Jeremiah Tower: The Toqueland Interview (Part 2)

The Living Legend Reflects on the Meaning of California Cuisine, Los Angeles versus San Francisco, and Early Encounters with Fellow Luminaries

Jeremiah Tower, at home in Mexico (photo courtesy Jeremiah Tower)

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.


Read More »

Jeremiah Tower: The Toqueland Interview (Part 1)

The Living Legend on the Perils of Celebrity, What Tweeting Did to His Heart Rate, and “The Barrier”

Jeremiah Tower in Mexico (photo courtesy Jeremiah Tower)

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.


Read More »

The Ultimate Question

My Last Supper’s Melanie Dunea on Photographing Chefs and What Their Food Choices Say About Them

Melanie Dunea © The Next Course by Melanie Dunea ( Available where all books are sold.

Melanie Dunea and I met for coffee a few weeks ago at La Colombe in Tribeca to do an interview for Toqueland. We hadn’t seen each other in quite a while, so the coffee ended up being just a coffee. Then, we decided to pop in on our mutual friend Paul Liebrandt over at Corton, just around the corner.

We went through the staff entrance on White Street and found the kitchen brigade, just about a half hour before service, hushed and intensely focused on their work.

My usual MO at a time like that would be to tiptoe around the team and up to Paul. As I began to do just that, Melanie piped up, shattering the silence:

“This is some serious kitchen!”

A few cooks smiled. A few chuckled. Paul looked up, deadly serious for a moment, then realizing it was Melanie, let down his guard and smiled. His entire being seemed to relax. He waved us over and we stepped into the dining room for a visit.

That moment right there, I believe, is about as good an illustration of the difference between a photographer and a writer as you are apt to encounter. As a writer, I see it as my place to observe, to disappear into the woodwork, to allow people to simply behave as they would were I not there.


Read More »

Per Se’s Eli Kaimeh: The Toqueland Interview

The Chef de Cuisine of Thomas Keller’s New York City Fine Dining Temple on New York vs Napa, the Value of a Centrifuge Machine, and the Moment He Got “The News”

Eli Kaimeh, center, in the kitchen at The French Laundry (photo courtesy Thomas Keller Restaurant Group)

A member of Per Se’s kitchen brigade from the time the restaurant opened in 2004, Eli Kaimeh became Per Se’s chef de cuisine in 2010, when Jonathan Benno moved on to Lincoln Ristorante. Prior to working at Per Se, Kaimeh, a native New Yorker, cooked at Restaurant Daniel and Gramercy Tavern. Kaimeh recently returned from two weeks in Yountville, California, where he served as chef de cuisine of The French Laundry as part of the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group’s first-ever “exchange program” between the two restaurants. (Our recent interview with French Laundry chef de cuisine Timothy Hollingsworth about his time at Per Se here.)

We sat down with Kaimeh last week to discuss his time in Yountville, along with other topics related to Per Se and the Keller empire. Herewith, our dialogue:

TOQUELAND: First of all, can you tell me a little bit about yourself. You’re from Brooklyn. Which part?

KAIMEH: I am born and raised in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. I am a first generation American. My parents came from Syria about 35 years ago. Grew up in a very food-rich and culturally rich family. Had quite a big family in kind of a small space where we all lived together. Food was something that we shared and looked forward to every single day. After high school I experimented with college a little bit. Shortly thereafter, I knew that cooking was something that I wanted to pursue in life. I went to the Culinary Institute of America. I graduated in 2000. I worked mostly around New York. I worked in some small kitchens around the country, nowhere too crazy . .. I am very much in love with classical and French cuisine, and the style of it. I began at Per Se from the first day the restaurant opened, and I have been here ever since.

TOQUELAND: So your first cooking within the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, or what we now call the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, was at Per Se?

KAIMEH: Yes, correct.

TOQUELAND: The occasion for our sitting down today is this exchange program. You are just back. You got back on Monday night [February 20]. When you think about the couple of weeks you just spent out in Yountville, what are the first things that, if I don’t ask you to organize your thoughts in any way, what are the first things that just float up to your mind?

KAIMEH: Well, I think the first thing that really comes to my mind is the creativity behind what we did.

TOQUELAND: You mean the exchange program itself?

KAIMEH: Yeah. How wonderful it is to work for Chef Keller who would sponsor that. And really work with us and just the sheer idea of thinking of it and executing it and then actually doing it. It started off as just an idea. We were all in Champagne, France, at Traditions & Qualite, which is sort of like an annual summit. Me and Tim [Hollingsworth], Nicolas [Fanucci, GM of The French Laundry] and Antonio [Begonja, GM of Per Se]. We were having a glass of Champagne and the idea sparked and we sat Chef Keller down and brought it to him.


Read More »

Commentary: Don’t Rate Restaurants… Grade Them!

A Proposal for a New Way of Judging Where We Eat That Reflects Today’s Ever-Changing Dining Standards

Should Restaurants Make the Grade in More Ways than One? (photo by Mike Licht,, via

February 23, 2012 — There was a noteworthy aside in Wednesday’s New York Times review of Shake Shack. Reviewer Pete Wells awarded the establishment one star, which probably struck most readers as fair. But I couldn’t help but wonder how exactly to weigh it because, since Wells took over the most scrutinized restaurant-reviewing position in the country, he’s doled out two stars for Parm and three for Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria, both of which raised some eyebrows.

In the past, Shake Shack couldn’t have hoped for more than one star and, given some quibbles Wells raised about such issues as consistency and the quality of the fries, might have wound up with no stars, signifying “fair,” “satisfactory,” or “poor.”

At any other time in the last twenty years, I’d have assumed that Shake Shack proprietor Danny Meyer and company were thrilled with their evaluation, but given current context, I wondered if they were disappointed. Were they expecting or hoping for two stars? If they were, you couldn’t quite call them crazy. Not anymore. Because we’re at that time in the cycle again: Diners and industry folk feel the critical ground shifting beneath their feet and they don’t like that sense of disorientation and vulnerability. Every Tuesday night brings a defensive crouch as they brace for the next paradigm-shattering review.

Wells himself seems aware of the chatter, and made the following comment in his piece yesterday:

To answer two obvious questions right away:

Yes, I would give stars to a hamburger stand.

No, probably not four stars.

For my money, the key word in there is probably. (He was joking, right?)

The tension between stars and the modern dining world is nothing new. Decades ago, when “serious” restaurants were defined by a formality of food, service, and customer, the star system made perfect sense. Besuited or tuxedoed maitre d’s, white tablecloths, French words etched in a roller coaster of script on the menu, and French cuisine on the plate–these were the stuff of three and four stars. But with the rise of New American Cuisine (we really need a new name for that) and the ever more casual settings and standards it ushered in, the categories became clouded…. 

Read More »

The Toqueland Ten: Michelle Bernstein (Michy’s and Sra. Martinez, Miami, Florida)

One of the Southeast’s Most Accomplished Chefs Shares Her 10 Favorite Ingredients and Why She Chose Them

Michelle Bernstein of Michy’s and Sra. Martinez (photo by Michael Pisarri, courtesy Michelle Bernstein)

At her Miami restaurants Michy’s and Sra. Martinez, Michelle Bernstein seamlessly combines a world of influences—French, Italian, Cuban, South American, and modern American—into a cohesive personal style. (Full disclosure: I coauthored Michelle’s book Cuisine a Latina, and she’s a friend.)

Because Bernstein is so skilled at explaining exactly what appeals to her about ingredients, as both a chef and an eater, we couldn’t think of a better toque to ask to submit to our next Toqueland Ten. (Our first three featured Harold Dieterle, Emily Luchetti, and Sean Baker.)

Herewith, Michelle’s revealing picks:

1. FENNEL. “My mother would shave fennel on salads when I was growing up,” says Bernstein, whose mom was a key culinary influence. “Later, I learned to beautifully braise and caramelize it in restaurants.” For this chef, there’s nothing with more applications: “I think it goes in, on, or under anything. It’s super versatile and my safe go to: Sometimes I can’t come up with a dish, but I have a beautiful piece of fish, or whatever, and I’m just kind of stuck. At those times, my safety is fennel.”  Her customers don’t always recognize the vegetable:  “When I hard braise it with a tiny pinch of sugar to help the caramelization process and then add wine and chicken stock, then bring it down and finish it with a little bit of butter so it’s super-glazy, salty, and sweet, and it has that good balance, that’s when people say, ‘What is that delicious vegetable that I’m going crazy over?’”

2. (REALLY GOOD) SPANISH EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL. “I love Arbequina olives and I love using that really good Spanish extra virgin olive oil as a finish to a plate, giving whatever it is you’re finishing that little bit of spiciness, that good mouthfeel, that glaze.” Where most chefs don’t actually cook with the top-shelf oil, Bernstein makes exceptions: “I do spend a lot on my Spanish extra virgin oil, and [generally speaking]  it’s too costly to use it to sauté. But if I’m going to make a great piece of chicken or piece of fish, I’m going to sauté it in that stuff.”


Read More »

Toqueland After Dark presents: Shift Drink!

Seersucker’s Rob Newton Breaks in a New Feature in Which We Pony Up to the Bar and Decompress with a Chef Moments after Service

Brooklyn, NY, 1:44am — Toqueland proudly presents a new feature: Shift Drink!  The idea is simple: We join a toque at the bar as he or she savors a beverage of choice and chills out after a night on the line.

Our first drinking buddy: Rob Newton, Executive Chef/Co-Owner of Seersucker restaurant (and its daytime sister establishment Smith Canteen) in Brooklyn, NY.

Presented in video *. .. because it’s too damn late to write:

* Video was a spontaneous decision. Apologies for the sound quality; we’ll do better next time. And thanks to Seersucker’s manager, Jorge Salamea, for his superb camera work on a humble iPhone!

Sweet dreams. ..

Andrew “Hef” Friedman


The French Laundry’s Timothy Hollingsworth: The Toqueland Interview

The Chef de Cuisine of Thomas Keller’s Landmark Restaurant on His Exchange Program with Per Se, the meaning of Green Tape Moments, and the Pitfalls of Molecular Gastronomy

Timothy Hollingsworth, who’s at Per Se this week, back home at The French Laundry (photo by Deborah Jones; courtesy Thomas Keller Restaurant Group)

NEW YORK, NY — Timothy Hollingsworth, chef de cuisine of the French Laundry since summer 2009, has been participating in the first-ever chef de cuisine exchange program between his home restaurant and the other three-Michelin-star jewel in the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group (TKRG) crown, New York City’s Per Se. Hollingsworth possesses some of the deepest institutional knowledge of TKRG, having moved up the ladder from commis (prep cook) to chef de cuisine, all at The French Laundry, and also serving as part of the opening team of Per Se. With a few days left in his stay (he’ll be here through Tuesday, February 28, while Eli Kaimeh is serving as CDC out West), we sat down with Hollingsworth the other morning in Per Se’s Salon, to ask him about his time here, and catch up on issues large and small (Note: Read our companion interview with Per Se’s Eli Kaimeh here):

TOQUELAND: There’s always been some cross-pollination among the restaurants in the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, such as periodic manager retreats, but is this chef-de-cuisine switch new?

HOLLINGSWORTH: This is the first time we’ve done it. It’s something we’ve wanted to do for a long time. But because of staffing and how busy each restaurant was, it just never panned out. But, finally, we were at a point where we felt comfortable enough that maybe we could move on it. It’s a very natural thing because three out of the five sous chefs here, I worked with at The French Laundry. So I know them. I have a personal relationship with them. It’s the same systems. It’s a very easy transition.

TOQUELAND: You were part of the team that came East from The French Laundry to open Per Se about ten years ago.

HOLLINGSWORTH: Yes, as far as kitchen is concerned, I was the only CDP [chef de partie] to transfer here, then go back to The French Laundry.

TOQUELAND: Do you notice changes or evolutions here? Things that are different since Per Se first opened?

HOLLINGSWORTH: It’s evolving. You see it evolving. You see the differences between Jonathan [Benno, now at Lincoln] as the chef de cuisine, and now Eli [Kaimeh] as the chef de cuisine. And the managers. And we’re always pushing ourselves to take things to the next level, so, yeah, it’s evolved immensely since I was first out here.

TOQUELAND: But those changes probably aren’t that apparent to guests of the restaurant. Perfect isn’t a word that gets tossed around the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group (TKRG). [As readers may know, Keller opened his The French Laundry Cookbook with the now-iconic assertion that there’s no such thing as perfect food; the paragraph is featured on plaques in both The French Laundry and Per Se kitchens.] But most people who have dined here would say it’s been pretty perfect pretty much from the go, since you were already operating at such a high level. So to them, the changes might not be perceptible. Can you give an example of what a significant change is to the team here?

HOLLINGSWORTH: It’s the little changes. It’s hard to state a specific example because little changes are made every single day. You’re constantly thinking of what we at TKRG have defined as The Green Tape Moment: For years and years and years, we labeled everything in the kitchen with green tape and we tore the tape, and put it on a Lexan [durable plastic container], or used it to tape a tablecloth to the pass. We tore it. And then one day somebody picked up the scissors and cut the tape. And then, another day, somebody sees somebody cut the tape and acknowledges that and says, “This is what we’re going to do from now on; we’re going to cut the green tape.” And now, if anybody were to rip the green tape it would be like. ..

TOQUELAND: Nails on a chalkboard?

HOLLINGSWORTH: Yeah, exactly.


Read More »

CMC Journal: Episode 1: Tunnel Vision

Percy Whatley Takes Us Inside His Training for the Certified Master Chef Exam, The Toughest Test in Cooking

by Percy Whatley, Toqueland Contributor

[Editor’s Note: Toqueland is proud to present our first guest contributor, Percy Whatley, Executive Chef of The Ahwahnee in Yosemite National Park, California. Percy is preparing for one of the most grueling challenges a toque can attempt: the Certified Master Chef exam. The exam is notoriously difficult (just watch the embedded video below to get a sense of what he’s in for), and there is no certainty of passing (only five of twelve candidates made the grade in 2010), so, I’m especially grateful that Percy has agreed to put it out there and chronicle his CMC training for Toqueland over the next year and a half. Herewith, his first monthly installment.- Andrew]

February 2012

Greetings, residents of Toqueland.

I am writing to you from the Denver airport, on my way back to Yosemite from my first training session for the Certified Master Chef exam. This journal entry was begun in a Cleveland hotel and finished here in Colorado. I’d have done it back at my desk at The Ahwahnee, but this is an extracurricular activity and my “normal” life will swallow me up the moment I return to The Ahwahnee, so it’s now or never.

A few years ago, Kevin Doherty, chef of Boston’s TD Garden, which like the Ahwahnee is a Delaware North Companies  property, and I were nominated by Chef Roland Henin, our corporate chef and mentor, and a Certified Master Chef (CMC) himself, to be the “chosen ones” and  be supported in the venture of training and developing with the goal of passing the Certified Master Chef exam. The CMC exam takes place over eight days and 130 hours, and includes challenges in disciplines ranging from Classical Cuisine to Buffet Catering to Freestyle to Global Cuisine to Bakery and Pastry. (Read more about it here.) Only 66 people have attained the level of CMC: one is Roland himself, who famously mentored Thomas Keller; another is Richard Rosendale, who just became the US candidate to the Bocuse d’Or 2013.

We hadn’t been able to find the time to start down the CMC path in the intervening years, but not too long ago, our corporate bosses sat us down at a long and important-seeming table and explained that the time had come: They wanted us to dig in and start prepping for the CMC, the plan being that we’d tandem train, meeting up periodically to cook together and critique each other while offering moral support and, when necessary, commiseration.

Who were we to argue? Let the adventure begin!


Read More »

Slice of Life: Grains of Sand

A Visit to Red Rooster Harlem, and Entirely Too Brief Encounter with Marcus Samuelsson

Marcus Samuelsson at the Bar at Red Rooster Harlem (photo by Paul Brissman)

More than anything, Red Rooster Harlem reminded me of the sand.

About ten years ago, I asked Marcus Samuelsson, then the chef of Restaurant Aquavit, if he’d grant me an interview for use in a proposal for a book I had in mind. He happily obliged, inviting me to the one-bedroom apartment in the West 40s where he lived at the time.

I had first met Marcus during my short, unhappy life as a restaurant publicist in the 1990s. Aquavit‘s owner, Hakan Swan, had recently appointed him, then just 24, the chef, then hired the agency for which I worked to rep the place. Marcus’ celebrity is such that nobody thinks anything of his name anymore; his story–orphaned in Ethiopia at age 3, adopted by a Swedish family thereafter–has become common knowledge. But when he first turned up at Aquavit in Midtown Manhattan, he was incongruity personified: a skinny black kid with a Swedish handle cooking Scandinavian cuisine in a townhouse once occupied by Nelson Rockefeller. Customers who didn’t read the food section flirted with whiplash as they panned along with him whenever he passed through the dining room and it slowly dawned on them: “That’s the chef!”

I’d say that Marcus and I came up together except that it’s a pretty absurd statement given how far he’s ascended. But that’s how it felt at the time, and still does in retrospect, in part because he was so supportive of my own trajectory. It’s not easy making the switch from publicist to professional writer; generally speaking, people want to keep you in whatever box you shipped in. But it can be done; just ask Peter “Lucky Peach” Meehan. When I was first going for it, Marcus was immensely and uncommonly supportive. After my first foray into professional writing, the next few times I saw him, he’d flash a warm grin and say, “You’re a writer now, Andrew.”


Read More »