Until recently, Jeremiah Tower was a chef in exile: He closed his restaurant Stars and fled California in 1998, before settling briefly in New York to write his controversial tell-all memoir, California Dish. (The book represents Tower’s attempt to reclaim credit for helping make Chez Panisse the iconic restaurant that it is.) More recently, Tower has lived for several years in Merida, Mexico, restoring old houses, scuba diving, and writing. But when he made a surprise appearance in the Bay Area last month to help celebrate the 40th anniversary of Chez Panisse, he was treated to a hero’s welcome. There was a flurry of murmured (and tweeted) comments about how "dapper" he was, and how San Francisco had missed his inimitable air of glamour. ("How fantastic does he look?" Ruth Reichl whispered to us.) Grub Street caught up with him via Skype this week to see how he felt about returning to the Bay, and how he feels about what’s happened to food in the last decade.
What are your days like in Mexico?
Well, if I’m in Merida, I’m working on real estate, restoring these mansions. I do that early in the morning. Then I’m working on my books. If I’m in Cozumel, I’m diving and then writing.
Tell us about these books you’re working on.
There’s one cookbook that’s also sort of a travel book. And a food memoir. I’m doing a 2012 edition of my 1986 book [Jeremiah Tower’s New American Classics]. It’s very interesting. I’m also working on California (Re-)Dish, which is a follow-up to California Dish covering everything that’s happened since that book came out until now. This will be less about me and my career and more about what I see happening now, in the culinary world at large. Like, why are so many menus exactly the same? People are really taking themselves way too seriously. At least they’ve stopped saying that the potatoes are from three quarters of a mile north of Uncle William’s farm.
How do you feel about the backlash of sorts that’s been happening in the Bay Area — what Alan Richman characterized as a sort of shaking off of the shackles of Chez Panisse and unadorned food?
That was one movement — but people say farm-to-table, and you know that’s just how I thought you’d start out every morning. But really, this is what the book is about. We’d have to have a four-hour conversation.
We’ve heard more than one person say that there hasn’t been a "glamorous" restaurant in San Francisco since Stars closed.
Johnny Apple said Stars was the most democratic restaurant he’d ever been in. At one table there’d be someone in a Dior couture gown, with $3 million in jewels on her person, and the next table would be three young couples going to a prom. As for the food, it was a philosophy — we did the least to the ingredients as we could, just adding a little flair and imagination.
How did it feel to be back in San Francisco on this last trip?
I’ll tell you, some of San Francisco looks so much the same. Market Street looks exactly as it did ten years ago. The homeless people were still everywhere. That wasn’t a surprise to me. I was staying with my friend Gerald Asher who lives on Green Street, on the sixteenth floor. His view goes from the Bay Bridge all the way around past Alcatraz to the Golden Gate. And waking up there and opening up the curtains — it was just extraordinary.
How would you characterize your current relationship with Alice Waters? Is it all water under the bridge? Did you have any hesitation about returning for the 40th anniversary?
She invited me herself, so how could I refuse? Forty years is an amazing achievement for a restaurant and I thought this absolutely should be celebrated.
But the public falling-out … would you say it was mostly drummed up in the media?
It’s just not really true anymore. The public falling-out was really mostly — well, at least half, or two thirds, I don’t know the proportion — whipped up by the press. There’s still a lot of love between us. We made a date to revisit one of the first nights we had together at the Gritti Palace in Venice. During a dinner that weekend we laughingly said, "We’ve got to do that again."
Where did you eat when you were in town here?
I had lunch with Michael Bauer at Marlowe — that was really good. I was at Farallon several times, of course, because of Mark Franz [formerly chef de cuisine at Stars]. I had lunch at Perbacco, which was absolutely fantastic.
This plan to move to Italy that you mentioned in an earlier interview, is that still happening?
I used to live there three or four months a year. I just need my ingredient fix, living here in Mexico. In Tuscany, you can go into their grocery chain, the Co-op, and you can buy the most amazing things for a dinner party. Italy is still stunning to me. Unfortunately, I can’t afford the fourteen million euros it would cost for a house in Tuscany, which is why I’m looking at Puglia. If I had guts, I’d move to Sicily.
Where do you get your champagne in Merida?
I don’t drink champagne down here, which is why I drank Farallon nearly dry of theirs! It suffers greatly from the voyage, first probably to Vera Cruz then by truck to the Yucatan. If the driver stops to get a taco and a girlfriend along the way, one hour in that sun cooks it pretty badly.
Where have you eaten in the last couple of years, besides San Francisco, that’s really delighted you?
My favorites outside the United States are the Ledbury in London — Brett Graham is probably the best chef in England right now. I always have my birthday lunch there. He usually goes out and shoots woodcock or something for me. There’s L’Arnsbourg — it’s a place in Alsace, on the France border. It’s mind-boggling. They have something that’s not on the menu. A cappuccino of foie gras — I hate using cappuccino that way, but that’s what it was called. Mashed potato, cream, foie gras, black truffles. It rendered me speechless for about fifteen minutes.
Did you ever eat at El Bulli?
You know, I’m not the biggest fan of tasting menus. When I thought about trying it, though, there was never enough time to book it. I wish I had tried it, but it’s just not the way I love to eat. I went to a place called Oud Sluis in Holland — there’s an acolyte of Adrià’s there, it’s El Bulli gone mad — he’s a slave to molecular cooking, and it’s really quite wonderful. But after the eleventh tasting out of 30 dishes, I’d just like a big piece of turbot.
Have you looked at the Modernist Cuisine tome? How do you feel about molecular gastronomy in general?
You know, you can join the Franciscan order and take your vows [laughing] — or whatever the male version of the Carmelites is. But trying to imitate all of it? What that movement will do, what it’s already done, is it will have the same impact on today’s chefs that the first Nouvelle Cuisine chefs had on the culinary world. And if it gets you out of a rut, if it makes you look at ingredients in a new way, all over again, then that’s a wonderful, invaluable thing.
How about the G9 Summit that Adrià and the gang were just at in Lima. Your thoughts?
Ah yes, the G9. Chefs are not famous for anything very brilliant outside their restaurants. And they are just as capable of spouting a bunch of rubbish as anyone else and should be seen as any other spouter of rubbish. But going on and on about the carbon-saving world and then, as a journalist in London said to me, "sitting in the pointy end of a jumbo" to travel thousands of miles to say it is, as the rather brilliant article by Jay Rayner also said, incredibly stupid. And what of Mr. Keller flying to London to do a stint at Harrods? I think it is up to you and the under-30 generation of chefs and writers to get a pin to these very large balloons.
Tell me about your cookbook collection, which you recently sold some of to Omnivore Books. I gather you lost some of your books in Hurricane Katrina?
Well, you know, I was living in New York. I decided to move after 9/11 — I was living near the site and the smoke and the smells just became too much. I went to New Orleans, but I hadn’t moved everything there. And then while I was in Cozumel, Hurricane Katrina hit. Then two and a half months later, Hurricane Wilma hit Cozumel, so I moved to Merida. No hurricanes here. The books that were left in storage in New York, which I brought to Mexico, well, I looked at what was happening to my crocodile shoes down here in Mexico — the humidity just destroys them. I have these cookbooks from France from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, and, you know, I thought It’s time for them to go to some other people.
What kind of restaurant would you open now, if you were, hypothetically, going to open one?
The only restaurant I would open now would be a bar on a tropical beach serving lobster-head soup and perfectly grilled fish. Tropical fruits, tropical drinks. Feet in the sand. Cold beer and cold champagne on the table.
Would you ever consider moving back to the States, to San Francisco?
I very well might. I’ll tell you, I was standing there at the window at Gerald Asher’s apartment on Green Street, looking at that extraordinary view, and I thought, Why would I not come back?