Jeremiah Tower is back. Break out the Champagne and caviar (preferably vintage Krug from the mid-'50s and only osetra or sevruga -- but don’t serve them together, the only thing to drink with caviar is iced vodka and it must be served on blini made with so much butter that the excess runs down your arm).
Tower, one of the seminal chefs in the birth of modern California cooking, has always been a man of flamboyant but precise tastes. Sometimes they have gotten the best of him, but that has never made him less interesting or entertaining.
One of the founding chefs at Chez Panisse in the early ‘70s, Tower went on to start Stars, his own blazingly popular San Francisco restaurant, which at one point had expanded into a whole family of places, including bakeries and fancy takeout as well as restaurants in Singapore, Palo Alto and Oakville.
His fall from grace was so dramatic as to border on parody. Done in by a combination of bad economy, bad partnerships and bad habits, two years ago this founding father -- a one-time James Beard Foundation chef of the year, once the subject of glossy “Dewars Profile” Scotch advertisements -- could be found running a restaurant/disco in the Philippines.
Now he is living in New York, traveling and writing an occasional food column for the tabloid San Francisco Examiner. And he has a new cookbook out, “Jeremiah Tower Cooks,” subtitled with typical modesty: “250 Recipes From an American Master.”
For those who might have missed him the first time around, it is a chance to get acquainted with one of the more remarkable characters in American cooking.
Though Tower was instrumental in establishing the Bay Area as one of the world’s premier food capitals, in a way he never really seemed to fit in there. In an area where fine dining always seemed to come weighed down with political earnestness, Tower’s party flew only the hedonist banner. Amid the stolid earth shoes of Berkeley, he was a Victorian dandy in a velvet smoking jacket and tuxedo slippers.
While everyone else was searching out the perfect organic lettuce, he was putting together all-Sauternes menus and telling anyone who would listen that the only wine to serve with roast beef was Chateau d’Yquem. If he came up short on the social responsibility scale, the party always seemed to be better at his place.
In that way, perhaps he might have fit in better in Los Angeles, where our most important chefs of the period -- Wolfgang Puck, Michael McCarty, Michael Roberts, Michel Richard -- never seemed to lose sight of the fact that good food is a celebration, not an obligation, and that serious cooking doesn’t necessarily mean serious dining.
Tower’s new book is full of his trademark opinions and provocations. Among the latter, those most sure to raise comment are his claims to have been the American pioneer of everything from mesclun salad to gourmet pizza. Maybe so. But even if not literally true, it would be a shame if the occasional bit of hyperbole obscured the book’s deeper virtues.
Primary among these is an acute, if prickly, common sense, whether he’s extolling the virtues of pressed caviar (“Its ‘jammy’ texture and concentrated flavors cry out for potatoes, crumpets, or English muffins”) and canned sardines (“Eat them with horseradish, hot sauce ... or mayonnaise, but always with freshly grated onion”) or weighing in with delicious little epigrams:
“Food should be beautiful, but it should look like food all the same -- and taste the way it looks.”
“Sometimes it seems ... ‘organic produce’ just means that the vegetables are unwashed and unrefrigerated. Like ‘fresh,’ the use of the word ‘organic’ is fraught with the peril of rushing to embrace a good concept without taking into consideration the result it is meant to produce.”
And, of course, there are Tower’s trademark tales of culinary fabulousness: wild strawberries soaked in old Burgundy, a white truffle feast at Harry’s Bar in Venice, sea urchin souffles that he says James Beard proclaimed “the best thing I have ever tasted.”
It must be pointed out that some of “Jeremiah Tower Cooks” will be familiar to those who read his first book, “Jeremiah Tower’s New American Classics,” published in 1986 and long out of print. A few of the stories and several recipes are repeated. Still, it would be ungenerous to fault him too much for this, any more than we’d criticize an old friend for repeating himself from time to time -- especially when the stories (and the food) were so good to begin with.
And, in truth, the recipe selection in that first book was a little more balanced. “Cooks” leans pretty hard on luxury ingredients and multi-step restaurant preparations. But as long as you don’t feel too bound by the garnishes, that’s not insurmountable. This velvety parsnip soup, for example, was supposed to be finished with shaved white truffles. Not on a Wednesday night at my house. Instead, I simply used a swirl of sour cream and it was delicious. It would also be great -- and a little dressier -- if you deep-fried some of the parsnip scrapings and floated those on top.
Was it Auntie Mame who said, “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death”?
Not around Jeremiah Tower, they’re not.