The Current

Why Anthony Bourdain wants the world to know about chef Jeremiah Tower

Ever heard of Jeremiah Tower? Culinary celebrity Anthony Bourdain wants you to know he's the chef responsible for transforming American cuisine.
Celebrity chef Jeremiah Tower is profiled in the documentary, Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, which traces the chef's influence on culinary culture. (Courtesy of The Orchard)

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Jeremiah Tower changed the food scene in America — first in the 1970s, as the executive chef at the famous Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., and then with his own restaurant Stars in San Francisco.

But when Tower closed his restaurant in 1999, he just disappeared. 

Chef and food television star Anthony Bourdain hopes to bring Tower back into what he sees as his rightful place at the centre of culinary history, as an executive producer of the new documentary, Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent.
Chef Anthony Bourdain credits Jeremiah Tower for forcing 'a complete reevaluation not just of American food and ingredients, but food.' (Courtesy of The Orchard)

"Jeremiah Tower was the first professional chef in America who could credibly be called a celebrity," Bourdain tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"He was the first chef who the customers not just wanted but insisted on seeing in the dining room … [He] was writing menus that really redefined the place of American ingredients and American-sourced products, seasonality, the region."

Everyone from style maven Martha Stewart to chef Mario Batali to food critic Ruth Reichl agree: Tower's influence on American culinary cuisine is undisputable.

Tower learned to cook in the kitchens of the grand ocean liners and great hotels, as his wealthy parents socialized and left their son to his own devices.

At one point, Tower's parents were surprised to run into him in a posh hotel restaurant where he'd been living — each thought the other had put him in boarding school months earlier.

"I must have gathered up a lot of pissed-offness from those years, and made it an artistic gesture," Tower tells Tremonti.
'If anything’s worth doing, it’s worth doing in style and on your own terms,' Jeremiah Towers says in the documentary. (Courtesy of The Orchard)

After stumbling into professional cooking — his original plan was to be an underwater architect — Tower made Stars one of the top-grossing restaurants in America in the '80s. But after the San Francisco earthquake of 1989, customers disappeared, and a few years later, Tower left the culinary scene. 

"I'd been doing it for 35 years, 80 hours a week," says Tower.

"It was time to get a balance." 
Jeremiah Tower began his career in 1972 at Chez Panisse in Berkley, Calif. —spearheading the California cuisine movement. (Courtesy of The Orchard)

But when Tower left for the beaches of Mexico, food journalists wrote him out of history, says Bourdain.

"Jeremiah was an inconvenient man suddenly," says Bourdain.

"He was bad at fame maintenance … And as a result, year after year, journalists perpetuated an alternate creation myth that every year made him seem less important and less central to the history of American gastronomy."

The film, Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent opens in Canadian theatres on May 5.

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley.