The man Anthony Bourdain refers to as the "father of American cuisine" is none other than Jeremiah Tower. The chef is the subject of the Bourdain-produced documentary, Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, which will premiere locally May 19 at AMC Aventura 24. Though his name might be unfamiliar to some, his praises are sung by influencers such as Mario Batali, Martha Stewart, and Ruth Reichl, all of whom appear in the engaging documentary about his life.
It's difficult to imagine, but there was a time when people frequented restaurants and had no idea who was in the kitchen preparing their food. Tower changed that and is widely referred to as the first true celebrity chef. In 1972, armed with a master's from Harvard but with no formal culinary education, he joined chef Alice Waters at her eatery in Berkeley: Chez Panisse. Before long, he was pioneering the use of local ingredients and paving the way for the emerging California cuisine movement. When Chez Panisse was struggling financially, Tower persuaded James Beard to dine there. Beard wrote it up as one of his four favorite restaurants, and soon it was impossible to snag a table at the eatery.
Tower left Chez Panisse after differences with Waters, who wanted her concept to maintain its original bohemian appeal. He wanted to don his chef whites and drink champagne in his kitchen, so along with a partner, he opened his own eatery in San Francisco. Stars was a grandiose restaurant that embodied 1980s glamour. It was a place where regular folks dined alongside political figures and rock stars, with Tower front and center mingling with all of them.
Tower became a bona fide celebrity, and Stars an instant success, but after some trouble with his business partner, the toque walked away from it all. He mysteriously disappeared from the scene for nearly two decades until resurfacing in 2014 to helm the kitchen at Manhattan's famous yet struggling Tavern on the Green. Tower's work was met with mixed reviews, and his time there was short-lived. New Times caught up with the culinary genius to discuss the documentary about his life, his famous feud with Alice Waters (she published a Chez Panisse cookbook and didn't give Tower any credit for the recipes), and his future plans.
New Times: Why did you agree to participate in this documentary?
Jeremiah Tower: Because I should’ve had my head examined, I guess. It was the last thing on my mind, but I was approached by Lydia Tenaglia, the director, and she explained that Tony [Bourdain] wanted to do it. They’re very persuasive; Lydia’s motto is never give up, so that was that, and as I said to somebody the other day: If the Iranian government couldn’t say no to Anthony Bourdain, neither could I.
What were some of your thoughts after viewing the documentary for the first time?
Well, I was completely shocked. The first time I saw it, I was sitting in a huge empty theater with Lydia, and she leaned to me and said, "Are you gonna hit me?" The next day, we were at the premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, and it was dead silence at the beginning, and I leaned over to Lydia and said, "We better run for it. I think they hate it." Then someone laughed, and they started cheering, and we got a standing ovation at the end. So then I thought, OK, the public loves it, so I guess I do too. It’s a very well-made film.
You have been credited with pioneering California cuisine and have been called the father of American cuisine. What chefs today do you think are having a major impact on the culinary landscape in America?
The food revolution that started in Berkley has been so successful that I’m not sure what the next food revolution will be. But there are very important chefs, like Dominique Crenn on the West Coast, and in New York I think Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin. I have to go back to the U.S. soon, so I don’t know if I can answer that question. [The chef currently splits his time between Yucatán and Cozumel, Mexico.]
Do you have any regrets about accepting the executive chef position at Tavern on the Green?
No, I don’t. I think it was a very good learning experience. I think as you saw in the film, we nearly succeed if the owners hadn’t been such idiots. I learned a lot about the restaurant business in the U.S., and I learned a lot about myself. Was it a huge mistake? I think it was a misjudgment on my part to think that we could actually do it, but we very nearly did it.
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Do you still have any resentment toward Alice Waters?
Absolutely not. At the 40th anniversary of Chez Panisse a few years ago, she and I sat in the middle of the dining room together in front of all her guests and had dinner, so absolutely not.
What’s next for you?
A friend of mine has a 200-acre olive farm outside of Seville, Spain, and we’re looking to make a model 21st-century olive farm there. I’m also looking forward to teaching at a new hospitality school in New Orleans called New Orleans Culinary & Hospitality institute.
Is running a kitchen in your future?
As long as it were on the beach with a limited menu depending on what the fishermen brought that day and I could drink champagne while doing it.
Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent
Friday, May 19, at AMC Aventura 24, 19501 Biscayne Blvd., Aventura; 305-466-9880; amctheatres.com.