Jeremiah Tower Discusses His New Role as Chef of Tavern on the Green and Personal and Professional History with New York City
The Big News in Gotham this week is that Jeremiah Tower, the legendary chef behind Stars, and onetime Chez Panisse toque, has taken over the kitchen at Tavern on the Green, following Katy Sparks’ unfortunate departure in September, on the heels of no-star reviews from both the New York Times and New York Magazine. Tower, who hasn’t been a regular presence in a major American restaurant since departing Stars in 1999, has been living in Mexico for nearly a decade, but has nevertheless remained in the news: Most recently, he was a featured speaker at the MAD conference, and Anthony Bourdain and Zero Point Zero are currently producing a documentary about him. As I’ve been in regular touch with him in connection with my forthcoming book about the American chefs of the 1970s and 1980s, I caught wind of this development shortly before he and Tavern owners Jim Caiola and David Salama announced their new collaboration, and am pleased to be able to share this interview:
Friedman: Obviously, most people connect you and your career with California. You also, though, have a long history with New York City, having started life on the East Coast, even though you never cooked here professionally. Can you take us through that a little bit?
Tower: When I first saw New York it was eating at wonderful restaurants like the old Luchow’s and ‘21’ and stuff like that where my parents would go. And then, when I was in college, they lived in Brooklyn Heights in General Livingston’s old farmhouse, so Gage and Tollner and that kind of New York restaurant was what I remembered. And then all through college they lived there and in graduate school they lived there, and then back to Connecticut. So, I’m a New Englander. All my family is from New England. I was seen as a Californian, but between Boston and New York, I always felt like an Easterner, as some people in Berkeley would be happy to tell you. (laughs)
Friedman: You made some legendary visits to New York City in the 1980s, these nights when you would go on dine‑arounds. What was a typical visit to the city like for you during that time?
Tower: A visit to the city was usually around some special event, especially CityMeals on Wheels at Rockefeller Center. And I would always bring four people and about two thousand pounds of luggage so that we could make a huge display of ourselves. And then we’d get a limo and go and visit ten of the hot new restaurants, spending twenty minutes in each one, so that we would go back to San Francisco exhausted but inspired. New York was the inspiration.
Friedman: That’s an interesting comment because a lot of people from the West Coast—and the East Coast for that matter—feel like influence emanated from California during that time. When you say you took inspiration from this coast, what kinds of things would you take back with you?
Tower: Well, I remember walking into Le Madri when it was brand new, for instance, and just thinking, ‘God!’ I mean, the feeling of the place with all that food laid out when you came in, it was part of the recreation of the kind of old New York restaurant or American restaurant with something, of course, completely new. And that didn’t exist in San Francisco. The circle of fine dining in the ’70s in San Francisco was Ernie’s and L’Etoile which was extremely formal and formulaic as well. So New York was not necessarily cutting edge the way California cuisine developed and changed a lot of things but it was cutting edge in a way of looking at things ‑‑ you want to do something, do it! That was the New York part of me.
Friedman: There is a similarity, or at least a natural connection, between Stars and Tavern on the Green, or at least a lot of people will perceive that. There’s a certain grandeur about both, a certain drama inherent to both spaces. I know we’re talking about a span of a few decades between you helming the two, but when you think about these venues, what do you see as the similarities and what do you see as the key differences?
Tower: Well, we were always cousins because Nation’s Restaurant News every year had a survey of the highest grossing restaurants, and Stars and Tavern were always in the top three in relation to the number of seats. Tavern grossed way more ‑‑ tens of millions, and Stars was grossing nine or ten. But in relation to the number of seats, we were number two or number three. And of course I loved going there because it was so outrageous.
Friedman: How so?
Tower: I mean, in the same way that Maxwell’s Plum was outrageous. So the difference is that we couldn’t do a complete circus which is what Tavern was. I mean, Warner LeRoy was a circus genius. Very theatrical genius. And Stars was theater, too, but I had a completely different style. I admired the Tavern style.
Friedman: When you say outrageous, what do you mean, for people who weren’t there back in the day?
Tower: Oh, I mean, my God. Oversized chandeliers and didn’t he put live animals at one point for some party? It reminded me of the Ritz, a nouveau riche version of the Ritz, where in the old days, a grand Duke wanted a winter scene so they flooded the basement and froze it and draped everything in ice. It was that kind of theater.
Friedman: What do you remember about the food at the old Tavern?
Tower: You know, I honestly don’t remember anything. I’ve been looking at old menus from the 1950s but I don’t think I ever looked at the plate. I was too busy looking at the decor and the action.
Friedman: This is obviously not a job that one finds on Craigslist. As much as you’re able to, can you please take readers through how this job came on your radar and how we find ourselves at this moment with you taking over this iconic space in New York City?
Tower: Well, it was only a few months ago. A friend in New York heard about it. When the vision, the possibility of the job came up, I said, “That’s the only thing that would ever get me off a Caribbean beach.” And we made contact. It happened very quickly because Michael [Landsman, Tower’s attorney] had a brainwave about contacting somebody who knew [the owners] and knew the place so it started within a couple of days. It’s gone amazingly quickly. I have to congratulate Michael Landsman, who’s a brilliant hospitality lawyer.
Friedman: Am I correct, that he used to work for you at Stars?
Tower: Yes, in the kitchen.
Friedman: You were involved with that project in New Rochelle a few years ago that ultimately didn’t come to fruition. You just said this is the only thing that would maybe get you off the beach, but how long have you been thinking about possibly getting back in the game in a real way like this?
Tower: Well, I mean, I was just fascinated with the project at New Rochelle because I was going to sit back and help design it. I wasn’t going to get back in the kitchen game so much; it was just a very intriguing thing to be able to call on all [my background in] architecture and urban planning, basically. That’s what that was about. But this is something greatly different.
Friedman: I read an interview with Jonathan Waxman not long ago. He’s doing a project down in Nashville and he’s doing something in Canada. And the interviewer asked how much he’d actually be cooking, and he said, “If you think I’m working the line at my age, you’re out of your fucking mind.
Tower: Well, he’s been on the line for the last ten years and I haven’t.
Friedman: I don’t want to set myself up for a similar answer but how exactly is it going to work at Tavern? How much are you going to be functioning as an executive chef, have a chef de cuisine … how is that going to lay out as you see it?
JT: Well, I’m going to build a team. You know, there’s a good team there already. They don’t have a leader so I’m going to lead the team. And it’s a great opportunity for me because I’m not the owner. I don’t want to work for myself ever again. I don’t want to be responsible for the entire operation. This is a unique opportunity for me to do what I love to do the most, which is work in the kitchen and make wonderful food. And it’s also high volume. When I was asked about volume, I said, “Well, there was that dinner for 3,000 people in the middle of a field in Napa Valley which everyone said was the best that ever happened. So I understand volume.” And Stars was a very high‑volume, cook-to-order restaurant.
Friedman: When I first heard of the possibility of Jeremiah Tower, 2014, Tavern on the Green, it seemed so outlandish ‑‑ it seemed perfect but it also seemed almost like a dream. Does it seem that way to you? Does it seem surreal to you?
Tower: Well, the thing that’s occurred to me for the last two weeks is that it’s almost as if everything I’ve ever done has led to this point, quite frankly. It sounds a little surreal but there’s also a feeling of inevitability to it. I mean, I wouldn’t be able to do the job if I hadn’t done all the things I’d done and had Stars and had lived on the beach for eight years and, you know, learned patience in Mexico. Everything adds up.
Have you ever tried to open a bank account in Mexico? (laughs) I mean, you can open fifteen bank accounts in New York in the time it takes to open one in Mexico. And everyone said, “Well, don’t you think New York is such a difficult place?” Try and get something done in Mexico, for God sakes! New York is a cinch, except for getting an apartment, of course. (laughs)
Friedman: Since you bring it up, what has it been like having not lived in the States for so long?
Tower: Well, I’ve learned patience. I mean, living in Mexico, buying and selling houses, dealing with bank accounts and immigrations, visas and everything, and it’s a whole different thing, you know? It’s worse than Italy. Not as bad as I’ve heard it is in India, but almost. You have to have a half an hour conversation about everything except what you’re doing before you even start, if you want to get it done. You have to be friendly. In New York you walk in and say, “Hey, I want this, please.” And you get it. Here it’s completely different. So I’ve learned how to get a lot done and keep your blood pressure down.
Friedman: From a food standpoint, what can we look forward to here? How have you been going about figuring out what the menu is going to be when you get there? You said you’ve been looking at old menus: How much will your menu connect to the history of that restaurant and how much will it connect to your own history and dishes that people may know from you? In other words, will you be reprising certain things, revisiting things, or will this be a whole new menu from you done for this venue at this time?
Tower: Well, I think it’s drawing on everything I know. But the one thing about Tavern is that the spectrum of the customers is enormous. I mean, at Stars it was enormous, too, because that was a very democratic restaurant. But not really like this one.
So the food has to be, you know, fairly straightforward, delicious, beautiful‑looking, affordable. Because, one, it’s feeding the person across the street who has an eighteen-million dollar apartment, and the people who, you know, drive across the bridge who want to have a salad and look at the view. So I’m making a menu that you can be adventurous if you want to or you can just have a hamburger. Remember Stars, the hamburger and the glass of Lafite. So that’s what I’m thinking of. It has to be food that can be made absolutely delicious at high volume, the kind of food that you want to eat two or three times a week. Actually the way I like to dine now.
You know, the couple of times that I’ve dropped into The Breslin I’ve loved it. I think that’s a good restaurant. I’m not copying The Breslin but I mean that kind of food. But that has just enough interest and cutting edge to it, an adventurous edge to it, but the food you want to eat every day.
Friedman: What are you most looking forward to about being back in New York City?
Tower: Oh, an Internet that works. (laughs)
Friedman: There was a movie a few years ago called Comedian. It was about Jerry Seinfeld. He had just stopped doing his sitcom and he was starting to do some stand‑up again. And there’s this wonderful moment where he’s about to go onstage in a little club and test some new material. And there was a fan trying to talk to him and he couldn’t talk. He needed a minute. He needed to collect himself. And you can see that even for someone at that level, doing this for the first time in a while, there were some serious butterflies.
Tower: Oh, sure.
Friedman: Are you feeling something akin to that? I mean, yes, it’s exciting, and yes, you ran this landmark restaurant for all those years, but as you get ready to do it for the first time in a long while, to ride the bike again, what are the emotions of this moment for you?
Tower: There are definitely some butterflies but I spent a few days there already [Editor’s Note: Tower trailed at Tavern during the interview process a few weeks ago.], and I was very pleased at how organized they already are in the kitchen. And the morale was high despite all their terrible reviews and that kind of thing. But, you know, they asked me to cook some dishes. “We want five dishes from you that are not on the menu in seven minutes.” And I did it and it was fine. They loved it. So yes, I have butterflies but I also have confidence in having done this for thirty-five years.
Friedman: When you say they asked for five dishes, was that on the fly or they told you they wanted you to come in and do that?
Tower: It was on the fly.
Friedman: So you were there, observing the kitchen and getting a lay of the land and the owners asked you to do that?
Tower: Yeah. Yeah.
Friedman: Can I ask what one or two of them were?
Tower: Well, I ran around the stations. You know, I already knew what they were serving but, you know, I sort of went to one of the sous chefs and said, “Okay. What’s great? What’s in‑house that I don’t know about?” And he said, “We have some filet for one of the banquets. You can have one of those.” And I saw some chanterelles, and I quickly made some Robuchon mashed potatoes and put a dish together with that. And then there were some heirloom tomatoes so I chopped those up and made a wonderful sort of French-Mexican salsa out of that, put some tilefish in the pizza oven. There was some corn in there so I cooked that with basil and olive oil, did a bed of that with the fish and the salsa on top. And a few other dishes like that.
Friedman: Am I correct that you will be seventy-two this month?
Friedman: I’ve seen you on the road a few times in the last two years, and I’ve been impressed with your energy. I’m inclined to attribute it to all the SCUBA diving you do in Mexico. You seem to have a real stamina, vitality to this day. But still, taking a job at this age, does it seem like a push to you?
Tower: I don’t think it’s an issue for me, though Jonathan Waxman is also right, you know? But you know, my attitude about it, about taking on a job has changed because I’ve been sitting on a Caribbean beach for ten years. And SCUBA diving is like meditation times ten. I think you’re right about the SCUBA. It’s healthy.
Friedman: You’ve traveled a lot over the years and continue to travel a lot. You try “new” or whatever cutting edge would be termed wherever you happen to be. At a singular venue like Tavern on the Green, how essential do you feel it is to bring a cutting-edge influence into what you’re going to do there, or do you think that’s a venue that almost calls for not bringing that in, almost calls for food done in a more classic vein? Or is it somewhere between the two?
Tower: I think that the majority of what Tavern demands is the classic approach but it’s full of young, eager chefs. I was so inspired by the MAD conference and eating at Noma and then, you know, to have just come from Bangkok and Hong Kong and Shanghai a few weeks before, and then eating in Chicago and New Orleans all within two and a half months, it really got me charged up. So that helped a bit with the butterflies, too. But there were also things that I’d like to end up in the restaurant. I mean, I’m not going to put ants on steak tartare. I think we have to investigate that once we get it all settled down and making delicious food all the time. But no ants on the steak tartare.
Friedman: For anybody who was wondering!
Tower: Yes. But will I put, you know, snails inside the beef marrow bone and play with that? Yes.