Zoomer Q&A: Legendary Chef Jeremiah Tower

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Photo: Jeremiah Tower documentary

Jeremiah Tower is not a name you’ll likely recognize as a celebrity chef like Gordon Ramsay or Mario Batali. And yet, the 74-year-old Tower was the original rock star restaurateur.

He was the founding chef of legendary Chez Panisse, the father of California cuisine, and brought about the farm-to-table locavore movement that’s now mainstream.

His story, told wonderfully and thoughtfully in a brilliant documentary opening May 5, Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent is not rags to riches. It’s more intriguing than that.

He was the son of wealthy, upper class American aristocrats who embraced him with luxury, including first class international travel and a Harvard education, but little love or attention.

As a boy, he found comfort in food and nature—and his own imagination. As a man, he parlayed his charisma, creativity, classiness and good looks into a career that took him first to Chez Panisse, where he partnered with Alice Waters both in the kitchen and in bed (though he is gay) and then to the peak—his glitzy, highly rated San Francisco restaurant, Stars, where he wined and dined the socialites and superstars of the 1980s and ’90s.

And then, he disappeared—only to reinvent himself years later, as he entered his 70s, as the executive chef of New York’s iconic Tavern on the Green.

When the Tavern owners ended that arrangement after a negative review in the New York Times, Tower returned to the Yucatan where he cherishes the “tranquil and spiritual Mayan culture.” He spends his days scuba diving and cooking the day’s catch for friends and his nights dreaming of the perfect little restaurant where he’d prepare whatever he feels like for simpatico guests.

You’ll want to get to know the magnificent Jeremiah Tower through this film, which touchingly portrays him both as a lost soul and as a man who found his bliss.

In a phone conversation with Tower, I got a taste of his charm and his outspokenness as he answered my questions:

Can you reinvent yourself at any age?
“Of course you can. You pick yourself up, open a bottle of champagne and get on with it.”

In the film, you say you accepted the Tavern on the Green offer because you wanted to see if you ‘still have the light.’ What is ‘the light?’
“It’s when I was in Seville at the local market with American friends and there were 14 or 15 different kinds of wild prawns and I said ‘I want to open a little restaurant with the prawns and sea urchins inside the shell and no menu and we started looking for a location and said, ‘Let’s get a lease on this place.’ It was that impulse.”

Was it a mistake to try a come back in a restaurant as big and as high-profile as Tavern on the Green?
“In a way I enjoyed it, as hard as it was, as distasteful as it was to do what those morons (the Tavern owners) wanted. When they asked me if lamb has white and dark meat, I thought they were joking. I said, ‘Only if it has feathers,’ and they got really distasteful.”

How do you feel about your emphasis on seasonal, look food becoming the dominant trend at restaurants now, even fast food restaurants?
“The food revolution worked too well, with rubbish like fresh kale. For me, what has disappeared has come back from other parts of the world.”

Do you have any regrets about starting the trend of rock star chefs?
“I don’t have regrets about turning chefs into celebrities—except for those terribly sad TV shows. If everyone now wants to be Gordon Ramsay then we have really crashed and burned.”

What makes a great chef, a great restaurant?
“It always help when you’re constrained, when you have to be inventive. A great chef finds a few wonderful ingredients, looks after them, cooks them simply, and presents them as rock stars, not the chef.”

If you were going to open a restaurant in Toronto and cook dinner tonight, what would it be?
“I would do a little version of Chez Panisse, with a menu I changed every day. Maybe tonight I would poach pike in a stock of bones, heads and tail, with mushroom sauce with butter, thrown in a few mussels and some tarragon and serve it as a meaty stew with a great old Burgundy.”

Finally, how would you define ‘class’?
“It’s great manners and not thinking about yourself. It’s getting on an elevator and letting everybody else come off first. It’s getting to the top of an escalator while you’re talking on your phone and stepping to the right to let other people pass. It’s realizing everything is not about you.”