The Living Legend on the Perils of Celebrity, What Tweeting Did to His Heart Rate, and “The Barrier”
There are but a handful of people who can lay legitimate claim to having forged the world in which we dine today. Jeremiah Tower is one of them.
For readers for whom Tower may not be a familiar name, not only did he help (re)define American cuisine in the 70s and 80s, first at Chez Panisse and later at Stars in San Francisco, but he was one of the first celebrity chefs, as we understand that term today: Way back in the mid 1980s, he was the star of a $100 million Dewar’s ad campaign, and was one of the first chefs to export a refined dining concept such as Stars to multiple locations and countries. His name belongs alongside those of such fellow luminaries as Wolfgang Puck, Jonathan Waxman, and of course, Alice Waters.
For the past decade or so, Tower has famously lived in Mexico, where he restores houses (before turning to chefdom, he was trained as an architect), SCUBA dives three or four times a week, and writes. On hearing that he was bound for New York City, Toqueland tracked him down and invited him out for a drink–make that drinks. He obliged, making time for us shortly after his arrival. We caught up with him last night at Ai Fiori and peppered him mercilessly with questions.
As is only appropriate to this larger than life personality, the interview cannot be contained in one write-up, so here’s Part 1, with the second installment to follow later this week:
TOQUELAND: First of all, please just orient me: You’re here in New York for how long and for what purpose?
TOWER: I’m in New York for five days. I leave again on Saturday back to diving in Cozumel. And I’m just here because it’s been a year since I came to New York, and to see a lot of people and find out what’s going on.
TOQUELAND: When I think Jeremiah Tower, I think, “He’s a very important chef.” But it’s been a long time since you had a restaurant. Do you still consider yourself a chef?
TOWER: I don’t really see myself as a chef because I don’t put on my whites. I mean, I get to go out to dinner instead of cooking it. So, no, I don’t see myself as a chef so much anymore. I would be again the moment there was a restaurant and I put my whites on. But that’s not my identity now for myself.
TOQUELAND: What would it be if I asked you? Or do you even think in those terms?
TOWER: No, not really. I mean, the reason I love SCUBA diving is because I’m really good at it. At my age, anything you’re really good at is something you enjoy. So, I mean, I cook a lot to experiment in the Yukatan because I love some of the ingredients. But, no, I don’t think about my identity.
TOQUELAND: Along the same lines: Have you ever, in the years since Stars went away and since you moved to Mexico, have you ever had a flash of inspiration? Has an idea for a restaurant ever popped into your mind and you thought, “Gosh, I wish I was still in the game! I would love to do that right now?” A fantasy restaurant or a fleeting moment of creativity?
TOWER: Yes, but it’s usually been triggered by something I saw. There’s a restaurant in Tulum on the coast called Hartwood, which is sort of Chez Panisse Cafe in the open. Has no roof or anything. .. it’s open air, but there’s a wall of brick that has wood ovens and things and grills in it. In front is a table with all the food that they’re going to cook on it, and they’re just chopping up and cooking as they go along. I mean, it’s brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.
And then, jumping right ahead to Thailand, in Phuket recently, there was a little bar with perfect cocktails, a red wine and a white wine, that was it, and one beer. Perfect music and the sand and the wonderful swimming. And I finally said, “Do you have an umbrella or something? Because I can’t sit in the sun.” And this old guy came over with a machete, went into the jungle, cut down a banana tree, came out, and stuck it in the sand and said, “There’s your umbrella.”
And then I thought, “Well, now there’s a restaurant idea here somewhere.” Not for cutting down banana trees, but the charm of that kind of service just got me rolling, you know?
TOQUELAND: When that happens . ..
TOWER: Oh, I get all excited.
TOQUELAND: Does it stay with you for a day or two?
TOWER: A week or two, a week or two.
TOQUELAND: Are you in a state of infatuation where you’re thinking God, I wish . ..
TOWER: “I’m going to do it! I’m going to do it!”
TOQUELAND: You actually think you might do it for a time?
TOWER: Yeah, yeah.
TOQUELAND: And then you think better of it? What happens?
TOWER: Well, then I start writing and diving again. But I’m getting closer and closer to doing something again. .. the next time I get one of those feelings I’m just going to do it.
TOQUELAND: Do you have a country in mind?
TOWER: No, not particularly. But it has to have wonderful ingredients and I would like it to be by the water because waking up to the water gives me huge positive feelings.
TOQUELAND: You were born in the United States, but you’ve lived in so many places—England, France, Australia, the Yucatan. Do you identify yourself as an American?
TOWER: Not at all.
TOQUELAND: Do you identify yourself with any country?
TOWER: No. Zero.
TOQUELAND: So what are you? A citizen of the world? Have you ever termed it for yourself?
TOQUELAND: I realized fairly early on but it’s completely clear to me now, that I identify with no country whatsoever. I used to identify with England because that’s where I grew up. But England has become so naff, as they would say now. It’s become so American, and the worst part American. Australia is still great. But I don’t identify . .. I’m not Australian, even though if there was an Australian here my accent would turn Australian in a second. But Sydney: What a civilized, wonderful city. One of the best in the world. Maybe the best place to live. But I don’t identify with it.
TOQUELAND: What’s so special about Sydney?
TOWER: Their attitude, the setting. I mean, how many places in the world can you say let’s go to dinner, so you walk down to the harbor, phone up on your cell phone, a water taxi takes you over to Doyle’s fish restaurant on the water, phone a water taxi, it takes you home, and you walk up the hill. It’s pretty cool.
TOQUELAND: I think your nationality might be The Ocean.
TOWER: Yes, yes, yes. Definitely water oriented.
TOQUELAND: There’s a quote from a Wall Street Journal profile of you that I want to fly by you and see how you respond to it. This is you, talking about Stars: “That Jeremiah Tower was a fabrication of a personality for business. It was exhausting and boring and I really hated it. I’m much more at home with my feet in the sand on a tropical beach.” It reminds me of a famous line that Cary Grant once said. “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant; even I want to be Cary Grant.” He enjoyed the illusion, but you’re talking about it in these nightmarish terms.
TOWER: Well, I enjoyed it, too.
TOQUELAND: Is that an exaggeration when you hear that line read back to you?
TOWER: It’s a bit of a sound bite. I didn’t really hate it. I mean, I hated it at times, of course. But for the most part, I sort of enjoyed it, but it was not. .. I mean, Jeremiah Tower was a .. . I did all my public relations. I’d sit at Zuni’s with a glass of champagne in the afternoon and make notes. And every letter or phone call, anything I ever received or Stars received got a handwritten letter, so there were 15 or 20 a day that I signed and sent off. So Jeremiah Tower was a construct, a business construct. And the Jeremiah Tower who said hello to 350 people a day out of the thousand that came through Stars, I mean, you can’t do that.
TOQUELAND: What do you mean you can’t do that?
TOWER: You can’t do that if you actually think that’s who you are. If you are, then you’re a little bit crazy. And also, I never read the good reviews. I read only the bad ones. Because I knew I couldn’t stand it. I knew I was in trouble if I believed my own press.
TOQUELAND: You knew it would go to your head?
TOWER: Yes. Is there anyone who it wouldn’t go to their head? So, the times that I made big mistakes was when I was starting to believe my own press. That I was this superstar who could do anything he wanted.
TOQUELAND: When you say you only read the bad reviews, that was something you developed in time? Did you initially read them?
TOWER: No. Never did. I knew that was a danger.
TOQUELAND: You saw a weakness in yourself that you wanted to avoid?
TOWER: Because when I was 19 I was beautiful enough to attract almost everything. And by the time I was 30, that was all gone. That was my lesson: Not to believe. I mean, just because you’re born beautiful, if you think that’s who you are, you’re going to have a very unhappy future. And I learned that lesson in my twenties.
TOQUELAND: So the connection between that and the reviews, is that . ..
TOWER: Beauty. It’s all, you know.. .
TOQUELAND: It’s all superficial?
TOWER: It’s not superficial at all. It’s incredibly useful and can be rather enjoyable. .. that part of it, being famous, was very useful. I made a lot of money. But to think that’s who you are? Then you’re really in trouble.
TOQUELAND: There’s a question I want to ask you that verges on the personal, so please tell me if you’d rather just not go there.
TOQUELAND: I’ve spent a lot of time in a lot of kitchens. American kitchens are not the most gay-accepting environment, especially if you go back 20, 30 years. You’re one of the most important figures in American cuisine. But there are very few other chefs who are, or were, gay.
TOWER: Right, very few. At least who are out.
TOQUELAND: You’re accepted, you’re lionized. But you also exist in this arena that really is not a terribly accepting environment. So, first of all, I wonder if you think your success was something that maybe would have only been possible in the Bay area, and I’m wondering if you ever questioned if these people who accepted you and the people you were socializing with and the chefs you were going to visit in other cities, if you were getting the real them?
TOWER: There has always been a barrier. Let’s just go down a couple of points: Social San Francisco which I had complete entree to because of Denise Hale, they all came to Stars. I was so famous and they had to be at Stars. So they had to never comment on it. San Francisco society figures couldn’t comment on it. But I knew there was still a kind of barrier there that if I had been straight wouldn’t have existed.
TOQUELAND: When you say barrier, you mean there was a provincial, old money resistance?
TOWER: Not provincial. More generally, I think there was a lot of confusion how somebody could be so famous and successful and be gay. And that meant my fellow chefs. You know, I think there was with some, with many, I don’t know—a lot of resentment that because I was gay I shouldn’t have been able to achieve. I mean, in their book, the rules were that I shouldn’t have been able to do what I did.
TOQUELAND: This is nothing that was spoken? This was a vibe?
TOWER: This was all a vibe, yes. I mean, I never made a point about it. I never said I was gay and I never denied it because it wasn’t for me. It had just gotten really not much to do with it. Your sexuality is not a political thing as it became with many, many people. So that was just boring. I mean, I’d rather talk about the politics of foie gras.
But it was definitely a confusing thing for a lot of people, and I knew that but I just didn’t feel there was anything to deal with, really.
TOQUELAND: So you shut it off?
TOWER: I didn’t shut it off; I just didn’t deal with it. But I knew that there were a fair number of chefs who felt resentful. It just wasn’t fair somehow, you know? I mean, when Time magazine said that I’d received more PR than Meryl Streep, that was a bit odd. And then when I went on David Letterman, speaking of the power of TV, I would drive around San Francisco and people would run up and start banging on the car windows.
TOQUELAND: Did you enjoy it?
TOWER: No. I thought that was very, very strange.
TOQUELAND: Was it scary?
TOWER: Not really. But it certainly made me appreciate Hollywood stars who need bodyguards. Because if you ramped that up 100,000 times, then absolutely they need people to just keep the crowds away. I’d be on a flight to Europe in first class and 18 people would line up to get my autograph. But if that was the Jeremiah that was making money and keeping Stars full, fine.
TOQUELAND: When I hear or read about the late seventies, early eighties, it seems to me that everybody has a glass of champagne. What was it about champagne at that time?
TOWER: At Stars, we introduced champagne by the glass to northern California.
TOQUELAND: It had not been done before?
TOQUELAND: Because from a financial standpoint it didn’t make sense to open a bottle of champagne?
TOWER: They thought it was impossible or something.
TOQUELAND: Because of perishibility, or just it wasn’t done?
TOWER: It’s one of those things, when I tell you there were no fresh herbs in 1972, you’re going to look at me and have no idea what I’m saying. And that’s one of those moments, you know? If it was such a good idea, how come it didn’t happen before? Well, I mean, it was happening in New York and Europe, so I just . .. hello. And in the first year, we sold 900 cases of Veuve Clicquot. So every time I had a photograph taken, which was a lot, I had a glass of champagne in my hand in order to make a personality. It was like the red sunglasses, you know, or Mario’s orange clogs.
TOQUELAND: It was part of your public Jeremiah Tower. ..
TOWER: Oh, absolutely. So if I had a glass of champagne my hand, than everybody had to in Stars.
TOQUELAND: This has gotten some attention: You’ve had a Twitter account for awhile, and it wasn’t terribly active. Then, all of a sudden, when you launched your website, you started Tweeting, and you gained several hundred followers in 72 hours. And you very charmingly welcomed everybody into your Twitter world with personal notes. But right after those few days, you went radio silent.
TOWER: I went diving.
TOQUELAND: Did you burn out?
TOWER: I was burned. I mean, I just decided to go for it, you know? To figure out what Twitter was. And very quickly I found out it wasn’t, “Hi, I’m at Starbucks having a cappuccino.” That it was something much more interesting.
But then when I went live, as it were, my email, at the bottom, I remembered what the email was because I was saving this email to remind me to do something. It was at the bottom of, let’s say, 10 emails. Suddenly I thought it disappeared, and it was important information to me. But what it was. .. I had to scroll forever. I mean, there were several hundred emails there [alerting me to Tweets] and I just went, “Well, you know, I’m just riding the tiger again.” So for three days I sat there.
TOQUELAND: This was the virtual equivalent of you working the dining room at Stars.
TOWER: Absolutely. Riding the tiger. And I reminded somebody of that the other day when they said they’d got bitten by the press, or by PR. I said, “Excuse me. You got on the tiger. No complaining, no explaining, you know? Just shut up and either get off the tiger or just make it better for you than worse.”
So the end of the 72 hours, coincided with my six-months checkup. I do it twice a year because of diving. And my blood pressure had gone through the roof. The doctor almost slapped me down onto the table with an IV or something. And I said, “Well, you know, it’s just a very, very anxious moment. I’ve been Twittering. I’ve just answered 500 Tweets in 72 hours.” And he didn’t know what I was talking about.
TOQUELAND: Have you been enjoying that process? It seems like you’ve been turned on to websites that you really like? [Editor’s note: Tower recently discovered the subject of yesterday’s Toqueland profile, My Last Supper’s Melanie Dunea.]
TOQUELAND: Have you developed some new pen pal relationships?
TOWER: All of the above.
TOQUELAND: What’s the experience like?
TOWER: Well, it’s absolutely panic making, too, because I suddenly realized all the amazing information out there. I need another two lifetimes just to catch up because in ten years, we have gone from a few magazines and some television shows to everybody who is interested in food, which is an awful lot of people, having blogs, good or bad or indifferent. You could actually spend six or seven or eight hours a day just keeping up on the things that interest you. That’s impossible. I mean, for me. I’m just not going to do that. But, my God, there’s a lot of wonderful information out there.
TOQUELAND: Have you been gratified? You’re down in Mexico. You haven’t had a restaurant for a long time. And there are relatively young people, people in their twenties and thirties, Tweeting, “Oh, my God, I’m getting a Tweet from Jeremiah Tower.”
TOWER: I had no idea that existed. It’s very gratifying. I mean, on the one hand, I have American publishers telling me, “Nobody knows who you are. No one would ever buy a book of yours.”
TOQUELAND: You don’t have a platform, in publishing speak?
TOWER: Yes. “You don’t have a platform. And we love what you’ve done in the past but there’s nothing now.” And then, suddenly, there are all these people saying, “You’re an inspiration. I love the books. I love what you did. I love Stars.” And on and on and on.
TOQUELAND: You were surprised by that?
TOWER: Yes, wonderfully surprised.
Note: Part 2 of our interview has been posted. In it, Tower shares his thoughts on the evolution of New American Cuisine, the relative influences of Northern California and Los Angeles, and early recollections of Ruth Reichl, Mario Batali, Jonathan Waxman, and Wolfgang Puck. Check it out!
PS If you worked in a major American restaurant in the 1970s or 1980s (kitchen or front of house), I'd love to hear from you and possibly interview you for my forthcoming oral history of that era. Please reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.