Architecting the American dining scene as we know it: A conversation with Jeremiah Tower

Jeremiah Tower was supposed to be an architect. A young man at the time, he was on his way to Hawaii to do just that. But, as has happened throughout history to many a young man trying to make their mark, Jeremiah hit a snag. He was down to his last $25, and stuck in San Francisco. So, what’s a man to do?

Why not become one of the individuals credited with completely redefining the American dining scene? Perhaps become the person that many consider to be “the father of California cuisine”?

If you ask him, Jeremiah will be the first to tell you that he never set out to change the culinary world. A lover of food since childhood, working as a chef seemed a natural way to earn some money so that he could continue on to Hawaii as he’d planned. Along the way, however, things changed. Not only did Jeremiah find success in the kitchens of California, he found a way to become one of the main architects of the American dining scene many of us know and love today.

I recently had the honor  to speak with Chef Tower. During our conversation we spoke a bit about where his love for food began, what it’s like to have had such an enormous impact on the culinary world, and what he has on the horizon for the culinary world.

Jeremiah Tower - Photo courtesy of Jeremiah Tower
Jeremiah Tower – Photo courtesy of Jeremiah Tower

Foodie Journal: When was it that you first realized that you had a love for food?
Jeremiah Tower: I fell  in love with food and restaurants when I was five, and we lived in Sydney. There was severe  food rationing at the time, except for in restaurants, so we ate in them a lot and I was allowed to go along.  The most glamorous at that time was Prunier.

FJ: I take it that food continued to play an important role in your life through your teen years, and when you were in college. What were some of the dishes you enjoyed making in those formative years?
JT: Well, my aunt sent me off to college with a hot plate, a Le Creuset frying pan, two bottles of hundred-year-old Madeira, and her recipe for chicken livers, which I cooked in the closet for my roommates. [LAUGHS] But, a favorite of mine, because of my Russian experiences, I loved making coulibiac, though I don’t typically do it with sturgeon. I prefer salmon, or something similar. Do you know what coulibiac is?
FJ: No, that’s new to me. It’s a typical Russian dish?
JT: Yes, so it’s a brioche pastry in to which is stuffed a whole salmon filet with rice, mushrooms, hard-boiled eggs. It’s beautiful in cross-section, and served on a big plate. Then you pour butter and sour cream all over it.
FJ: Wow, that sounds brilliant!
JT: It is! Then you have it with vodka. It’s really unbelievable! Aside from that, I would also make blinis. Obviously without caviar at the time, as it was very expensive.

FJ: So, despite that love for food and cooking, you didn’t originally start down a path that was likely to lead to becoming a chef or a restauranteur. What was it that finally drew you to the kitchen?
JT: Circumstance. I had cooked a lot for friends in college and graduate school, but thought I was going to be an underwater architect. I was on my way to Hawaii to help with a pavilion for a World’s Fair, but I ran out of money in San Francisco. So, a friend suggested I take the job of chef at a café in Berkeley. I was down to my last $25, so I went for an interview.  It was called Chez Panisse.

FJ: Now, from Chez Panisse you moved on to Stars, which was one of the biggest restaurants to open in the United States. Many credit you and what you did there as really changing the landscape of what it means to dine in America. What was it that led you to make Stars in to what it became? Were you interested in “changing the world” so to speak, or did you just want to cook your way?
JT: At the time I was equal partners with Alice Water at Chez Panisse, but I decided to leave after she would not agree to do what is now the café.  I was tired of Berkeley, and wanted to live and work in San Francisco.  I was also in love with the idea of a brasserie,  along the lines of La Coupole or Boeuf Sur le Toit in Paris or the old Delmonico’s in New York, with a huge bar.  But, as a footnote, I really want to say that we had no idea what we were doing in terms of changing things, or creating what became known as California cuisine. I was not aware of the idea that we were changing anything. I was just doing what I wanted to do.  Ultimately, what  I wanted was what Johnny Apple, a writer at the Washington Post, later called “the most democratic restaurant in the USA”.

FJ: You definitely made an impact on the culinary world, and on many chefs with what you did at Stars. I recently had the chance to read your Kindle Single, A Dash of Genius, about Auguste Escoffier, and its obvious that he had a big impact on you as an individual. Can you talk a little about some of the others that impacted who you became as a chef, and what you want to create in the kitchen?
JT: Another mentor was Fernand Point and his book Ma Gastronomie.  I learned to cook from my aunt, her Russian uncle, and also my mother.  Then the two people who influenced me when I was working in restaurants were my great friends Elizabeth David, and Richard Olney.  Another mentor for me, not so much as far as food was concerned but very much for advice in general, was another great friend, James Beard.

Potatoes in paprika - Photo courtesy of Jeremiah Tower
Potatoes in paprika – Photo courtesy of Jeremiah Tower

FJ: So, what do you have in the works now as far as the culinary world is concerned?
JT: Well, 10 minutes ago, I group of people just approached me about opening a dinner club in Merida (Mexico). [LAUGHS] Much to my surprise. But, what’s really going on is the project in New Rochelle, in New York. We’re going to be doing a big urban renewal of some old buildings there, the first of which will be a big food hall. It will involve lots of outreach and educational programs with students and farmers.
FJ: That sounds really exciting! Glad to live not too far from New York so I’ll be able to pay it a visit when it opens.
JT: It will be great for the community. A renewal for the culinary and agriculture in the region. It’s very exciting!

FJ: So on to one of my favorite questions. You’ve had a storied career, and undoubtedly have had countless experiences with food, so I need to ask the impossible question. Is there a particular food memory or experience that stands out in  your mind? Something that really left a mark on you, and solidified what you love about food?
JT: Fried eggs with a blizzard of white truffles in Barcelona last week at Ca l’Isidre. No, just kidding…

I think it was the meals with my aunt, and my Russian space scientist uncle in Washington D.C. when I  was a teenager. My aunt was an extraordinary cook, and my uncle loved to talk about food. It was just amazing to sit around with them, eating and hearing stories told by some of my uncle’s friends, including a man who was a childhood friend of the man who killed Rasputin! These meals would just go on for hours, and I remember that, for me being a teenager, I always saw it as a check of my manhood to start off by trying 5 different types of vodkas, caviars and then make it through dishes like my aunt’s chicken liver with hundred-year-old Madeira. So that was an amazing introduction to how to eat glamorously, because they were glamorous and the conversations were extraordinary.

A Dash of Genius is available as a Kindle Single on Amazon.com. You can stay current with what’s going on in the world of Jeremiah Tower by visiting his website at jeremiahtower.com.

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