After nearly two decades of self-imposed culinary exile, is he ready to do it again?
Jeremiah Tower is on his scarred, ancient-looking flip phone in a taxi in Mérida, Mexico, answering the call that, in a few weeks, will make him chef at Tavern on the Green in New York City, only I don't know that. Even Tower doesn't know it.
"Yes," he says into the phone. We're bouncing on shocks down Calle 68 toward lunch, a tinny, frantic technocumbia tapping out on the speakers behind my head. Like almost every street in Mérida's centro, it's a treeless slot of bleached pavement cutting through stucco cliffs, rows of barely articulated houses that appear stingy about giving up their secrets.
Tower is sitting in the front seat, next to the driver. I'm in back with my husband, looking at the back of the 71-year-old chef's head, tall and elegant, which almost touches the cab's padded ceiling. "All twenty-three of them?" he asks. "Right. I'll let you know." He flips the phone closed with a snap.
We're rolling in the humid blast of a Sunday afternoon, under a huge sky with baroque layers of architectural clouds receding to an endless horizon, like Velázquez's painting of the Virgin, in rapture, in the moment of the holy conception. We pass the discarded mansions of nineteenth-century Mexican sisal barons, dormered Parisian fantasies crusted with Rococo-revival masonry festoons, all of it under a black scurf of mold fed by Mérida's tropical heat. Tower has asked me to take him to lunch. "Not sure what your publication's budget is," he'd written in an email last week, after agreeing to let me come interview him. I'm freaking out.
See, as a know-nothing kid cooking in San Francisco in the late 1980s, I envied and feared Tower like nobody else I ever thought about. Jeremiah was the Jay Gatsby of my own longing for ascendancy, the distant idol of my ambitions, trailed by a rumor-fueled narrative of trouble that, to me, only made him more heroic. I never met Tower back then, never even ate at his restaurant, Stars, but everybody knew someone who knew someone who worked there, and everyone heard stories of Tower's ego and charm, the drinking, the careening rages, his thirst for beautiful young men. Tower had the glamour of a hubris that hadn't yet exacted its toll.
Stars was the bump of white-sand coke snorted off a lacquered table on some department store heiress's yacht in Tiburon, with lobsters on the grill, Montrachet chilling in a platinum bucket.
Now I'm in a taxi three feet away from him, at what turns out to be the very end of his eight-year exile in Mexico—he's been splitting his time between Mérida and Cozumel, where he scuba dives—more than fifteen years after Stars slipped through his fingers.
Once upon a time, Tower was the elegant man on page one of the Wednesday food section of the San Francisco Chronicle, poised and aloof as he demonstrated how to make some baby-vegetable ragout that you wouldn't quite be able to cook at home. Tower used the sort of exquisite, shiny-looking vegetables—tapering little eggplants, turnips the size of bath beads, taut-skinned carrots in shades of turmeric, apricot, and ivory—that were impossible to find unless you grew them yourself, or knew someone who did. You had to eat at the restaurant to see them in the flesh, to taste their sweetness and feel the pop of their skins.
Like everything that fell within the halo of Stars in those years, it was the vegetables' very inaccessibility that made them irresistible. Everything Tower did publicly seemed an enticement to get you to want to be a part of the House of Jeremiah. He made you want to bask in his glow, to experience with your own tongue the delicate bubbles in the flute of champagne he was always careful to be photographed with. It was seduction.
At Stars, just as across town at his Balboa Café, and at his Santa Fe Bar and Grill in Berkeley, Tower's food was magnificent. It had that low-slung, open-shirted, carelessly feathered appeal, like the people who were young and rich in California at that moment, the zenith of Ronald Reagan's glory. Stars was the bump of white-sand coke snorted off a lacquered table on some department store heiress's yacht in Tiburon, with lobsters on the grill, Montrachet chilling in a platinum bucket.
Now, in Mérida, I'm sitting in a car with my former idol, hurtling to lunch. He's put the cell phone away and is dishing about the town's expat community, a group he's largely avoided. "They just want to talk about maids, of which there are none, and their health," he says. "All their little aches and pains." He isn't ready to be old.
This morning, when I rang the bell at his home, Tower opened his door. He's staying at a house on Calle 68 owned by friends, he says, who live in Arkansas. At 71, he has an unexpected—what? Beauty? He's handsomer than I expected from photos, his face the delicate gray-pink of uncooked veal noisettes. I imagine the tracery of capillaries on his famous cheekbones are the trophy residue of Krug champagnes and Chateau d'Yqem sémillons long gone. He has on white pants, slight loafers of woven leather strips in a sort of faded cerise (probably expensive once), and a heather gray t-shirt. And he has that anglo-patrician accent that's charmed and bugged his audience since the chef's earliest days at Chez Panisse, in the 1970s. It's Old English and New England, svelte and loping, a male version of the measured, received-pronunciation diction that Hollywood starlets, desperate to shed Canarsie, tried to cultivate in the 1930s.
As our taxi rounds the weedy soccer field scattered with teen boys that borders Hacienda Xcanatun— the place we're headed, an 18th-century sisal plantation that's reinvented itself as a hotel and restaurant—I'm wondering if any kid cooking today even thinks of Tower as significant. With the restaurants that made his reputation now far behind him, Jeremiah Tower is facing what might be the hardest task in his long and improbable career. The man regarded as America's first modern celebrity chef is trying to cement his legacy at the exact moment he's making a play for relevance.
It wouldn't be the first time that Tower has had to bullshit his way into prominence. In fact, he's a genius at it.
North Berkeley in 1973 was a place where the sexual revolution and the drug revolution and the socialist revolution hung out and sipped espresso together, trying hard not to upset the teetering balance between the theoretical radicalism and bougie desires of middle-class white kids. Across the bay in San Francisco, things were trippier, less political, gayer; they were giddier and more reckless. But Berkeley had a seriousness that ruled its radical ideals, an ethos of moral purpose. And then a thirty-year-old Jeremiah Tower rode in and killed everybody's backyard-weed buzz, knocking over the espresso cups. Tower believed North Berkeley's bourgeois aspirations weren't grand enough. Not by half.
Tower had stopped in San Francisco en route to Hawaii, he writes in his 2003 memoir, California Dish. He'd studied graduate architecture at Harvard, and had plans he wanted to present in Hawaii for submerged ocean housing, which sounds like something you think is brilliant when you're stoned. On his way there, he ran out of money. He needed a job, and answered a newspaper ad for a restaurant in called Chez Panisse.
"IMMEDIATE OPENING," read the listing, capital letters and all, "in small, successful, innovative Restaurant, provincial French cuisine, for inspired energetic CHEF to plan and cook single entrée 5-course dinners weekly, Fernand Point and Elizabeth David style."
In Tower's mind, a menu in print opens up like a handful of Magic Grow pills tossed in a fishbowl, unfolding as an aquarium of fantastically colored shapes.
Tower had no formal cooking experience, but he was an amateur in the literal sense of the word—he was a lover of food, he knew who Fernand Point and Elizabeth David were. Not to mention Lucien Tendret, Urbain Dubois, Auguste Escoffier, Edouard Nignon, and, of course, the Francophile American expat, Richard Olney. At a time when culinary academies were essentially vocational schools for hotel cooks and institutional hash-slingers, where drab food generally ruled, Tower's deep versing in culinary aesthetics and literature drove him to compose menus for home dinner parties that played out like theatrical events.
Years before he ever cooked at Chez Panisse, composing menus that were famously both high-minded and exquisitely executed, Tower saw menu creation as an art form. He believed a sequence of dishes was granted its power by building on what came before it and by foreshadowing what's next, an orchestration of mood, a linear and temporal event that teases before it satisfies, that takes diners to the brink but holds them back until a calculated moment of release.
In Tower's mind, a menu in print opens up like a handful of Magic Grow pills tossed in a fishbowl, unfolding as an aquarium of fantastically colored shapes. "Menus are a language unto themselves," he writes in his memoir, and lays down a bravura annotation of one he copied in his notebook ten years before answering that clipping from Chez Panisse, for a dinner given by Cecil Beaton at Lapérouse in Paris in the 1930s. Beaton's meal starts with a slab of hot turtle fat moistened with sherry-bolstered consommé, followed by foie gras served at a precise degree of coolness so it melts gradually in the mouth—"a reluctant companion in excess," Tower writes of the foie, "rather than a dancer in your lap."
Tower goes on to describe a menu from a dinner he threw in 1969, when he lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for a table of a couple of close friends and a visiting poet. He calls it decadent: vodka from the freezer (an enduring Tower motif) with pirozhki, prosciutto and figs, and then "consommé marijuana," weed steeped in rich chicken stock, positioned in the menu so that its psychoactive effects are timed to kick in at just the right moment, after roast beef paired with a second-growth Bordeaux, followed by watercress salad. The pot consommé takes "forty-five minutes to reach the brain," Tower writes, "by which time (as the menu planned) we were on to dessert, tasting strawberries and cream as we'd never tasted them before."
Tower's psychophysiological understanding of menu dynamics—the concept of a three-hour dinner as an event that affects the diner in some deep emotional and physical way—was, in 1973, extraordinarily high-level culinary thinking. It was a time when the fanciest restaurants of San Francisco aspired to produce flawless versions of boilerplate French and Italian dishes. With Chez Panisse, Alice Waters might have hoped for something more rustic—more honest, maybe, and truer to some taste epiphany of her defining French idyll—but her aspirations ultimately weren't all that different from the conservative gastronomy that reigned across the bay at places like Ernie's or the Blue Fox. Tower's way of thinking must have seemed like some weird shit. Borderline deranged.
Bill Staggs, who's worked as a waiter at Chez Panisse since 1972, was at the restaurant when Tower came in for his job interview. "I don't remember if he was wearing a button-down shirt or not, but he still had some of the ivy around him," Stagg says, emphasizing the word "ivy," a kind of verbal eye-roll at Tower's Harvard pedigree. He remembers Tower as very handsome, even dashing. "He had presence," Stagg says, not to mention a young boyfriend named George, whose father was a guard at Attica State Prison. They lived together in South Berkeley, near the city's only gay bar, and Tower threw amazing parties, with lots of Stoli and champagne. "They used to have fights all the time," recalls Staggs of the couple. "And an Irish wolfhound, a Russian wolfhound—something like that."
"He was clearly not Berkeley," Staggs told me. And yet Tower's menus and his cooking—his sheer audacity—put Berkeley and Chez Panisse on the map, at a time when there weren't half a dozen places on any critic's national radar. "He had sophistication and dedication," says Jean-Pierre Moullé, who started working at Chez Panisse in 1975 and spent a year cooking next to Tower as his sous. He also spent that year riding shotgun for the daily sourcing scrabble, running to San Francisco's Chinatown to get squab, hitting up Oakland's wholesale produce market—all the things it took to mount an ambitious menu in the days before you could count on specialty suppliers to deliver.
"He was cooking with his brain and his guts at the same time, which is rare for a chef."
Moullé cooked at Chez Panisse on and off for nearly forty years. He retired in 2012, and he lives now in Healdsburg, California. He credits Tower—not Waters—as the iconic restaurant's inventor. "He was cooking with his brain and his guts at the same time, which is rare for a chef," he says. "I call that time the golden years of Chez Panisse, because of him."
And because of Alice. Moullé might give all the credit to Tower, but it's hard to say exactly where his influence ended and Waters' began. During Tower's tenure, Waters was pretty much entirely out of the kitchen, working the dining room with her sylvan charm, unless there was chaos—say, they were running out of food—and she had to hide in the kitchen until it was all over. David Kamp, in his 2006 book The United States of Arugula, skillfully traverses the jagged history of Jeremiah and Alice's competing claims to be the sole makers of Chez Panisse magic in the messy, wonderful years of the late 1970s. Did they co-parent the formerly glamorous thing known as California Cuisine? There aren't too many people left who care, now that California Cuisine is about as dated—both as a phrase and a concept—as calling the few blocks around Chez Panisse on Shattuck Avenue the "Gourmet Ghetto." The world's moved on.
That era—that lifestyle, with the bottle of champagne always open on the kitchen work table, the nights when the dealer showed up early in the evening and dumped a pile of cocaine on the lid of the kitchen freezer and everybody, back of house and front, kept disappearing during service 'til the pile was gone—it was unsustainable, it had to die out. But its intensity fueled Tower's knack, his brilliance, for turning dinner into an event, a moment destined to blaze up and fade, ultimately memorialized in a physical menu you could frame and hang on a wall, both the document and the trophy, not just memorializing some abstract run of dishes and wines, but an experience.
"That type of attitude, that type of craziness—it was really creating a new path, what we were doing. A new movement in the food world."
There were the French regional dinners Tower planned and executed, things nobody in Northern California in the mid-seventies had seen before—the Brittany dinner; the Alsatian dinner, with its bubbling tank of live Big Sur trout so Tower could do a real truite au bleu; the Alice B. Toklas dinner he planned with San Francisco poet Michael Palmer; even the famous Northern California Dinner of 1976, when Tower wrote the menu in English and sourced key ingredients from within a minuscule radius of the restaurant, like the proto-locavore he was. Those dinners had the audaciousness, the brazen theatricality, that today's best restaurants aim for.
Since leaving Chez Panisse in 1978, Tower has come under a steady load of criticism from supporters of Waters who claim that his Frenchness—his homages to Escoffier and Lucien Tendret—were backward-thinking, backward-looking, keeping Chez Panisse bound up in some quaint, esoteric skin it was yearning to shed. Maybe that's true. But forty years later, looking back, it's undeniable that Tower's mining of gastronomic culture—his building a connection to the past and rummaging around for whatever looked strange and beautiful there and bringing it to the fore—feels more contemporary, more vital than a modified bistro cuisine of simple salads and braises.
"We broke a lot of rules," Moullé says, "but it did work at that time. Forty years later it wouldn't—a restaurant would close—but we had the passion, and the energy too. The technical you can learn in school, but that type of attitude, that type of craziness—it was really creating a new path, what we were doing. A new movement in the food world."
Jeremiah Tower is sitting on a sofa out on the broad, covered terrace of Casa de Piedras, the soaring restaurant in the baronial Hacienda Xcanatun, talking about Jesus's foreskin.
We're discussing what Tower's been doing in Mexico since the recession killed his business of fixing up and flipping houses here in Mérida. He tells me he's finished writing a book—he's calling it Sexual Eating—about aphrodisiacs, the kinds of things, he says, that people have eaten, drunk, inserted, or sniffed to get horny. "We have this limited idea of what an aphrodisiac is nowadays," he says, taking a sip of sauvignon blanc and then telling the waiter in Spanish to switch on the ceiling fans. He turns back to our conversation. "If some lab rat doesn't get a hard-on, we don't even call it one." I ask for an example. That's when foreskin comes up.
There was this nun, apparently, who lived in the fifteenth or sixteenth century—Tower can't remember exactly. "She threw the Catholic church into a panic, because she said—and she convinced them!—that she'd eaten Christ's foreskin," he says. Suddenly, church scholars were scrambling to confirm that this was even possible, that Jesus's foreskin wasn't taken to heaven with him, that it stayed earthbound after the ascension. "They had to acknowledge that he was Jewish, and it made everybody freak out. ‘My God, what if he didn't have his foreskin?'"
He hasn't found a publisher for the book yet. And I forgot to ask if eating the alleged foreskin of Christ made the nun horny, though its inclusion in the manuscript seems to imply that it did. But it's clear that Tower really likes fucking with people, that he gets off on tweaking the conventional order. He's sort of an elegant and impecunious rogue, Kubrick's Barry Lyndon sent off in exile, only to the Yucatan instead of to the Prussian territories.
But exile is the wrong word. Tower never really dropped completely out of sight, except maybe during the year he spent in Manila in the late 1990s, when he was contractually obliged to be present at the Stars franchise there, or during his first year in Mexico, before he surfaced on Twitter and caused a stir online. Still, he likes to talk about himself as if he disappeared, as if he's now poked his head back in to check on how much everybody missed him.
It's clear that Tower really likes fucking with people, that he gets off on tweaking the conventional order.
He's been getting out there, lately. He spoke earlier this year in Copenhagen at Rene Redzepi's MAD Symposium, and in September he was guest of honor at the dedication of the new Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. Anthony Bourdain has just about wrapped filming on a documentary about Tower, which is expected to premiere in 2015. And now, the biggest getting-out-there of all: running the kitchen at New York's legendary—and legendarily beleaguered—Tavern on the Green.
"I've been amazed by what everyone's done to history since I've been away," Tower says. By "history," he means his own reputation, that legacy he's been eager to pour the foundation for ever since he wrote California Dish more than a decade ago. He's aware of his own redemptive arc: "At the beginning of my beach exile it was all, ‘Jeremiah Tower who?'" he says. "Now it's, ‘Jeremiah Tower, the legend.'" He aims for a vague candor when he explains his departure: "I pulled my Greta Garbo and said I want to be alone, and headed off to the beach for various reasons." He doesn't quite pull off the tone, even if he's got the charm thing nailed.
"Tony Bourdain is the perfect example," he says of the resurgence of his popularity. "Five or six years ago he said, ‘Well at least Alice stayed in the game, Jeremiah gave up.' A year later he said, ‘Jeremiah Tower is a train wreck.' Then later, a year or two ago, ‘Oh, Jeremiah Tower, he was the beginning of it all.'" It is, if accurate, a remarkable change in public perception. Its magnitude is not lost on Tower, who asks: "Who rewrote history?"
Our second round of sauvignon blanc appears on the terrace. "It's nice to have somebody say, ‘We respect what you've done,' instead of spit on you," he says.
Over the phone from his home in New Jersey, Arthur Gallego tells me about how in the 1990s, he was what he refers to as Jeremiah Tower's "significant other." They met at the height of Stars' glory, the autumn of 1992 when he was in his early twenties and Tower was fifty, and a week later they moved in together. Gallego, who now owns a market consulting firm in New York City, became Tower's publicist.
"I understood him immediately," Gallego says. "We had a very good rapport. We both understood the importance of not giving a shit what anyone thought about you." There were a lot of shits not to give: a lot of people were thinking about Tower in San Francisco in those years.
Before Stars opened in 1984, Tower had spent years trying to line up the money for his post-Chez Panisse move, pondering the sort of American-sourced restaurant James Beard was urging him to design, the western spiritual child of Joe Baum's Four Seasons back in New York. Tower tried to get something off the ground at the Ventana Inn in Big Sur, but it was a failure. But when Stars launched, it was the biggest, brashest restaurant San Francisco had known since before Prohibition, back when the city was full of big, brash restaurants, bullshit showmen, and the alcoholic pursuit of pleasure. It was definitely not Berkeley. If the Chez Panisse days had seen Tower straining against the dirndl-skirt aesthetics and bourgeois-liberal moral code of North Berkeley, Stars put Tower center-clique in San Francisco's political, social, and cultural aristocracies, near City Hall, the courts, and the Opera House.
It's both a joke and a tradition that cooks at Chez Panisse only become known after they leave the restaurant, and only if they keep on cooking in the Chez Panisse style: Russell Moore at Camino, Charlie Hallowell at Pizzaiolo, even Judy Rodgers at Zuni Café. Tower wanted none of that. He said fuck you to Shattuck Avenue. Gleefully, I think.
If the rap about Tower in his final year at Chez Panisse was that he cooked in some antique vernacular, Stars was his thesis on translating French technique into a modern, urban idiom for a California high on unapologetic consumption, Joan Collins shoulder-pad power suits, and twenty-two-karat gold aviator shades. And Tower's food was philosophically indistinguishable from Tower himself—the cornmeal blinis piled high with caviar and so much butter, as Tower would say repeatedly in one of his setpieces, that it dribbled down your shirtsleeve and streaked your forearm.
"He had this sexiness that everybody wanted in the sexy nineties," says Kim Severson. She's now a New York Times domestic correspondent based in Atlanta, but twenty years ago she was a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Her 1999 story on Tower's exit from San Francisco, "The Rise and Fall of a Star," netted her a James Beard Award.
"Stars was about California moving away from its crunchier lentil-loaf roots," Severson says. "It made people feel like we had arrived—San Francisco always wants to feel like that; it doesn't want to be all star-studded, but secretly it longs to be a celebrity." Tower gave them that feeling, delivered it on plates of food arranged like the courses of some table d'hôte at the Paris Ritz in the days of Escoffier, all symmetry and pomp and plumelike little herb garnishes.
"The people were fun and good-looking, and you felt a part of that, even if in your regular life you weren't those things."
"It felt like a fun, important dinner party," Barbara Fairchild says about eating at Stars. Fairchild worked at Bon Appétit throughout the 1980s and ‘90s (she was editor-in-chief from 2000 until 2010), when the magazine was based in Los Angeles. She remembers paying the first of many visits to Stars about a year after it opened: "The people were fun and good-looking, and you felt a part of that, even if in your regular life you weren't those things." And the food, she says, was ahead of its time, bright, and with a formal quality it wore lightly. "It was locally sourced and reflected Jeremiah's French training, his love of French cooking and France. It had his stamp."
Fairchild recalls an avocado and tuna tartare that was like nothing she'd tasted before. "The woman I was with loved it so much she actually ended up ordering it for dessert. And nobody blinked an eye."
Severson describes Stars existing at the dawn of confidence in American food, in American ingredients, though the restaurant copied a Parisian model. "We still hadn't weaned ourselves from Europe," she says. "Stars was the bridge restaurant in some way. Tower took the brasserie idea and gave it this great brash and handsome and sexy overlay. It was like he was saying, ‘I'm taking the best stuff from a Paris bar and turning it pure American.'"
In his 1986 cookbook Jeremiah Tower's New American Classics, which serves as the de facto Stars cookbook, Tower lays his French influences out on a lawn of sun-dappled California confidence. You can spot the francophilia, but Tower manages to steep everything in an expensive Sonoma vibe. There's a glimpse of Richard Olney in dishes like grilled whole lamb kidneys on a straw-paille of shredded potatoes. And you get a whiff of James Beard in the black-truffled hamburger on a toasted English muffin that the diner has to butter himself ("for that final sensual ‘push,'" Tower writes). Though it's all imbued with a very Jeremiah sense of luxury: "The fitting drink with this sandwich," he goes on to note, "and one without which the burger falls short of its overwhelming effect, is a luscious, old-fashioned, deep red, rich, and powerful Burgundy—a La Tâche, any wine made by Roumier (his own or Comte de Vogüé), or a Morey-Saint-Denis—in a large balloon glass, so the perfume of the wine and the truffled beef hit one's brain at the same time."
So he had the sexiness that helped him become a national celebrity, showing up twice on Robin Leech's Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. But Tower thoroughly knew his stuff, a thing you cannot universally say about similarly well-known chefs thirty years on. Tower was an arbiter of experience, a technician of hedonism, calculating—as he did with his staged menus, which echo the thought put into his "consommé marijuana" of nearly two decades before—the precise point at which the mingling of truffle aroma and red wine phenols will tear up your pleasure center, leave its tender membranes quivering. Tower spoke the elevated language of aesthetics. He did not dumb down.
"He was a complete elitist," says Gallego. "That was just the way he was raised, it was part of him. If you took the time to see through that there was this wonderful man in there."
Maybe that last bit though, the wonderful man part, is debatable.
Tower was said to be unpredictable in his sweeps through the kitchen at Stars—jovial one minute, raging the next. Christine Leishman worked the cold salad station and pizza station at Stars for nine months starting in 1986; it was a time of tension, she says, between Tower and his chef (later executive chef), Mark Franz. Leishman says egos were flying around like crazy, and it seemed to her that Tower was often drunk. During a particularly frenetic service one night—525 covers, most of them operagoers who needed to get out fast—Leishman was shuttling between the oyster station and salads. In the frenzy she took what she describes as "a good chunk" out of her finger with an oyster knife, but managed to bandage herself, slip into a finger cot, and keep shucking, without letting the tickets pile up. After the rush, Tower approached her.
"Instead of saying, ‘Good job for sucking it up and keeping the pace,' he yelled at me for cutting myself in the first place," Leishman says. "Everybody around was like, ‘Fuck, what is this guy's problem?' You just learned to accept that. He would just go over and grab somebody's knife during serve-up and push them out of the way. I think there was a part of him that was threatened, especially by cooks who were formally trained, since he wasn't. There was a lot of mixed-up psyche going on."
"People that come off like that are basically insecure. He wants to be loved by people, but he hates them for that."
Franz—who is now the chef and owner at Farallon and Waterbar in San Francisco—is still close to Tower. "I've never met more of a consummate genius when it comes to putting menus together, and putting together the perfect food for the perfect party," he says. It's not the party part of hospitality that gives Tower trouble. It's the people part.
"Jeremiah doesn't really like people very much, and he would admit it," he says. For this, Franz cites Tower's troubled childhood, the absent parents who shuttled him off to boarding school and left him to fend for himself during long voyages on luxury ocean liners. He thinks that's one of the reasons Tower pushes people away, that it's why he keeps this force field of arrogance around himself.
"I love him to death," Franz says, "but people that come off like that are basically insecure. He wants to be loved by people, but he hates them for that." Maybe Tower's always—at least, since his time on the Cunard Line's Queen Elizabeth at the age of 7, discovering canapés of goose liver and caviar—been more comfortable in the embrace of sensory rapture. "Wearing," he writes in Jeremiah Tower's New American Classics, in a description of ice cream soda, "the invincible armor of pleasure."
When Tower left Stars in 1999—after years of struggle, huge and costly fights with his business partner, wrongful termination suits, and a chaotic rebuilding after the ‘89 Loma Prieta earthquake that essentially shut down the area around Civic Center—he just seemed to slip away, stripped of any armor whatsoever. That's when he disappeared.
"At the end," Severson says, "I really remember it was sort of like walking into a circus when they're taking down the tents and nobody wants the circus to be over. It was just like, ‘What happened?' People were just like, ‘Stars. Wow.'"
Even before that dismantling of the circus, some of the bubbliness of Tower's celebrity had already gone flat. In 1993, he lost a wrongful termination suit brought by a waiter who was fired from Stars and turned out to have AIDS. It enforced a perception in San Francisco's queer community that Tower was anti-gay, officially closeted, at a time when being out still came with a stigma. After Tower lost the case, people confronted him and Gallego when they showed up at Zuni, one of their regular spots. Tower says Gallego was spit on, though Gallego insists it never went that far—it was more in the realm of verbal harassment. "People would insult Jeremiah in front of me," Gallego says. "But I'm extremely tough. I would throw it right back. I think you stand by your man."
The sound of the waiter's footsteps on the gleaming black-and-white tiles is echoing around the stone walls of Casa de Piedras—we've moved inside from the terrace, seated for lunch in an all but empty dining room, a handsome space that's eerily quiet. There's a Mexican family at a six-top in the corner, and the hotel's owner and his American wife are lunching at a table way off on the other end of the massive room. "I would never have lunch in my own dining room, no matter how slow it was," Tower says sort of semi-audibly, looking across the floor. "That's bad form."
He orders a bottle of the same inexpensive French sauvignon blanc we were drinking on the terrace. "In Mérida, you have to go with cheap and young, because of the storage," he notes parenthetically. He looks down at the menu. "Ah, oysters Rockefeller. Haven't seen those in ages."
I don't know yet that his earlier taxi phone call had been about that Tavern on the Green job in New York, and I ask if he'd ever considered opening a restaurant in Mexico, a place like Hartwood, in Tulum—I'd read he's fond of it. Tower says he's had "flirtations" with the idea. "Using other people's money, of course," he says. Really though, he admits that his time in Mexico was mostly about killing demons.
"Being on the beach, I realized they're taking up space," he says of his grudges and regrets. "I made a point a few years ago to settle scores." He tells me that he's reached out to people he felt he had unresolved issues with—the only one still unsettled, he says, is with Michael Bauer, the San Francisco Chronicle food critic and executive editor who assigned Severson her story about Tower's rather shambling exit from Stars. He says that he's invited Bauer to lunch, but the vibe wasn't exactly conciliatory.
Tower's deliberate peacemaking went so far as to see him turn up in Berkeley in 2011 for the fortieth anniversary of Chez Panisse, an occasion at which he would face Alice, his old partner and nemesis (and his lover, briefly, in the mid-seventies). He suspects Waters of setting him up at the event, deliberately giving him the wrong time for dinner in some complicated play to appear magnanimous.
"Alice comes out of the kitchen and sweeps up to me, arms open wide, and says, ‘Oh, Jeremiah!' for everyone to see. I couldn't have done any better than that, and I'm a bullshit artist."
"When I arrived on time the downstairs restaurant was full," Tower says. "I thought I had the wrong time, since everybody was in their seats already. There was one chair empty. I was walked to the chair, at which point Alice comes out of the kitchen and sweeps up to me, arms open wide, and says, ‘Oh, Jeremiah!' for everyone to see. I couldn't have done any better than that, and I'm a bullshit artist. She did it brilliantly." For a man who made his reputation theatrically working the dining room at Stars, champagne flute in hand, it must have felt like he was receiving the ultimate payback. Clearly, Tower still has space for a demon or two.
We pick at the oysters Rockefeller, baked to rubber and garnished with superfluous little tomato ribbons. A plate of overwrought ceviche arrives—everything at Casa de Piedras appears tortured into fanciness, none of the effortless extravagance at which Tower so excelled. It occurs to me that for him, exile must have really, really sucked.
After lunch, we slip into a taxi to head back to Mérida. Tower says he'll take us to what he calls his regular hangout, for beers. It's a bland-looking modern restaurant on shady little Parque Santa Lucia. My husband and I take stools flanking Jeremiah at the bar, and we all order drinks. It's late afternoon, and we watch the cooks on the open line take bites of what I'm assuming is that night's special, and I try not to freak out all over again about being here with Tower, imagining all the pre-open tastings he's ever stuck a fork into.
My eye wanders to a waiter in tight black pants with an adorable little chin dimple, his hair styled into this amazing, swooping crest. Tower notices me looking. "He's beautiful," he says. "I used to come and look at him, but then he started to ignore me. So I came and didn't look at him for two or three months, until he started saying hello again."
Tower takes a sip of his Heineken, and then sets the glass down. "Nothing," he says, "is worse than not being noticed."
John Birdsall is an ex-cook who writes about food. His essay in Lucky Peach 8, "America, Your Food Is So Gay," won a 2014 James Beard Award. He's a senior editor at Chow.com, and lives in Oakland, California.
Editor: Helen Rosner
Illustrator: Leah Hayes