Jeremiah Tower

Merrill Shindler / July 1994

Food Arts presents the July/August 1994 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Jeremiah Tower, a cornerstone of contemporary cuisine.

If Alice Waters is, as the cliché often goes, the mother of California cuisine, then surely the father is her former compatriot in the kitchen—tall, elegant, patrician Jeremiah Tower, currently the owner of Stars and Stars Cafe in San Francisco, and the Stars Oakville Cafe in the Napa Valley (with a Stars of Palo Alto in the works). In his cookbook, Jeremiah Tower's New American Classics (Harper & Row, NY, 1986), he both defined California cuisine and redefined American cooking.

It was, in fact, a meal prepared by Tower that's always cited as the point in time at which California cuisine was born. "A California Regional Dinner," a repast prepared one auspicious evening in 1976 at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, was a meal of great simplicity and understatement, somewhat French, somewhat Mediterranean, very slightly influenced by the Orient. And it was built exclusively around ingredients from the rich farmland and ocean waters of California.

Tower did not set out to become a chef. Born of a White Russian father and an American mother and raised in Washington D.C., he was educated at an English boarding school. He later attended Harvard where he earned two degrees—a bachelor of arts and a master of architecture. (Legend has it that among the items in the steamer trunk he carried to school were a set of fine carving knives and an ancient bottle of Madeira given him by his grandmother.) And that might have been his life, except that as for many thrust into the world in the early '70s, the times they were a changin'.

Tower set out for Hawaii where he says he planned to study underwater architecture. But he ran out of money in Berkeley and wound up working in the kitchen of Chez Panisse, then just a little cafe. Everyone cooking there was a friend of Alice Waters, so it wasn't unusual that she hired Tower, even though he had no professional kitchen experience. "It was Berkeley, 1971, and things worked like that," he recalls. At Chez Panisse, in concert with Waters, he transformed the regional cooking of France into the regional cooking of California, a style that spread in time to the dishes cooked in new restaurants by Wolfgang Puck, Cindy Pawlcyn, Mark Peel, John Sedlar, and Tower himself. He left Chez Panisse in the late '70s to open first the Santa Fe Bar & Grill in Berkeley, and then Stars in 1984, a restaurant that he describes as "a cross between an old New York brasserie and a traditional San Francisco eatery, but with an open kitchen and new food."

Tower's architectural acumen has continued to give him sharper vision as a restaurateur; stylistically, his more recent Napa venture has the grace of an old Provençal garden inn, in contrast to the scintillating metropolitan sensibility of Stars. Star's menu, over the years, has run from the sheer simplicity of minestrone, fish hash, and steak tartare with French fries to the complexity of honey-cured salmon gravlax on grilled herb brioche, smoked duck breast with wild chanterelles and Italian field mushrooms, and grilled squab marinated in berry puree. This is very much a restaurant driven by ingredients—the freshest, the finest, the best of the local. Jeremiah Tower is such a champion of regional flavors he views his proudest accomplishment as teaching and inspiring others to use only fresh food and the best ingredients.

It's Stars that San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, longtime conservator of the heart and soul of San Francisco, recently referred to as, "the ingenious devising of Jeremiah Tower…a restaurant where everything works…a reminder of the time when everything did work in San Francisco."

Jeremiah Tower has made California cuisine work to a fare-thee-well. And he's brought new life to American cooking in the process.