Jeremiah Tower, widely regarded as being one of the fathers of contemporary American regional cuisine through his work at such vaunted restaurants as Chez Panisse, Santa Fe Bar & Grill and Stars, most recently has chronicled the life of historic celebrity chef Georges Auguste Escoffier in e-book form.
In “A Dash of Genius: Escoffier and I — The First International Superstar Chef,” Tower writes that he was 16 years old when a book by Escoffier sparked his obsession with the author of the classic “Le Guide Culinaire” and architect of modern restaurant kitchen management practices, who died in 1935. Tower is also the author of “California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution” and “Jeremiah Tower’s New American Classics.”
Tower knows all about celebrity chefs. In “California Dish” he wrote of how — after a 1983 promotional event for 100 journalists at the Astor mansion in Newport, R.I. — he decided to “go for it, whatever the ultimate cost,” and embrace media interest in him and his vision of a “new, serious simplicity that could change the way people thought of fine dining.”
What was the most surprising thing you discovered about Escoffier?
That he was the world’s first famous chef. And about the philanthropic work he did. There was the story about the nuns and orphans: He literally took them banquet food [such as] partridges stuffed with foie gras. He took a lot of the money he’d get from prizes and things and put it to creating funds for retired chefs. It went on and on.
What about Escoffier influenced you most as a chef?
It was the simplicity [of his approach]: Just do it this way and learn this way and then evolve it. You can make it happen yourself and change it, but first know the principles. That is what I’ve taught everybody.
You were among the people for whom the term “celebrity chef” was coined. How do you feel about that title?
For me, personally, it was public relations. That lunch at the Astor mansion in 1983 at which suddenly there were “star” chefs and “celebrity” chefs — it was PR. But at the same time, I thought, “Oh my God, what have I done to myself?” So it’s both of those sides of the coin.
Is it easier or harder to be a celebrity chef now?
It is much easier to be a celebrity chef who has credibility — not just media presence — using social media like Facebook and Twitter.
International development is big today, but you globe-trotted long ago. Can you tell me about that?
My favorite overseas venture was the Peak Cafe in Hong Kong. We did [Stars] Singapore, and I did Stars Manila, [Philippines,] a franchise. We did other things, like go to Sydney to the Regent Hotel to tell Australians what California cuisine was all about. The first time we went abroad as a team was 1983 from the Santa Fe Bar & Grill.
Chez Panisse is renowned as an early champion of using local or regional garden or family-farm produce, so what do you think of today’s call by many chefs for locally sourced ingredients?
Finally it is all happening, and it’s not just people saying the words anymore.
The mantra is important, but you also have to remember what’s behind it. Just because something is local doesn’t make it great, and because it is organic doesn’t mean it is great. Those are only guidelines.
How do you view some chefs’ drive to use the “whole animal” and break down carcasses?
If that is what thrills them, motivates them and gets them back into the kitchen and excited every day, fantastic. Do I think it is necessary to break down whole animals? No. I’d rather go to my butcher.