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Critics Weigh In on Chef Jeremiah Tower's Etiquette Book, ‘Table Manners’

One critic calls some of the advice “diabolically perverse”

jeremiah tower Jeremiah Tower/Facebook

As one of America’s first celebrity chefs, Jeremiah Tower has had an outsized influence on how we eat: He helped shape the very notion of “California cuisine” as chef at Alice Waters’ iconic Chez Panisse, later going on to found the landmark San Francisco restaurant Stars. The audacious chef, recently the subject of a documentary executive-produced by Anthony Bourdain, has lived quietly out of the spotlight for years, recently emerging for an ill-fated gig at NYC’s famed Tavern on the Green — and to publish a book on table manners.

In the book, called Table Manners: How to Behave in the Modern World and Why Bother, Tower dispenses advice on everything from taking a phone call during dinner to putting one’s elbows on the table. Released in late October, reviews are now pouring in.

The New York Times delivers a mixed review on the book, writing that it “delivers a great deal of advice so obvious as to be numbing.” Tower does offer some excellent advice on appropriate dinner table conversation, but his views on cell phone manners are proclaimed “diabolically perverse”:

“Go ahead and text” at the table, he writes, though he warns this might exclude others around you. He says that using a speakerphone at the table is O.K. if you “keep it down.” This is heretical...Your cellphone is O.K. on the table, he writes, if its screen is facing down. I am experiencing outrage fatigue.

The South China Morning Post gives it three out of five stars, suggesting much of the advice dished out is common knowledge:

And if you think Table Manners could be a guide to how to behave in public, you’d be partially right — although the book feels a bit like a project dreamed up by a market­ing department. Tower...narrates his own book, taking listeners from how to set a table to whether it’s pretentious to wrap lemons (no: it prevents rude squirts), what is appropriate for dinner-party chitchat, and when it is OK to leave. If you didn’t know much of this already, you should be worried.

NPR finds Table Manners “not particularly inclusive,” calling out one instance in which Tower gauchely references serving “$125 bottles of pinot noir” and some dubious centerpiece advice:

Tower is a well-known chef, which makes his restaurant precepts specific and insightful (his advice for treating servers well is valuable, for instance) — but he's less thoughtful about other aspects of etiquette...Tower's suggestions for those short on cash include replacing table centerpieces with goldfish in a vase. This implies, if not a direct hostility to the poor, at least that Tower did not do the exercise of imagining eating dinner eye-to-eye with a live fish — or the effort of procuring one and caring for it afterwards.

Meanwhile, Amazon reviewers have largely been kinder to the book than the professional critics. One writes:

Completely in touch with the mad challenges of the modern world we inhabit and imbued with the pedagogic sense of a benevolent master teacher, his firm but gentle advice is a dearly needed reminder of the fact that a culture is ultimately measured by the way we comport ourselves and treat others — arguably nowhere more so than at table.

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