Tower's tell-all has them buzzing

Times Staff Writer

For decades, Jeremiah Tower was the talk of this food-centric city. People talked in the '70s when he put Chez Panisse on the culinary map. They talked in the '80s when he opened Stars, the A-list restaurant, and showed up in Dewar's scotch ads and on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." They talked in the '90s when he hit the skids and ended up running a disco/restaurant in Manila.

Now, in a memoir that has rocked the Bay Area even before its release next month, Tower is talking back.

"California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution" (Free Press, $25) tells of Tower's rise to celebrity chef-dom and his contribution to the birth of modern California cuisine. He is widely regarded as one of the most important -- and least retiring -- figures in American cooking, but he has never achieved the international icon status accorded to, say, Alice Waters, his estranged ex-partner. The book, Tower said in an interview last week, was his attempt to set the record straight.

But "California Dish," which comes out in August, also settles scores and tells intimate tales on some of the food world's most-revered figures -- Waters among them -- and many in it are seething, even as they burn up the phone lines to share excerpts from advance copies and dog-eared galley proofs.

"I'm just disappointed that he wants to pull all this out -- not surprised, but disappointed," said Waters, who said she has known for weeks about the memoir, which portrays her as a woman scorned and a credit-grabber who turned on Tower when he ditched her for a gay man.

Waters, he writes, "did not know commercial vegetables from truly great ones" when she hired him in 1972 as chef at the then-obscure Chez Panisse, and once tried to prevent him from returning produce "so large and tough that an elephant would pass them up" because she was friends with the vendor. Her eventual advocacy for organic food and sustainable farming, writes Tower, was Waters' true and lasting contribution.

"Well," said Waters curtly, "he can take credit for whatever he likes -- and needs to take credit for. What shall I take credit for? Having the restaurant to begin with?"

"Let him be who he is," said Marion Cunningham, the 81-year-old author of the Fannie Farmer cookbooks. Tower and James Beard secretly ridiculed her with the nickname "Cookie" -- because they thought cookies were the only things she could make.

"Oh, I've heard all about it," she said. "It's come out to mixed feelings, is the best I can say."

"I'm surprised he can remember anything through that Veuve Clicquot-induced haze," said New York-based restaurant consultant Clark Wolf, who isn't mentioned but who nonetheless made it a point to get his hands on the manuscript because he is friendly with most of those criticized in it.

"I mean, attacking Marion Cunningham? Fannie Farmer? I guess Grandma Moses was dead."

The book has raised eyebrows even among Tower's allies. Denise Hale, the jet-setting philanthropist, denied that she once instructed Tower to secretly serve Haut-Brion to her and her friend, conductor Zubin Mehta, while the rest of her guests drank a far-cheaper Jordan Cabernet.

"Jeremiah is my friend, but I don't know what his memory is," she said. "It's not there, obviously because that never happened."

Mark Franz, the Tower protege who broke away when Stars became financially troubled, said he remains close to Tower. But he took issue with Tower's claim in the book that Franz "would finally have owned Stars, or whatever was left of it" when Tower died.

"Yeah. Well. I was never going to get anything, and I realize that," Franz, who now runs the highly regarded Farallon restaurant in San Francisco, said of the passage. "But maybe one of these days I'll write my own book."

Foodie tell-alls

"California Dish" is the latest in the booming subgenre of tell-all food books, which have proliferated as the pioneers of the '70s and '80s food scene look back on a movement that was also rife with sex, drugs and social change. At the same time, celebrity chefs have, inevitably, generated a market for celebrity-chef gossip.

Anthony Bourdain's controversial "Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly," was a 2001 bestseller. The boomer memoirs of Gourmet editor and former restaurant critic Ruth Reichl are both out now in paperback. An authorized biography of Waters is underway, and she was featured this year in a segment of the PBS series "American Masters." Another Chez Panisse alumnus is said to be working on another tell-all about the landmark restaurant. This week, NBC began a six-part reality show about the travails of big-city chef-dom called "The Restaurant."

But Tower has written a book that is several degrees cattier than those of his predecessors, who, for the most part, have either remembered their lives and professions with feel-good nostalgia, or dished only about the industry in general or themselves. Tower writes, for example, that the late James Beard would intentionally let his robe fall open when Tower came to see him; he then comments on the size of the 350-pound man's belly and genitalia and hints at a physical relationship.

He dismisses Cunningham, a longtime friend of Beard's, as a "factotum" who spent much of her time bandaging his feet, which were ravaged by poor circulation.

He says he vacationed in Hawaii behind Waters' back with her then-20-year-old boyfriend and describes her standing on the porch of her Berkeley home, shrieking, "It's my house! My car, and my restaurant!" in 1976 as she threw him out "one night [when] I did not come home when I said I would."

The images are a far cry from the popular conception of the Bay Area food scene, known for its impeccable taste, political zeal and quaint, organic, artisan purity. Tower's book tells of conga lines snaking out of the Chez Panisse kitchen for cocaine parties and offers tips on the right way to make marijuana butter. There are menus for dinners Tower cooked for Waters and her various boyfriends.

"Apparently he's trying to ensure I won't be elected to any high post," quipped Waters. Asked, however, whether she and Tower had had an "on-again, off-again affair," as Tower describes it, the internationally known restaurateur paused for a long moment.

"Not -- not really," she said, sighing. "I mean -- no. Not really. I mean, it was all of a piece. I admired him a great deal. We danced. Many, many times. We were very romantic. But it wasn't a physical relationship. I wanted it to be, but it wasn't. When we got to that point, we stopped. I mean -- look. All this happened 30 years ago. I was 30 years old. I was in love with him. But he was gay."

He could go on

Tower, who is now 60 and living in New York, says he sought with this memoir only to celebrate the success of the movement he helped start and to challenge "myths" about its origins. He acknowledged that the book was critical, particularly of Cunningham and Waters, but added that "this is the first time anyone has told the other side of the story."

"I was just trying to tell it the way I and a lot of other people saw it," he said in a telephone interview, adding that the book also details his admiration for Waters, whom, he writes, was "a kindred spirit."

"Believe me, there's an enormous amount that I didn't include, just because it was nasty," he said. "I could have turned the publisher's attorney's hair white."

In fact, though a number of anecdotes in the book are stories he has told privately for decades, he has rarely been publicly harsh to Waters and her crowd. He did, however, hint at the tone of the book in a 2001 interview with the New York Times in which he was quoted insisting, at first, that "we're not going to get into Alice," then letting it slip that "she didn't know a little vegetable from a rotten vegetable."

He has not been part of the restaurant world since a combination of bad luck and bad partnerships caused the once-booming Stars and its international franchises to fizzle. When the restaurant officially passed into new ownership in 1999, Tower didn't attend the lavish wake for the San Francisco mecca where everyone from Joe DiMaggio to Rudolph Nureyev to Liza Minnelli to the serial killer Andrew Cunanan had once come to see and be seen.

Rather, he was tending to the last Stars franchise in what had once been a burgeoning family of spinoffs -- a restaurant that became a disco after midnight in the Philippines.

He later returned to the U.S., however, and now lives in Greenwich Village. He has spent the last few years hosting a PBS series on chefs and writing (he published a new cookbook, "Jeremiah Towers Cooks: 250 Recipes From an American Master," last year). The memoir, he said, was inspired by a Wine Spectator article that credited him with tipping widespread interest in regional American cuisine into a culinary movement.

"I read it and thought, 'Well, if the Wine Spectator thinks it was so important, maybe I should write my own story,' " he said. With the aid of a college diary, a thick scrapbook of press clippings and a cache of old letters and menus, he began writing. "Once you start," he said, "it's amazing how fast it all comes back."

The book is not, of course, entirely gossip. It also details Tower's childhood in Connecticut, Europe and Australia as the son of a Western Electric executive and an artistically inclined housewife. He had no formal culinary training, he writes, but learned about food from rich, cultured relatives and from his mother, a closet alcoholic who frequently drafted him to help her execute the massive dinner parties she was called upon to give for his father's clients. Food, he writes, was integral to his earliest memories.

One of those memories was to bring him, eventually, to California. On a 1951 trip through the U.S., he writes, he visited his grandparents in Carmel, who took him to the Holman Ranch and fishing near Big Sur at the Garrapata Trout Farm. The experience, of rare contentment, would fuel his later belief that Northern California, like the south of France, should be seen as a distinct food region.

At a time when the words "American cuisine" summoned visions of creamed chipped beef and canned peas, Tower writes, "we sat on a raised terrace beside a courtyard where white-robed and red-sashed Mexican staff gathered around huge grills and spits. It was a series of firsts: Caesar salad tossed at the table, garlic bread in huge rustic slabs, wild boar sausages grilled over mesquite charcoal, avocado "pears" and two-inch-thick T-bone steaks."

More provocative than the mouth-watering menus, however, are the anecdotes Tower scatters between menus, such as the story of his return to Big Sur, when he sought out the artists Emile Norman and Brooks Clement during the summer of his senior year at Harvard, where he was in architecture school. As he recounts it, the artists greeted the young man naked and invited him to strip too.

That set the tone for the rest of the luncheon. Writes Tower:

" 'May I help with dessert?' I offered.

" 'You are dessert,' they replied."

Says Waters: 'Whatever'

Tower eventually moved to Northern California, where he answered an ad for the Chez Panisse chef's job; at the time, he writes, the original chef was gone and friends of Waters were filling in. The food was French, and the philosophy was to serve full-course meals at proletariat prices. Tower recounts an oft-told anecdote about adding salt and cream to a pot of bland soup, prompting Waters, on the spot, to hire him.

"Yeah, I've heard that story. Him fixing the soup. Whatever," said Waters. "I don't know if it was fixing the soup -- perhaps it was -- but I was insecure, and he had very strong ideas, and I liked him right away."

Tower goes on to say that he threatened to quit on his first day, when Waters took issue with his decision to send back a shipment of fresh beans. They were too big, he told the vendor, and insufficiently fresh. Waters, he wrote, told him that Chez Panisse didn't deal that way with local suppliers. Eventually she backed down, he wrote, and soon learned that fresh ingredients are crucial. The thrust of the story is that he, not Waters, was behind one of the essential mantras of California cooking.

There is more, about Stars and about its celebrities and lawsuits, and about its downfall, which Tower largely blames on the Loma Prieta earthquake, which devastated San Francisco's downtown. Though it trundled along under new management for several years after Tower's departure, the restaurant closed for good in February, the victim of a dispute with the landlord. It now sits -- windows covered, nothing but the studs of its old sign remaining -- in a block of boarded-up buildings and fast-food joints. Last week, on a day when the wait for a table at Chez Panisse was an hour at lunch time, a pair of bums were camped in Stars' once-glittering doorways, reeking of urine.

"Hey!" a woman called, hurrying to her job at the nearby Superior Court building. "Is it true that they're going to turn that place into a Trader Vic's?"

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