The Living Legend Reflects on the Meaning of California Cuisine, Los Angeles versus San Francisco, and Early Encounters with Fellow Luminaries
If you’re just joining our interview with Jeremiah Tower, whom we connected with in person during his visit to New York City this week, you might want to read Part 1 of our extensive conversation before reading on. Herewith, the balance of our dialogue:
TOQUELAND: California cuisine. Do you like that term? Do you feel like it was, in hindsight, the right term for what it describes?
TOWER: California cuisine is not the right term because it wasn’t a cuisine; it was a mindset which was the only one I knew because I grew up in Europe, where the menu is done from the marketplace. .. it was really restating what was completely obvious to every French grandmother for the last 500 years. It was an approach to cooking. ..
And then, a couple of years later, with things like [Michael McCarty’s] Michael’s [in Santa Monica]. Actually, before Michael’s it was Michael Roberts’s Trumps restaurant. They really started the look of the new restaurant. Looking around here [Editor’s note: This interview was conducted at Ai Fiori], this all started in Los Angeles, in two or three places, where you put the approach to cooking with a design look, white and beige and simple and everything. .. that attitude towards design and what you could do, what you could get away with, making it exciting, plus the approach that you just cooked whatever you could find that was excellent in terms of ingredients. That’s really what it was about.
TOQUELAND: Do you think Los Angeles has been undervalued as people look back on the evolution of American food and restaurants in the 70s and 80s?
TOWER: Completely. This is why I made the point, because people don’t know the story. And the writers who came later were so focused on Chez Panisse and San Francisco and everything. But really Trumps –it was Michael Roberts who had that. There was the West Beach Cafe in Venice; it was just a little building and it was all white concrete and white and steel, you know? Really early on. And then came Michael and Trumps and one or two others. Cecelia Chiang came to me one day and said, “Jeremiah, you’ve really got to see what’s happening. You’re not going to believe what’s happening in Los Angeles.” And without that, I wouldn’t have known.
TOQUELAND: You describe your lunch at Michael’s in California Dish. You wrote that you were “choked.”
TOWER: My jaw hit the floor, yes.
TOQUELAND: You wrote that you realized you were sitting in the future.
TOWER: I’m getting goosebumps even remembering that. It made so much sense. Because a serious restaurant, when I started at Chez Panisse, was Ernie’s or the Pump Room in Chicago or, you know, red plush, waiters in black tie. You know the scene.. . that was the last gasp of that. And if you didn’t have foie gras on the menu, you weren’t a serious restaurant .. .
So when I saw Trumps and West Beach Cafe and Michael’s . .. I just went, “Oh, my.” It wasn’t a verbal thing; it just hit me like, you know, a nine millimeter, soft-nosed bullet. .. RW Apple called Stars the most democratic restaurant he had ever seen. But it was only because of that inspiration that came out of LA .. .
In the rush of everyone to write the story a few years, or a year, later than the first stories, they just would do what writers, newspaper journalists do–they just repeat what they’ve read. And it all gets watered down. So the eighth time along, all those people disappeared and there were just a few famous names. I mean, nobody remembers Trumps except you know, Jonathan [Waxman], Michael and me. Or the West Beach Cafe, because that was really where it started. And I mean, to go along afterwards and make success is one thing, but to be whoever it was that started West Beach Cafe in a concrete bunker, I mean, either you’re crazy or you have a lot of guts. [Update – Hours after this interview was posted, Jeremiah himself sent in a link to a nice piece about West Beach Cafe’s Bruce Marder.]
TOQUELAND: In addition to being a terrific chef, you’re an excellent writer, and voracious reader.You have an incredible bibliography at the end of California Dish.
TOWER: I had so much fun doing that.
TOQUELAND: In the last five years, what are some things that you’ve read about the food world that you think, “This person really gets it?”
TOWER: Well, the latest thing is that article by Mario Batali in Lucky Peach. Right on, as much as I understand the food scene in the eastern United States right now. I’m not saying there haven’t been wonderful books or articles–Jeffrey Steingarten used to do such provocative, wonderful articles and things–but when people ask me on Twitter, I still say Richard Olney, because Simple French Food–forget the French part, just think of it as simple food. The incredible common sense. The most privilege, and the most education, I ever had was to be in the same room and cook for him and Elizabeth David together. Because they were very competitive for my attention, and who could teach Jeremiah the most, you know? Elizabeth of course was the most intelligent person writing on food that century ever saw. Because she knew more in a quiet, scholarly way than anybody. And a book like Italian Food, I mean, some of those early books are about passion, common sense, lack of pretension–all of those values which I think are still screamingly important today, more than ever.
TOQUELAND: More than ever because . .. ?
TOWER: Well, because as you get, you know, Iron Chef, Top Chef, Twittering, and Food Network and all of that, the danger, which I’ve been yelling for a long time, is: they take a photograph of whatever chef the world is following at that moment, then all of a sudden, not within the next year or three years, but in the next three weeks, every chef in the world is plating the same food with four dots, the smear that looked like a cat dragged its ass across the plate, you know?
Can that food be wonderful? Yes, in the right hands. In the hands of the person who did it first, probably. So to go back to somebody who is not a victim of television or magazine cooking, you know, and to get that sense of discipline, which is what Mario talked about in his article, the discipline and the passion and the common sense. You know: “Why am I doing this? Does this really taste any good? Do I love this, or am I just doing this because everyone else is doing it?” That’s why I still go back to those two.
TOQUELAND: It’s amazing to me how often Olney comes up.
TOWER: Because French Menu Cookbook is brilliant. Brilliant. I wept when I was reading that book. I thought, “My God, will I ever be able to write a book like this or understand food this well?” But Simple French Food is much more approachable by people today.
TOQUELAND: You just alluded to reality cooking shows. Do you get them in Mexico? Do you watch Iron Chef and Top Chef?
TOWER: When I’m traveling I see them.
TOQUELAND: And your opinion of them?
TOWER: I mean, it’s very entertaining. But I hate the fact that those who are training . .. I mean, if young cooks think that’s what they should be doing, I’m just thinking, “Oh, no, no, no, no.” They’re under huge pressure and they’ve got no time at all.
TOQUELAND: OK. I’m going to throw out some names of people you knew early in their careers, and I’d love if you could give me your first impressions or a moment or a story that comes to mind.
TOQUELAND: Ruth Reichl.
TOWER: Very Berkeley. And then, suddenly, a guru in New York at the head of Gourmet magazine. An amazing story. And handled it very well. I admire her for that. And she did a brilliant, brilliant PR thing. She came to New York [as the restaurant critic for the New York Times], and thought, “How do I make my name? I attack the most important food person in New York: Sirio [Maccioni, owner of Le Cirque, from whom Reichl took away a star in her 1993 review].” It was a brilliant move. Even Sirio knew exactly what she was doing. [Sirio accused Reichl of using the review as a fame-generator in his own memoir, Sirio.]
TOQUELAND: Mario Batali.
TOWER: Did he start at Stars? Well, anyway, it was close enough to be a starting job. And a lot of fun. But I didn’t take him seriously. And then, you know, he came to visit at my villa in Italy and all that sort of thing and there wasn’t much indication of the brilliant man and achievement that he’s now done. There wasn’t much indication of it then. He was more naughty boy than genius in those days.
TOQUELAND: Wolfgang Puck.
TOWER: I first met Wolfgang at Ma Maison. An amazing gentleman. Always, even to the public. Always treated me incredibly well. The only difficult moment I’ve ever had with Wolfgang was when my Dewar’s profile went up outside his restaurant on Sunset and it said “Chef to the Stars.” Was it Dewar’s or something else? I can’t remember.
TOQUELAND: Was it a billboard?
TOWER: It was a huge billboard right outside the first Spago. And it said “Jeremiah Tower, Chef to the Stars.” And Wolfgang said, “I am chef to the stars.”
TOQUELAND: He said this to you?
TOWER: To everybody. Couldn’t wait to tell me. When they told me they were putting a billboard there, I went, “Oh, my God, please don’t. At least not with that headline.” Wonderful, wonderful man, Wolfgang. He’s the best.
TOQUELAND: Jonathan Waxman.
TOWER: I first met him, I went to lunch at Michael’s in Santa Monica and out came a plate–this is a bit not what I was saying before about California cuisine, but it is about the design–out came a plate of roast chicken with watercress, pomme frittes, perfect, the right size, three eighths of an inch, you know.. . and some tarragon butter or something. And it’s that French plate which is one of the greatest plates in the world. Because you have a perfect half a roast chicken and the watercress which I adore and the French fries and then the juices from the chicken and the tarragon butter on the bottom of the plate gets mixed up with the watercress and the French fries. I just sat there thinking, “Oh, my God.” It wasn’t California cuisine; it was just the most perfect reproduction of the best effort the French had ever done.
So I went into the kitchen after and said, “Who is responsible for that?” And it was Jonathan. And they were cutting up chicken on a plank outside the restaurant by the wire fence. Brilliant. That’s Jonathan.
TOQUELAND: That’s the first time you ever met Jonathan Waxman?
TOWER: Yes. I walked into the kitchen and said, “Who was able to do that?”
TOQUELAND: Do you remember the interaction?
TOWER: I think he was a bit surprised that anybody was so crazed about roast chicken with French fries and watercress and tarragon butter.