One can make a very strong argument that without Jeremiah Tower and his work at Chez Panisse and Stars amongst other places, American cuisine today, would have reached the heights that it has. The aptly named Tower has been a giant amongst chefs almost from the day that he first stepped foot into Chez Panisse and was one of the first “star” chefs in the country, but it is gratifying to see him now receiving the respect from today’s young chefs that he so richly deserves. He recently stood out at the MAD 4 conference in Copenhagen and next week will be honored at Stephen Torres’ Imbibe and Inspire: The Roots of American Food conference and dinners in Chicago at the Wyndham Grand Hotel and L2O restaurant. I recently had the honor of interviewing Chef Tower, who currently lives in Mexico, via email. Here is the transcript:
1. You have arguably been as influential and important in the development and maturation of contemporary American cooking as anyone. Where did your interest in cooking first manifest itself?
AS A YOUNG CHILD IN AUSTRALIA AND ENGLAND, ESPECIALLY WHEN IN GRAND HOTELS AND FIRST CLASS ON WORLD’S MOST FAMOUS OCEAN LINERS, THEN IN COLLEGE COOKED ALL THE TIME FOR FRIENDS.
2. Who have been your greatest influences?
READING ESCOFFIER AS A TEENAGER AND COOKING FROM MA CUISINE IN COLLEGE.ALL THOSE GRAND HOTELS AND EUROPE’S FINEST RESTAURANTS AS CHILD. THEN MEETING ELIZABETH DAVID IN LONDON AND RICHARD OLNEY IN THE S FRANCE. FERNAND POINT AN EARLY HERO AND STILL IS. AND THE UNKNOWN ALEXANDRE DUMAINE IN SAULIEU AT LE COTE D’OR (eg. Bocuse learned ALL from these two).
3. Are there any specific aspects of your career that your proudest of?
CREATING THE US STAR CHEF, THOUGH NOT SURE HOW PROUD I AM OF THAT NOW. THE PR I ACHIEVED AT THE ASTOR MANSION LUNCH IN 1983, AND THE “AN AMERICAN CELEBRATION” DINNER THAT I HELPED ORGANIZE IN SF A MONTH LATER (MAY 1983) THAT STARTED “NEW AMERICAN CUISINE.”
4. What do you consider to be your greatest and most enduring contributions to American cooking?
SEE 3. AND CREATING THE AMERICAN BRASSERIE AT STARS, A TRULY DEMOCRATIC DINING EXPERIENCE THAT FREED UP A LOT OF CHEFS TO DO WHAT THEY WANT TO DO. THE CALIFORNIA REGIONAL DINNER AT PANISSE IN 1976 THAT WAS THE SPARK THAT LIGHTED THE REVOLUTION.
MY FAVORITE RESTAURANT I EVER DID WAS THE PEAK CAFE IN HONK KONG BRINGING ASIA AND NORTH AMERICAN TOGETHER. WAS A MODEL FOR INTERNATIONAL USA.
5. Do you see any young chefs today who are heirs to your contributions?
THE WHOLE FARM TO TABLE AND FRESH INGREDIENT DRIVEN COOKING THAT CAME OUT OF WHAT I DREAMED UP AND COOKED AT CHEZ PANISSE. SO LOTS OF CHEFS COOKING NOW
6. What have they done to advance what you started?
TAKEN EVERYTHING I STARTED TO GREATER HEIGHTS WITH CURRENTLY MUCH GREATER RESOURCES
7. How have they fallen short?
THE SHORT FALL IS THE OVER INTELLECTUALIZATION OF FOOD – DO THEY THINK THAT ALL THOSE DROPS ON A PLATE ACTUALLY DO ANYTHING FOR THE MOUTH? AND ALL THOSE SMEARS – HAVE TO LICK THE PLATE OR WHAT? THINKING THAT IF 4 INGREDIENTS ARE WONDERFUL, THEN 8 MUST BE TWICE AS GOOD.
8. Where would you like to see the state of food and cooking in the United States head in the future?
SEE 7. GET BACK THE COURAGE TO STOP FOLLOWING EVERY FAD, EVERY LATEST HOT CHEF’S DISH. FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS AND NOT OTHERS.
9. What styles of cooking most excite you today? Are there any particular chefs that you would like to give a nod to?
DON’T LIKE ENFORCED “TASTING MENUS” VERY MUCH BUT THE OTHER NIGHT AT SAISON IS SF WAS SPECTACULAR. THE WHOLE CONCEPT, AND ALL THE FLAVORS AND COMBINATIONS. OUT OF 24 PLATES OFFERED ONLY ONE MEDIOCRE ONE. TODAY: COLORFUL, SIMPLE, DELICIOUS, 2 to 3 INGREDIENTS DRIVEN ONLY PER PLATE, AND SOMETIMES NOTHING ON THE PLATE BUT THE MOST PERFECT PIECE OF FISH, OIL, HERB. SEE BEST OF BARCELONA NOW
10. Any particular advice to young chefs looking to find their voices and their ways?
FROM THE HEART, MY DEARS, AND DON’T FORGET “BACK TO THE FUTURE” – LEARN WHAT HAS GONE BEFORE WITH THE BEST, SO YOU CAN MOVE FORWARD.
11. Why is this conference significant?SO WE CAN ALL ANSWER 10 AND THE OTHERS ABOVE, TO IDENTIFY AND ENCOURAGE. INFORMATION FROM OLD FARTS SOMETIMES USEFUL.