Jeremiah Tower rose to fame as the chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and then at his own San Francisco restaurant, Stars. Along with Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters, he’s viewed as a preeminent pioneer of modern American cuisine. After 14 years operating stars, he sold the restaurant in 1998 and pretty much dropped off the map. The tale is chronicled in Anthony Bourdain’s recently released documentary, The Last Magnificent.
Bourdain and Tower recently sat down with Charlie Rose to discuss the making of the film, Tower’s past, what his future might hold, and Bourdain’s view of the “original celebrity chef.” Here, now, are the 12 best lines from the interview.
Tower, on why he disappeared to Mexico: “I came to New York and did a couple of cookbooks and some PBS shows, and then 9/11. There had already been the earthquake [when Tower was living in San Francisco in 1989] and then terrorists, so I thought I had better go someplace where there are no hurricanes or earthquakes or terrorists, so I went to Mexico, to the beach. But part of it was ... I want to be alone, I want to be left alone, as Greta Garbo truly said.”
Bourdain on how Stars changed the way American diners viewed chefs: “An open kitchen, a restaurant where one walked in wanting to see the chef. Before that, the last person you wanted to see, much less hear the opinion from, was the chef. At Stars, people insisted on it.”
Tower, on growing up in the upper crust: “James Beard said he was vaccinated with a passport, I think I was too.”
Bourdain, on Tower’s surprise move to take over the kitchen at Tavern on the Green in New York City: “It was incredibly inconvenient. We had finished the film, and we opened the New York Times and there’s Jeremiah doing this outrageous, high-profile thing that changes the entire trajectory of the story, and Lydia Tenaglia, the director of the film, calls me up and says, ‘Oh my god, what do we do? We’re going to have to shoot for another year.’ And my immediate comment was, ‘No you won’t. This’ll be over in a month.”
Bourdain, on how he knew Tower’s stay at Tavern on the Green would be short-lived: “I’ve had friends who worked at Tavern, I’m familiar with the place. Look, I’m a cynical guy who was in the business a long time — this was a recipe for disaster. And even if everything had gone right, Jeremiah, from what I knew about him even then, is all about fabulousness and glamour. Whatever you say about Tavern on the Green, it’s never going to be that. If you want to bring your grandmother out for her birthday, you go there so none of your friends will see you.”
Tower on why he came out of retirement to take the gig even though it wasn’t a great fit: “I have the fatal attraction for the slim chance. It was an adventure, a dangerous adventure, and I’m very often stupid enough to step up and take a swing at it.”
Tower, explaining the joke that convinced the food world he was opening a restaurant on the Amalfi coast with Mario Batali: “People kept asking me, ‘What next, what next, what next?’ And finally I ran out of answers, so I said the Amalfi coast with Mario Batali. And of course Mario being Mario, someone called him immediately and he says, ‘Yes, of course.’ It was completely fictitious.”
Tower, on if he opens a last-act restaurant, what it might look like: “There was a little bar on the beach in Phuket ... good sound system, great music, and some booze — that was it. I said, ‘Don’t you have an umbrella?’ And some old guy comes out of the jungle. He had cut down a banana tree and he sticks it in the sand next to me and he said, ‘There’s your umbrella.’ That was my second moment where I said, ‘I’ve got to have a restaurant like this.’ So, a beach bar I might do.”
Bourdain, on his future projects coming down the pipeline: “I’m a quarter of the way shooting another couple of seasons [of Parts Unknown] nearly consecutively. I’m in between Nagorno-Karabakh and Uruguay at the moment. I’m continuing to produce films, I’m working on a book — essays [about life].”
Bourdain, on why Tower can walk away from the restaurant business with no regrets: “It’s Orson Welles syndrome in a lot of ways. When you’ve made Citizen Kane, you don’t have to apologize for anything or achieve anything else with your life.”
Tower quoting Proust, explaining why he came out of retirement after 15 years away from restaurants: “‘Work while you still have the light’ — Proust lying in bed, writing. [I wanted to see] if my light was still on.”
Bourdain, on where he would go if he needed to disappear: “Maybe San Sebastián in Spain. It’s a grown-up city, fantastic food, centrally located to Paris and Rome, which is nice. That would not be a bad place to live.”
Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent will air on CNN this Sunday, November 12, at 9 p.m. The screening takes the time slot normally held by Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, which is off this week.