Although our worlds had intersected many times over the last thirty years, Jeremiah Tower and I lived in a parallel universe, until about a month ago. As a chef, he was a hero of mine, but I didn’t know much else about him. After seeing the new documentary on him, I found it essential that we meet.
We have close mutual friends, a shared passion for Escoffier, Musigny, and Chateau d’Yquem, and I own all of his cookbooks. I went to his super-glamorous restaurant Stars in San Francisco in 1987 with my food-worldly parents—and it was a happening, a revelation, one of those pinch-yourself-is this-really-me moments.
I’d never read his autobiography(ies), and it wasn’t until I saw the new film, Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, which airs on CNN this Sunday evening, that I fully understood the influences that had formed him and paved the way for his riotous career.
Tower is, as producer Anthony Bourdain says, “the bridge between the old world and the new,” his appreciation of the old world starting with extensive travel as a young child in ne plus ultra fashion with his parents. If exposure succeeds, grandeur corrupts—and, at any age, much less that one, the power of style to transform is indelible.
I vaguely knew Tower had gone to Harvard and had some tony Continental background, but it stopped there. I also knew chefs didn’t go to Harvard, and chefs weren’t raised as gentlemen. More importantly, what I didn’t know was that he spent the majority of his childhood alone in an adult world of luxury, privilege, even abandonment.
He tagged along as his parents hop-scotched the globe: in 1940s prop-liner planes flying through sick-making storms to The Royal Hawaiian, dining on his own in London’s Hyde Park Hotel where he befriended Bill and Ben, the waiters who first initiated him to the wiles of Canvas-Back Ducks, Terrapin-en-gelée, and Lobster Newburg.
On a wander to the Great Barrier Reef, young Jeremiah ran across an Aborigine who grilled up a fresh-caught Barracuda on an open fire—and then took him into the woods to teach him the birds and bees. At the Mount Lavinia Hotel in Sri-Lanka, Tower, aged seven, found he liked it so well he refused to leave when his parents self-imposed tenure was up.
But perhaps Master Tower’s greatest revelation, his fullest seduction to the beau monde, was the tink of a bone-china soup coupe on a chilly deck of the Queen Mary, and a provocative query from a handsome first-class steward: “Consommé?”
“Jeremiah lives in a dream world,” says James Villas, the legendary king of food and wine at T&C for almost 30 years, and long-time friend of Tower’s. “He’s an Edwardian Gentleman.” Had Tower not been the 95-hour-a-week workaholic who started the fire of a 40-year food revolution in America during his days as chef and co-owner at Chez Panisse in the 1970s, he might have been just as content to live as Bertie Wooster, P.G. Wodehouse’s bon-vivant protagonist, merely answering invitations and swilling Champagne at his Gentlemen’s club in between fittings on Savile Row.
To delve further in to Tower’s sensibilities requires at least a remote understanding of his great hero, Lucius Beebe, the prolific author, columnist, showman, and railroad enthusiast. In his more than 35 books, and 35+ years of syndicated columns, Beebe chronicled a lost world—a world of civility, manners, sybaritic and unapologetic hedonism, and aspirational grandness. He’s the one who first coined the term “Café Society.”
James Villas, in his 1998 essay on Beebe for Gourmet, “The Last Magnifico” (its title surely a keystone of this film’s title), summed up Beebe non pareil: “A randy, dandy Boulevardier, an eminently polite, generous, witty and kind Gentleman who was not out to impress anybody and simply relished a civilized evening on the town over a ‘hot bird and a cold bottle.’”
I’ve always argued—to the great shock of many foodies—that the food world in America started to really change when those educated to do other things got involved: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, Mildred Knopf, James Beard. You can name the others on your left hand.
That the Revolution, a full generation later, started with a lonely child, a romantic vision, two degrees from Harvard, and an acute intuition and propensity towards gentility and other lost civilizations, upon closer consideration, seems no real shock at all.