Cover Tower in Parkway Grill in Pasadena (Photo: Courtesy of Jeremiah Tower)

Jeremiah Tower, considered by many to be the first-ever celebrity chef, started a revolution and got not much reverence for it

"I have to stay away from human beings because somehow I am not one,” writes a 19-year-old Jeremiah Tower on his worn-down notebook while fulfilling studies at Harvard. It could have been the mescaline talking but the case for being offbeat was pretty strong for the bad boy who, for most of his young life, felt like an outsider. From being a yank in Australia, an Aussie in England and a queer with an eccentric British accent in a then homophobic US, his presence was not always welcome. Then again, solitude was no stranger to him.

In Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, a 2016 documentary produced by the late great Anthony Bourdain, the influential chef recalls a formative instance from his childhood that defined the career he would eventually take.

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Tatler Asia
The American celebrity chef Jeremiah Tower (Photo: Courtesy of Jeremiah Tower)
Above The American celebrity chef Jeremiah Tower (Photo: Courtesy of Jeremiah Tower)

He was six when he wandered away from his parents to explore a beach on the Great Barrier Reef. He chanced upon a fisherman who showed him how to roast a barracuda, talked about the stars, and introduced him to the birds and the bees. His folks—a bastard of a father and an alcoholic of a mother as he describes them—couldn’t care less where he was, but that was the least of his concerns. At that particular moment, all that mattered to him was the scintillating aroma of fish torching on an open fire—and sex.

“At an early age, I learnt to look after myself and not care much for tough times when they came along,” he says. Tower may have been brought up by privilege, an entitlement that had him travelling around the world first-class twice by age 16, and indifference, as deemed by today’s standards. But those two were pivotal to his culinary race as it allowed him to build a strong relationship with his loyal companions—The Escoffier Cookbook and gourmet food.

“To me, menus are a language unto themselves. I’ve been collecting and reading them since I was ten. They spoke to me as clearly as any childhood fantasy novel,” he says in the film. From early on, food became his best pal.

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He preferred hotel rooms over the company of his parents as he got to be “a king in his own king-dom”, giving his first taste of consommé and anything in aspic the proper time, thought and appreciation they deserved.

It was shame that got him to finally try his hands on cooking. During one of his mother’s summer garden parties where she had too many martinis to drink and forgot to prepare food, 11-year-old Tower came to the rescue. He poached salmon and covered it with mayonnaise, hulled strawberries and tossed them in red currant jelly, and rolled out canapés because “I simply couldn’t conceive of that party going wrong,” he confesses. As expected, his mum was the hero and his effort went unrecognised.

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To me, menus are a language unto themselves. I’ve been collecting and reading them since I was ten. They spoke to me as clearly as any childhood fantasy novel
Jeremiah Tower

In 1972, armed with dapper looks, an experienced palate, and a desire to cook and have a great time, Tower applied for a job in Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley after seeing an ad in the paper. His job interview had him transforming a pot of simple-tasting soup into something better. He did so with cream and seasoning and was immediately welcomed into what one critic calls “a hippie, drug-ridden explosion in a playpen”. Not only did he find his groove in the restaurant kitchen working close to 90 hours a week, but also got the credit and attention he long deserved as he became an equal business partner in just a year.

Tower put refinement and identity in their prix-fixe menus and decided one day to turn Chez Panisse into a place where people from all walks of life gathered to enjoy and indulge in ingredients that were ripe, in season, and within the region. “So, I wrote the menu—The California Regional Dinner, that was all in English, which was the first time. And we did California wines, which was the first time. And put on the dinner,” he narrates. The meal gave farms and farmers names and the press jumped on it. He served California ingredients with no apologies, only respect.

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It was uncommon and for many, even unheard of, but it laid the groundwork for the new American cuisine movement, with Waters and Tower as its fore-parents. Though their romantic marriage bore fruit, their relationship eventually collapsed, as history repeated itself and Tower’s noble endeavours and company vision were swept under the rug. Their fight became public, which managed to turn a lot of people against Tower. He sold his shares in 1978 and left to open his own restaurant.

Six years later, Tower opened the doors to Stars, his very own restaurant along Redwood Alley in San Francisco. The place, which is the embodiment of a dream that had been developing over time, organically attracted a roster of personalities—from high profile politicians to flamboyant drag queens; from Gorbachev, Pavarotti and Sophia Loren to hip-hop group Run-DMC—and went on to its heyday, it brought the celebrity chef much approval and acclaim.

Stars, along with the energy, glamour and exciting restaurant culture it cultivated, was such a hit that it eventually set up branches abroad, namely Napa Valley, Palo Alto, Singapore and even, Manila where it lived only for a short while.

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“A principal in the investment group, my dear friend Mandy Eduque, warned me right away that the work ethic in the Philippines was not what I was used to,” says Tower. “I loved the friends I made there, but I noticed that there was no middle class in Makati, the class to support a restaurant like Stars every night of the week. Perhaps, it was before its time.”

He sold the Stars to a Chinese investment group from Singapore in 1998. “I needed enough money to live at the Georges V [in Paris] for a month, buy an apartment in New York and then go diving for several years,” he says. He did buy an apartment in New York City (Washington Square), wrote James Beard Award-winning books and starred in a TV show for PBS. Two years after the sale, however, Stars closed. Tower left the restaurant scene and the US immediately after and moved to the Yucatan Peninsula, where he spent most of his idle time restoring houses and scuba diving. He then lived in Merida in Mexico, where he got into flipping houses.

His life has been celebrated for both the good and bad, and though media enjoys magnifying only the controversial, Tower has already found solace in many of his battles, including the estranged relationship with his parents (“My feeling has been that they did the best they could as parents, and it was just fine”), as well as the public dispute with Waters (“I went to the 40th anniversary [of Chez Panisse], and sat with her at our own table, so all is fine. Je ne regret rien”).

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He is currently based in Merida with partner Curtis Cox (they got married last year) after spending a year in Cabo San Lucas where he helped a friend open a restaurant and another year in Puerto Vallarta where he worked on a book about eating around the world.

The documentary is but a piece of his life’s puzzle, which, amidst the splits and fractures, makes for a beautiful picture. And though peculiar from what is deemed to be normal, what matters is that it remains whole, with the loose ends mended.

Renowned journalist David Halberstam once asked him when was the first time he knew he was different? And his reply, though short, came with some unapologetic certainty.

“I have been treated as so always.”

Originally published in Tatler Philippines October 2021 issue.

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