PEBBLE BEACH — “I’ve given many cooking demos before,” chef Jeremiah Tower said, “but never in a Rolls Royce.”
Tower was surveying the stage where he’d be cooking at Pebble Beach Food & Wine, during the annual event, which took place April 5-8.
“Rolls Royce” would be an apt descriptor for most of the long weekend filled with tastings, seminars and grand dinners and strawberries the size of turnips.
Amidst all the bustle of chefs and soms, Tower, silver-haired and courtly, with his dry, self-deprecating wit, was in a class of his own; he might have been an elder statesman as much as a venerated chef, but he was there to show a standing room crowd how to make a cheese soufflé.
Tower gained fame in the 1970s and ‘80s, dubbed “California’s most creative chef,” by the San Francisco Chronicle.
The son of globe-trotting parents, he became a self-taught cook. “My mentors were an empty dining room,” he said. “Ships and hotels. Richard Olney and Elizabeth David. I can’t say Julia because she couldn’t cook.” Also an aunt who took him shopping in markets. “She told me to choose some green beans for her. I chose the biggest fattest ones. She dumped them all back and carefully chose the slender ones,” he explained. “A valuable lesson.”
A Harvard graduate, fascinated with undersea design, Tower was obsessed with finding the lost continent of Atlantis, but he discovered, instead, California. In 1972, apparently inspired by a berry tart he ate at a new restaurant in Berkeley called Chez Panisse, he applied for a job and soon was in charge of the menu and of creating the new California cuisine. It involved, he recalled, some persuasion on his part. “I’d cook veal kidneys. I’d carry it out (to diners) and say, ‘I made it myself. Eat it.’ About a quarter of them liked it; others ate it with a grimace.”
After a falling out with owner Alice Waters, the famously brash Towers tried a couple of other projects before opening Stars restaurant in San Francisco in 1984.
The Chronicle called it, “Tower’s shrine to the sexy rebirth of American regional cooking and all things glittery ... When Stars opened in 1984 on a desolate alley near the Civic Center, socialite Denise Hale and the rest of the city’s social cream led the charge. The stars of theater, music and politics weren’t far behind. Mikhail Gorbachev and Danny Kaye. Joe DiMaggio and Rudolph Nureyev. Luciano Pavarotti and Lauren Hutton. Danielle Steel and Liza Minnelli. They came to eat Tower’s version of the new California cuisine, marvel at his brilliant sauces and giggle over late-night hot dogs served with sauerkraut and Champagne.”
After selling Stars, which subsequently closed in 1989, Tower did his own globe-trotting, and today lives in Merida, Mexico, where, he explains, he snorkels because “the sharks there have no teeth.”
“Jeremiah Tower’s menus made... a complete re-evaluation of not just American food and ingredients – but food,” said Anthony Bourdain, the chef, author and television personality who made a film about Tower’s remarkable life and career, “The Last Magnificent,” released in 2016. “I didn’t choose the name,” Tower told the Pebble Beach gathering. “It makes me blush.”
“I’ve gotten lazy,” Tower said. That’s why he recommends mastering the recipe for his Twice-Baked Cheese Soufflé. “It’s a no-brainer. I just made them for a dinner in London. People are in awe: ‘What a miracle! You made 150 soufflés!’ I’m not going to tell them I made them yesterday. You can drink a bottle of Champagne (while you reheat them) and people will think you’re a genius.”
He provided the recipe, which follows, but essentially you bake the soufflé the day before, top with cream and Gruyère cheese to seal it, and reheat it. You can top with a sauce, lobster or wild mushroom and “serve it as a cheese course or an eye-popping main course.”
As he prepared his variations, Tower fielded questions and it emerged that he has little to regret about his adventurous life except, perhaps, micro-greens, one item he introduced as part of the new California cuisine.
“I am sorry about micro-greens. Every restaurant in the world uses them (now); They are cute — well, a little like a cat’s ass smeared across a plate. But please, chefs, do your own plating. Forget about Michelin stars. Do your own plating.” (Note: he did add a garnish of micro-greens to his soufflé but he called them “nasty.”)
Other thoughts he shared included his assessment of Hell’s Kitchen chef Gordon Ramsey: “The worst thing that has happened to the culinary world. Hospitality is not about making people cry. It’s about training and building up new chefs until they are good enough to start their own restaurant.” (Later in the weekend, Tower prepared a grand dinner with two chefs who had worked with him at Stars.)
What does he think of gluten-free: “At first I thought, ‘Oh, come on,’ but I’ve been learning that wheat has changed and our bodies don’t want it. Monsanto, please leave the room.”
Asked what qualities he looks for in young chefs, he said, “Work ethic and a good attitude. You can’t teach that.” Adding that he has little interest in chefs “who say, ‘look at me, look at me,’” he recounted the story of an inexperienced but aspiring cook who peeled four crates of tomatoes and got a job at Stars. “It’s that willingness to listen and work,” he said. “To stand there and do it. Champagne helps, though.”
He noted, as well, that he never asked anyone to do anything he would not do himself, recounting a tale of a sump pump that plugged up the second week Stars was open and flooded the basement. “We’d made our budget with $2 left over,” he said, and not wanting the city to shut them down for repairs, he waded into mess, fixed the problem and had to drive himself home, wrapped in garbage bags, to change. “No one could stand to be in the car with me.”
As for his favorite restaurants today, he said, “If I answered that, I’d have to get on a plane right away.” He did note, however, that “Food has to be in your head, but some chefs think too much — and forget about the mouth. Too many chefs have forgotten about the diner. I don’t want to hear about my food for 15 minutes. I don’t want a som to stand there for 15 minutes talking; just give me my wine.”
Touring with Bourdain during the making of the film, he said one of the questions he was most frequently asked was if he plans to open another restaurant.
I said, “I’ll do one on the Amalfi Coast with Mario Battali. I was joking, of course, but they called Battali to see if this was true, and he said ‘Of course.’ The more I thought about it, it seemed like a damned good idea. There is a restaurant for sale and it is on the Amalfi Coast and it’s the sexiest thing you’ve ever seen. So I called Mario and he said, ‘I’m working on it.’”
And with that he served his miracle soufflés.