Before 1975, most chefs were antisocial proles. They kept to their kitchens, wielding terror, and sometimes genius, behind the swing doors. It was restaurateurs—most famously Henri Soulé at Le Pavillon and Sirio Maccioni at Le Cirque—who were the bearers of their establishments’ glory, lubing up VIP guests till they gleamed like aspic. But by the early 1980s, Jeremiah Tower, whose legacy as a founder of California Cuisine and New American cooking is the focus of a newly released documentary and a revised edition of his memoirs, had put stardom within the scope of a chef.
By all rights Tower was America’s first kitchen celebrity, when that meant more than having a signature look and the skills to bang out 30-minute chili on TV. He was a defining voice in the early years of Chez Panisse, who went on to open Stars in San Francisco in 1984. The visible center of his restaurant, Tower charmed and elevated in a kitchen exposed like the stage at a theater in the round. He was tall, svelte, and elegantly ruddy in whites. He knew how to work a room, flattering socialites, laughing with drag queens, throwing an arm around James Beard or Rudolf Nureyev. He spoke with an accent you couldn’t place (sort of Connecticut country club, gilded with public-school England) but you knew it belonged to a man who had seen and tasted things you never would.
“They were the first fuckable chefs,” Anthony Bourdain told me last year, as he talked about Tower, Marco Pierre White, and the changes of the 1980s. Bourdain is executive producer of the Tower documentary, The Last Magnificent. Directed by Lydia Tenaglia, it premiered last year at the Tribeca Film Festival; its theatrical release began this past Friday, April 21, in New York and Los Angeles. Earlier this month, Bourdain’s imprint for Ecco published Tower’s revised memoirs, Start the Fire: How I Began a Food Revolution in America. Tower’s original memoir, California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution, rolled out in 2003. Since Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain's mission has been to explicate the culture of cooks. In Tower—as with Norman Van Aken, the Florida chef who formalized "fusion cuisine" in the 1980s—Bourdain saw a seminal chef the food establishment had pretty much left for dead.
“By all rights Tower was America’s first kitchen celebrity, when that meant more than having a signature look and the skills to bang out 30-minute chili on TV.”
Tower was one of the most influential chefs of the 1970s and ‘80s, but by the 1990s much of the food world, fascinated by Emeril and The Frugal Gourmet, had lost interest. When Tower resurfaced on social media in 2010, tweeting from Merida and Cozumel, in Mexico, it was as if he’d returned from exile. His talk at the MAD symposium in Copenhagen in 2014 played like a homecoming.
The title of Tenaglia and Bourdain’s film is a tweak of "The Last Magnifico," the name of a 1998 Gourmet profile by James Villas of Lucius Beebe. Beebe, who died in 1966, was an opulently swank, unapologetically queer columnist, a chronicler of Manhattan’s café society in the early twentieth century. In Start the Fire, Tower acknowledges his debt to Beebe as the example of a man who fashioned his life as a fuck-you to narrow convention: “‘If anything is worth doing,’ [Beebe] once said, ‘it is worth doing in style and on your own terms—and nobody goddamned else’s.’”
Besides Alice Waters, no other goddamned chef still alive has Tower’s history, or can claim to be a bridge between the present and the vanished twentieth-century world of Beard, Richard Olney, and Elizabeth David, Tower’s friends and mentors. To read the dishes that shaped his career is to brush, like an archeologist, through a stratigraphy of pike timbales and truffled capons, only a degree or two removed from Fernand Point, Curnonsky, and the founders of modern cuisine.
Here are the 10 dishes that shaped Jeremiah Tower's career.