Julia Child. Thomas Keller. Charlie Trotter. Wolfgang Puck. These names stand prominently in the narrative of America’s rise to the top of culinary greatness in the 21st century. But until recently, one pioneer was all but forgotten from that history.
In a time when fine French gastronomy was the height of culinary sophistication, Jeremiah Tower embraced seasonality and the artisanal offerings of the West Coast, pushing the country’s food culture into the international spotlight and setting the stage for modern American cuisine.
The 2017 documentary “The Last Magnificent,” recently nominated for a James Beard Award, tells the story of Tower’s rise to the top and the reason behind his abrupt and mysterious departure from stardom. His impact is echoed by the mass amount of famous chefs and food personalities who help narrate the documentary-from Anthony Bourdain and Mario Batali to Wolfgang Puck and Martha Stewart.
Tower, who is often referred to as the Father of California Cuisine and the first “celebrity chef”, rose to fame as part of Alice Water’s Chez Panisse in the 1970s. As detailed in the documentary, he played a major role in pushing the small Berkeley eatery into the national spotlight by reforming the classical French menu into one that reflected the seasons and the fruits of Northern California’s crops.
After Chez Panisse, Tower went on to open his own restaurant, Stars, often lauded for being the movement maker that set the standard for modern American dining. The restaurant stood up to its name, casting Tower into the national spotlight and attracting celebrities, politicians and socialites from coast to coast.
However, Stars offered more than a scene. Its open kitchen was a revolutionary concept in dining room design that made the front of house and the back of house one in the same. No longer hidden away behind closed doors, the chefs of Stars were staged so the entire restaurant could see them work.
We caught up with Jeremiah Tower, an Escoffier Schools advisory board member, about the documentary, its recent James Beard Award nomination, and how he feels his legacy impacted today’s American cuisine.
Escoffier Schools: Your documentary, “The Last Magnificent”, was nominated for a James Beard Award this year. How does that feel?
Jeremiah Tower: It feels as if the two year tumultuous journey of making it is now as smooth as silk.
ES: What was your favorite part of making the documentary?
JT: Apart from waking the birds up at 6 a.m. sunrise in the Mayan ruins north of Merida, diving with the giant mantas in the Revillagigedos islands 350 miles off Cabo San Lucas.
?ES: Why do you feel like your story is an important one to tell for the history of American cuisine?
JT: My story is a lesson in what to do and what not to do but always to know that one’s life is the sum of the chances you take.
?ES: What’s the one ingredient you must have in your kitchen at all times?
ES: Any particular kind of champagne?
JT: Always love Salon.
ES: Many prominent American chefs in the “The Last Magnificent” attribute you as one of the most important figures in America’s culinary history. What do you feel is your greatest contribution to the history of American cuisine? Why?
JT: To turn the nation’s attention and eyes away from Europe-from the standards of what makes a great restaurant to the ingredients we have on hand in the USA and our own style.
ES: What, in your opinion, is the secret to being a great chef?
JT: To choose the best ingredients and then have the talent and courage to cook them so that they are the stars of the show.