Throughout his career, chef Jeremiah Tower has accomplished much with elegance and charm. Known as the creative force behind the California culinary revolution, Tower famously worked as chef de cuisine at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California in the 1970s. Then, in San Francisco in the 80s, he opened Stars restaurant, a critically-acclaimed “see and be seen” hotspot.
Although he lived quietly for many years after Stars closed, Tower was catapulted back into the spotlight suddenly in 2016 after being the focus of Anthony Bourdain’s recent Netflix documentary, The Last Magnificent.
Last week, the famous chef published his tenth book, Flavors of Taste: Recipes, Memories and Menus. I caught up with him in Hawaii for events related to the eighth annual Hawaii Food and Wine Festival, where he – along with several other notable Oahu-based chefs, including Roy Yamaguchi, Alan Wong and George Mavrothalassitis – created an exclusive multi-course dinner to about 100 guests. We talked about his upcoming book, his life in Mexico and his experience making a documentary.
Eat Sip Trip: Your tenth book, Flavors of Taste: Recipes, Memories and Menus was published just last week. Can you tell me about it?
Jeremiah Tower: I am particularly proud of this book and excited to share so many great recipes. It’s an Amazon e-book, and I worked with writer Kit Whol and photographer Sam Hannah. It features 75 recipes and photographs, and features lots of stories about my favorite memories of meaningful meals and ingredients. It includes a number of specialties that I made for celebrities, such as my lunch with Elizabeth David in England, lunch with Elizabeth Taylor in San Francisco and the dinner I cooked for Sophia Loren using her own favorite ingredients.
You’ve lived all over the world and have experienced some extraordinary destinations. How and why did you choose to live in Mérida, Mexico?
After 9/11, I moved from New York to New Orleans, and as I was unpacking I decided to go to Cozumel, Mexico for a quick scuba dive vacation, because it has the best reefs. While I was there, hurricane Katrina hit and I found myself homeless and jobless. Everything I had was gone. I thought to myself, well, if you’re going to be homeless, you may as well live on a beautiful island, so I stayed in Cozumel. Then hurricane Wilma hit while I was living there – one of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded – and devastated Cozumel. So, then I thought, where can I go where there are no terrorists, earthquakes or hurricanes? So, I chose to move inland to Mérida. It’s really its own kind of Mexico. It’s very tranquil, with an artistic feel and great, friendly people.
How are you enjoying the food in Mexico? What have been your favorite culinary experiences there?
The Yucatán Peninsula offers the most amazing foods and ingredients, including particularly wonderful citrus and tropical fruits of all kinds. There are mangos on the trees and dragon fruit hanging off the garden wall. There are always fresh key limes to make your margaritas…you just pick them off the trees. And then, of course, they have all the pork dishes, like slow roasted cochinita pibil, which is the leg cooked underground. There is lots of wonderful seafood, of course, too.
Do you ever have the chance to go fishing in Mexico?
Yes, there is a fisherman who takes me out on his boat once in a while. About 30 minutes north of Mérida is Progreso, a port on the Gulf of Mexico, and sometimes I go there to spend a week or two at the beach. The fishermen bring me fresh lobster every morning. It almost gets to the point where you just can’t eat another piece of lobster, which really is not a bad thing to have happen to you. They also have big, jumbo stone crab claws. A whole heaping platter – enough for four or five people – is only 20 bucks.
What was your experience like during the filming of the documentary made about your life, The Last Magnificent?
It’s a great title for a movie, but very embarrassing for me. During the filming, they had a microphone on me all the time and I often forgot it was there. It was a strange experience and very odd to watch myself on film – and I never saw any of it until its premier at the Tribeca Film Festival. I thought this would be interesting for young chefs in the industry to see…the highs and lows, the triumphs and mistakes, the stupid things, the great things. I just let it all hang out.
What’s your favorite kind of music to listen to in the kitchen?
I love music of all kinds. At Chez Panisse, we always had opera playing at full volume, so I didn’t have to listen to what the waiters were saying. Now, I love classical Latin and classical music. The first music I ever remember hearing was tango, because my parents had lived in Mexico for a while…and when we lived in Australia, we had this huge house with a ballroom and they were always giving parties with people dancing to Latin music. Now that I live in Mexico, I’ve come full circle in some bizarre way…thanks to hurricanes, terrorists and earthquakes.
Q. What are you most looking forward to at the upcoming Hawaii Food and Wine Festival?
I’ve known Roy Yamaguchi for a long time and I’m excited to be involved in the festival this year. I’m glad to be returning for all the events and spending more time in Hawaii. There are so many exceptional chefs and restaurants on the islands – so I’m eager to experience more of them.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity