortunate let me ask this. Who came first in your career in terms of the best pure cook you have ever worked with in an ongoing job, (versus an event or other singular kind of activity). What made that person so remarkable?
JT: Richard Olney… on and off cooking with him over the years at Chez Panisse, cooking at his house in the south of France to come up with two weeks of menus for the Chez Panisse Zinfandel Festival one year. For example only. Many occasions, and one that stands out is a surprise visit I paid him while I was in Nice consulting for Pan Am, 1978 or so. And he had “nothing in the house”, (he said). He looked in his little fridge and found the remains of a veal shank ragout with his garden tomatoes. In minutes we had that over some penne pasta, after.. raw favas from the garden served with olive oil, lemon, anchovies… One of the best pasta dishes I have ever tasted.
NVA: Do you feel the cooking life caused you to sacrifice having a ‘normal life’?
JT: NEVER HAVE HAD A ‘NORMAL’ LIFE AS FAR AS I CAN TELL. BUT BEING A 100% RESTAURANT CHEF AND OWNER WORKING 90 HOURS A WEEK, OBSESSIVELY, DID MEAN THAT I HAD NOT TIME FOR A LIFE WITH SOMEONE ELSE.
NVA: What was the closest you came to quitting the business and finding something ‘more sane’?
JT: QUITTING AND FINDING A MORE ‘SANE’ LIFE WAS ALWAYS ON MY MIND. DEFINITELY DURING THE LAWSUITS WITH MY ORIGINAL AND ONLY PARTNER IN STARS WAS A MOMENT(S). THEN AFTER STARS I DID
NVA: What was your arc in terms of the first kinds of cookery you loved and how it morphed over your career?
JT: THINK GREAT RESTAURANTS OF THE WORLD, FIRST CLASS OCEAN LINERS, VERY GRAND HOTELS AROUND THE WORLD ALL BEFORE I WAS 16, AND THAT IS HOW IT STARTED. COLLECTING MENUS. THE NATURE OF THE RESTAURANTS I OWNED AND WORKED IN MADE STEAK DIANE AND BEEF STROGANOFF COOKED TABLESIDE BY A MAITRE D’ UNWISE, OR A WHOLE ROAST PHEASANT CARVED THERE, OR THE TROLLEY AT SIMPSON’S IN LONDON WITH A HUGE HAUNCH OF ROAST MUTTON BROUGHT TO YOUR TABLE, IMPRACTICAL, BUT THOSE IMAGES NEVER LEFT MY MIND. CULMINATING IN 3-POUND LOBSTERS COOKED IN THE WOOD OVEN AT STARS, PERHAPS.
NVA: Who is the most important cookbook author in your estimation? Why?
JT: SO MANY. PROBABLY PROSPER MONTAGNE AND CREW FOR THE LAROUSSE GASTRONOMIQUE. CHARLES RANHOFER OF DELMONICO’S – HIS COOKBOOK FOR AMERICA.
NVA: Who is the most important chef of the past 100 years? Why?
JT: THAT TAKES US BACK TO 1914. ESCOFFIER FOR SURE, SINCE THE EUROPEAN OR AMERICAN GREATS AFTER HIM LIKE FERNAND POINT AND ALEXANDRE DUMAINE AND ALL THROUGH NOUVELLE CUISINE, NEW AMERICAN CUISINE, AND NOW MOLECULAR/TECNHO — BASICALLY ALL ACTING AND REACTING ON WHAT HE ESTABLISHED.
NVA: Who is the most ‘mischievous’ chef you have ever known? Why/How?
JT: Me. Because I knew too much not too.
NVA: What food or ingredient do you adore? Why?
JT: ONLY ONE? OK, LET ME PICK ONE. ICE CREAM. BUT ONLY WHEN IT IS CUSTARD TYPE, AND AS GOOD OR BETTER THAN VANILLA OR DULCE DE LECHE AT HAAGEN-DAZS
NVA: What food or ingredient will never enter your body again?
JT: U.S. FAST FOOD. NEVER DID MUCH ANYWAY, BUT IT IS COMPLETELY POISONOUS. LEGAL MANSLAUGHTER.
NVA: Where in the world would you like to dine now and why?
JT: BARCELONA AGAIN. THAT OTHER FOOD MARKET (THE SMALLER ONE) AND ITS PERFECT (A RARE EVENT ANYWHERE) INGREDIENTS. AND COOK FROM THERE. AND A COUPLE OF RESTAURANTS THERE WHO STEP BACK BEHIND THE PERFECTION OF THE INGREDIENTS AND LET THEM SHINE IN SIMPLICITY.
ALSO THE FOOD MARKET IN BANGKOK – BACK THERE AGAIN ANY DAY FOR THE BIG BLUE PRAWNS WHICH I NEVER LIKED BEFORE (TASTELESS IN USA)
NVA: What part of your body has taken the biggest beating over the years in the kitchens?
JT: DEFINITELY MY FEET, FROM STANDING ON THEM 16 HOURS A DAY, AND INSISTING, THROUGH VANITY, OF WEARING LITTLE ITALIAN SHOES. NOT AS BAD AS NUREYEV’S FEET THAT HE LOVED TO SHOW ME, BUT ALMOST
NVA: Music in the kitchen or no?
JT: YES, CANNOT WORK WITHOUT MUSIC. BLOCKS OUT COOK’S CONVERSATIONS SINCE IMPOSSIBLE TO ENFORCE SILENCE IN A US KITCHEN. ONE CANNOT COOK AT ONE’S PEAK OF CONCENTRATION AND INSPIRATION AND TALK ABOUT BASKETBALL AT THE SAME TIME.
NVA:In a few hours, Lord willing… we will land in San Francisco. One of the most amazing moments of my young career was leaving the airport there and seeing a HUGE Billboard of a (?) Dewar’s Ad…and your handsome face with a few amazing quotes. It was a signal that “Chefs” were becoming rightfully (at least in your case) famous…. What kind of blew your mind as you led in this changing of perceptions as to ‘how far chef celebrity was coming’ back during the late 80’s?
JT: IT WAS DEWAR’S, AND THE MOST SUCCESSFUL THEY EVER DID, THEY SAID. THE ONE OUTSIDE THE FIRST SPAGO DROVE WOLFIE MAD, SINCE IT SAID “CHEF TO THE STARS.” HE SAID HE WAS!! LOL
SUDDENLY WHEN I SAID – IN SOCIAL CIRCLES – THAT I WAS A CHEF, PEOPLE WOULD WANT TO TALK INSTEAD OF GETTING A SUCKING ON A LEMON LOOK AND MOVE AWAY. AS FOR MIND BLOWN, IT WAS SUDDENLY GETTING WHAT ONE WISHED FOR. SEE END OF FIRST CHAPTER IN CALIFORNIA DISH, THE ASTOR MANSION LUNCH IN NEWPORT. THAT DEVASTATING REALIZATION WHEN YOU KNOW YOU HAVE WON (AND LOST)
NVA: What famous guests have you enjoyed cooking for the most?
JT: SOPHIA LOREN FOR HER BIRTHDAY BECAUSE SHE VERY SWEET AND GORGEOUS AS WELL. GIANFRANCO FERRE AT DENISE HALE’S RANCH IN SONOMA BECAUSE HE LOVED GOOD FOOD, REALLY LOVED IT. LUCIANO PAVAROTTI WHEN I SNEAKED ICE CREAM TO HIM FOR AN OPERA CAFE SCENE WHEN HE WAS SUPPOSED TO BE ON A DIET.
NVA: Which guests (famous or otherwise) will not be welcome back and what did they do to ‘get fired’?
JT: YOU MIGHT THINK I WOULD SAY THE FRAT BOYS, BUT THEY BEHAVED LIKE ANGELS. CERTAINLY THE DRUNK WHO CAME IN ONE FRIDAY NIGHT YELLING FOR A TABLE, SCREAMING HE WAS A GOOD FRIEND OF “JEDEDIAH HIGHTOWER” AND THEN TOOK A SWING AT ME WHEN I TOLD HIM WE WERE FULL.
NVA: Favorite ‘Food Movie’ of all time? (or Food Scene)?
JT: DEFINITELY THE SCENE IN TOM JONES.
NVA: Is ‘molecular’ or ‘modernist cuisine’ something you feel has made cuisine better?
JT: ANY SERIOUS, PASSIONATE AND INTELLIGENT DISCIPLINE (THINK NOUVELLE CUISINE, EVEN CUISINE MINCEUR) MAKE US THINK AND INSPIRED. IT DOES NOT HAVE TO CHANGE EVERYTHING, JUST NUDGE IT IN VARIOUS DIRECTIONS, ALL OF WHICH WILL EITHER BE ASSIMILATED OR ABANDONED OVER TIME
NVA: This part is one of my questions knowing YOU are among the very few who still can enlighten today’s readers… Those who really do want to know deeply about our lineage in American food and it’s now nearly forgotten mentors you supped, toasted and cooked with. What would be said of this topic by;
“VERY SILLY … BUT I GUESS THERE MAY BE SOME INTERESTING THINGS, A COUPLE OF GREAT SPANIARDS. BUT NOT FOR ME”
“REALLY DEAR, MUST WE BOTHER WITH THAT? THOUGH YOU KNOW IT HAS HAPPENED BEFORE, IF NOT IN THE SAME WAY” AND SO ON. SHE WOULD FIND SOMETHING AS FAR BACK AS ROME … THEN INTO THE CULINARY ALCHEMISTS, USING GOLD AND SILVER IN FOOD, THEN INTO THE CREATIONS OF CAREME.
“NOTHING TO DO WITH PROVENCE”
NVA: If it all came down to the world knowing your life’s work via ‘one dish’…like an author via a single book they’d written…what dish would be the one that you would choose you created or best became known for?
JT: THE SEA URCHIN SOUFFLÉ IN THE CLEANED OUT SHELL.
NVA: If you had not made it as a Chef…and money were not an issue…what profession would you choose?
JT: TENDING MY ROSES AND LEMON TREES IN THE SOUTH OF FRANCE
Norman Van Aken 2019 ©