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California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution

California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution

2.5 2
by Jeremiah Tower

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Widely recognized as the godfather of modern American cooking and a mentor to such rising celebrity chefs as Mario Batali, Jeremiah Tower is one of the most influential cooks of the last thirty years. Now, the former chef and partner at Chez Panisse and the genius behind Stars San Francisco tells the story of his lifelong love affair with food — an affair that


Widely recognized as the godfather of modern American cooking and a mentor to such rising celebrity chefs as Mario Batali, Jeremiah Tower is one of the most influential cooks of the last thirty years. Now, the former chef and partner at Chez Panisse and the genius behind Stars San Francisco tells the story of his lifelong love affair with food — an affair that helped to spark an international culinary revolution.
Tower shares with wit and honesty the real dish on cooking, chefs, celebrities, and what really goes on in the kitchen. Above all, Tower rhapsodizes about food — the meals choreographed like great ballets, the menus scored like concertos. No other book reveals more about the seeds sown in the seventies, the excesses of the eighties, and the self-congratulations of the nineties. No other chef/restaurateur who was there at the very beginning is better positioned than Jeremiah Tower to tell the story of the American culinary revolution.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
William Grimes The New York Times Mr. Tower does not exaggerate when he refers, in the subtitle of his book, to "the American culinary revolution." He knows. He was there. He helped make it happen. California Dish is his victory lap. And he deserves one.

Sara Moulton host, Food Network's Sara's Secrets California Dish delivers on the double meaning implicit in its title — it serves up a longtime insider's juicy perspective on the key players of the American culinary revolution and recounts, course by course, a career's worth of exceptional meals. It's a great read. I couldn't put it down.

Entertainment Weekly Any foodie worth his coarse salt remembers — in mouthwatering detail — every flavor that shaped his palate. So it goes with chef-restaurateur Jeremiah Tower, who recounts with world-weary relish...the memorable meals on his journey from childhood gourmet to godfather of California's New American cuisine.

Jacques Pépin The food of Jeremiah Tower has always satisfied my belly and my soul. He was there from the start and is more qualified than anyone else to tell the story of the American food revolution of the last thirty years.

New York Times
Mr. Tower does not exaggerate when he refers, in the subtitle of his book, to "the American culinary revolution." He knows. He was there. He helped make it happen. California Dish is his victory lap. And he deserves one.
—William Grimes
Entertainment Weekly
Any foodie worth his coarse salt remembers — in mouthwatering detail — every flavor that shaped his palate. So it goes with chef-restaurateur Jeremiah Tower, who recounts with world-weary relish...the memorable meals on his journey from childhood gourmet to godfather of California's New American cuisine.
The Los Angeles Times
In his fascinating, elucidating and often mean-spirited book, California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution, [Tower] does everything he can to hammer home his position. It's as if he said to himself, "They still don't get it. They still don't understand that Alice was doing PR, and I was the creator," and so goes about documenting his role, even including his job description at Chez Panisse. — Richard Flaste
The New York Times
Tart … Tower still knows how to dish: his book describes experiences with drugs, encounters with celebrities, his own bisexuality and tiffs with Alice Waters, his Chez Panisse business partner. — Judy D'Mello
Publishers Weekly
Tower opens this memoir with the story of going head to head with French chef Guy Savoy at a sort of junket for the culinary press back in 1983 and how he won over his audience with an audacity born of equal parts pride and inexperience. His fusion of cooking talk with more personal gossip and the inclusion of the revealing aside is sure to captivate foodies. But Tower's pacing meanders, and his gracious facade shows more than a few rough and brittle edges. An abiding bitterness is the only thing revealed in Tower's version of the creation of Chez Panisse and the rivalry with Alice Waters that ensued. Other sections-especially the chapters on his running San Francisco's Stars-likewise avoid topics of obvious interest to make room for name dropping and ax grinding. The occasional insertion of menus or recipes is random. Tower's personality comes through in bits and pieces as he frankly remembers the highs and lows of an important career, but the picture as a whole is less than flattering. (Aug.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In recent years, Americans have developed a growing appreciation for fine dining. Much of this interest is owing to innovative chefs who have reshaped the ways we look at food and eating. One of the most influential, Tower (Jeremiah Tower's New American Classics; Jeremiah Tower Cooks) experienced both monotonous boarding-school fare as a child and grand cuisine aboard the Queen Elizabeth and extremes such as these contributed to his lifelong passion to create perfect dining experiences for friends and customers and led to professional successes at such California restaurants as Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Stars in San Francisco. Tower describes his journey in a sometimes confused narrative, leaving a fuzzy trail of how events unfolded and who did or said what. Nevertheless, his memoir is fascinating, offering tantalizing glimpses of restaurant operations and insights into many culinary personalities. Tower also includes a bibliography of cookbooks and literature from his personal library. An entertaining memoir for public libraries and culinary collections.-Andrea R. Dietze, Orange Cty. P.L., Santa Ana, CA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The former restaurateur, cookbook author, and PBS host tells his life story, explaining what drove him to achieve what he demurely calls his "national fame as a chef." He didn't have any formal training, but Tower's hungry amateurism, the kind that spawns great innovations, made him a force in the new American cooking of the late 20th century. Employing a formal, aggressive voice that manages not to be off-putting, he chronicles the upstart chefs' campaign to blend "the aesthetic chasteness of nouvelle cuisine and the hearty, robust hominess of bistro food." He writes engagingly of the many fiascoes his various restaurants faced, from lawsuits to kitchen snafus, as well as the near-unanimous raves his food gathered. (Quite a few menus appear that testify to his ingenuity.) Though Tower can be counted among the era's celebrity chefs, he convincingly expresses ambivalence about the phenomenon, and if he is happy to count the many ways he contributed to the revolution in the American restaurant, he is also quick to give credit to his brothers and sisters in arms. Alice Waters in particular stands out. Tower worked with her at Chez Panisse and has much to say, good and bad, about "her advocacy for farmers' markets, for sound and sustainable agriculture, for Slow Food, and for the Chez Panisse Foundation," even if he feels constrained to mention that she "didn't know a little vegetable from a rotten one." Tower was "Apollinaire to her Breton," or so he says. And few would deny his mantra: "I would sum it all up as a sensual love for the flavor and texture of beautiful ingredients. And knowing how to marry them." He performed the rites with brilliance. The pervasive brashness and theain't-I-difficult image-mongering can grate, but when Tower writes of his inspirations and the extraordinary foods and people he worked with, he is unfailingly intriguing and righteously grounded. Agent: Lisa Queen/IMG

Product Details

Free Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
1st Free Press Trade Paperback Edition
Product dimensions:
0.79(w) x 5.50(h) x 8.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Prologue: Taming the Fire

California Cuisine, as it came to be heralded in the national media, might never have been discovered if it weren't for a bunch of pushy French chefs.

In the spring of 1983, the ad agency for Ocean Spray was charged with placing cranberries at the forefront of American gastronomy. Their idea was a weekend headlined "Innovations in Food" at Beechwood, the Astor mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, for one hundred syndicated food journalists. The main event would be a dinner showcasing the "innovative sauceless cuisine" of Paris's Guy Savoy, with my crew from the Santa Fe Bar & Grill in Berkeley, California, preparing a little lunch to keep up the strength of the writers for the all-day workshops on culinary trends.

I didn't mind the supporting role. In the three years since Savoy had opened his own Paris restaurant, the New York food press had fallen in love with his originality and dash. I had profound respect for the French and especially for the Young Turks of nouvelle cuisine, as well as for Guy himself.

If it was obvious why Savoy had been invited, it wasn't clear why I had been. Although the two celebrated Jameses of the food world, Beard and Villas, had lavished praise on my cooking at both Chez Panisse and the Santa Fe Bar & Grill, only one restaurant (Panisse) had as yet become a national sensation. But I didn't press the agency for a reason. I was grateful for the opportunity to put the Santa Fe in front of the national food press and, since I had no formal training as a chef, eager to see a master at work.

Beyond that, I could never resist a challenge. I was sure we could do it — I just wasn't sure what "it" would turn out to be. We'd fake it as we went along.

My assignment was to provide a simple California lunch using cranberries. It was an odd request for April, but I could see one of the agency's points: Demonstrate that you can cook with cranberries all year. Top it off with a famous French chef including them in three-star Michelin food, and the press would go wild. Or perhaps it was just an agency budget waiting to happen. Whatever the reason for the cranberries, I decided to use them to marinate racks of lamb, despite the obvious fact that, if you factored in the travel expenses we incurred getting to Newport, it would be the most expensive marinade in history.

The first challenge was to get the cooks and food to our first stop, New York, from California. What kept me up at night was how to get past the airport check-in with fifteen hundred pounds of food and luggage. At that time anyone at airport check-ins was familiar with the demands of first-class traveling socialites with mounded Louis Vuitton hatboxes and toy poodles, but when my crew and I arrived, the five of us pushing a long line of carts, we looked like anything but first-class passengers. Airports in 1983 were as yet innocent of chefs and their entourages. Up to that point road shows were the purview of only rock bands and circuses, both of which chefs soon came to resemble, as only a year later one could see toques on famous chefs in every major airport in the United States, blue and white ice coolers dominating the luggage carousels, and fans lining up for autographs in the passenger lounges.

The list of our "bags" was staggering: 125 individual California goat cheeses, two hundred grape leaves (in April that was like asking a winery to give up a whole vineyard), five gallons of sauce essences, and twenty-five California lamb loins. Everything was packed in four enormous coolers, one of them full of noisily scratching Bay Area Delta crayfish, another full of fresh coconut ice cream. It was for this trip that I developed an elaborate traveling system: vacuum-packed foods stacked with the blue ice in coolers and, in two huge suitcases on wheels, a massive on-site support system that held everything from cheesecloth to extension cords, food mills to pepper mills, first-aid kits to baling wire and clip-on lights.

The greatest of my nightmares was getting eight fifty-pound bags of mesquite charcoal, whose purpose in life was to spew fine black dust onto everything in its path, on a plane to New York. All that charcoal seemed a bit obsessive even to us, and we knew that the chances of finding a foodie in all those grim faces behind the ticket counters were less than slim. But mesquite was one of our "innovations," and no mere gate agent was going to stand in the way of our publicizing it. Halfway to the check-in window I saw the agents whispering. Closer I saw the face behind the window in front of us: as a bulldog at the Westminster, she would have taken best in show. Our eyes locked. "Nothing doing" was her unmistakable look. I could see she was focused on the coolers, no doubt convinced they were full of dry ice that could have blown up the plane.

As we both braced for combat, I searched for another window. The staff had seen the bulldog look and were cowering behind their carts. A whispered "Oh shit, no" was all I heard from them. I raised an arm in a full-speed-ahead gesture and then, feeling like Patton in the lead tank, swerved with the team toward the check-in with the long red carpet, crowd-control ropes, and an agent wide-eyed with shock. I remembered that my PR folder had a very complimentary James Villas Town & Country article on the Santa Fe Bar & Grill with a full-page color photograph of me. So before the customer relations agent could say a word, I whipped out the photograph and launched into a spiel about "local kids" on a mission to show those Easterners how to cook. Impressed, she unhooked the first-class rope and took us to the window. Nothing could describe the look on her face as she tried to understand the scratching of hundreds of tiny claws against the cooler walls, but minutes after my explanation, the five of us had first-class tickets and increased luggage allowances.

"Kids," I said, as the plane left the runway, "this is just the beginning."

The plane ride is a blank. I must have gone through the shopping list over and over again, wondering where in New York we would find California-quality vegetables and fruit at their peak of perfect ripeness and flavor, let alone restaurant-quality fish and shellfish.

It was not going to be easy, so to reward my staff for their work so far, and to get them in the mood for going that extra mile in the days ahead, I decided that a lunch at the great Four Seasons, my home away from home, was just the ticket. It was my idea of America's finest restaurant, created by people I adored and admired — James Beard, Joe Baum, and Barbara Kafka — and now the realm of two great restaurateurs, Tom Margittai and Paul Kovi, and one of the nicest chefs in America, Seppi Renggli. It didn't hurt that the restaurant was in a Mies van der Rohe building with a perfect interior by my other favorite architect, Philip Johnson.

I wanted my team to experience perfect service in a perfect room, taste one of my favorite white wines (Condrieu), and ogle the enormous silver chariot of desserts crowned with the pastry chef Albert Kumin's famous cake — shaped like a half cantaloupe turned upside-down, covered in chocolate, and topped by a foot-high chocolate version of a scarf Loretta Young would have tied around her head. None of us could figure out how Albert had spun chocolate into this couture shape of silk settling in a light wind. Now, ten years after I first encountered this creation, I told Albert I had waited all that time to ask him the secret of his gossamer construction.

"I would have told you anytime," he said with a huge grin. "It's simple: I use a hand pasta machine. (Of course, the chocolate has to be the right temperature and it's only that way for a minute or two.)"

Yes, I thought, time enough for a master who knows all chocolate's intimate secrets (and for the rest of us to screw it up completely).

The next morning, full of fine memories of our magnificent lunch and the spectacle of New York seen from the bar on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center, it was time to return to earth. We picked up an enormous van from our uptown hotel and headed downtown to Balducci's, the only place where I thought we could get the quality of produce we were used to in California and wanted to show off in Newport. As it turned out we could — at five times the price. We shopped for boxes of red and gold bell peppers, leeks, zucchini, red torpedo onions, ripe mangoes and passion fruit. At the meat counter I saw beautiful coils of fresh fennel sausage; they turned out to be a last-minute inspiration for a snack with drinks. The veteran Balducci's staff was as impressed by the mountain of crates on the Sixth Avenue sidewalk as I was by the proportionately small mound of cash left in my hand. Later, the ad agency told me I was crazy to buy food for one hundred at what was then New York's most expensive boutique grocery. But the quality was worth it, even if I did end up having to split the tab.

My sous-chef, Steven Vranian, was thin, wiry, and pale-skinned to the point you could see the blue veins pumping an intense energy. He had dropped us off in front of the store with the intention of circling the block. After an hour standing behind the pile of crates and boxes on the sidewalk looking anxiously for the van, we realized it really was gone. We still had to buy fish and shellfish before finding our way through the nightmare of parkways and bridges out of New York to make it to Newport on time. But with no van, no food-filled coolers, no clothes, and no money or directions, we had no way of getting to Newport. Our California boy had disappeared in the maze of alien West Village one-way streets, and since this was before cell phones, he was truly lost. He finally showed up, red-faced, sheepish, his shoulders in a shrug, giving us the both-hands-palms-up gesture. If I hadn't needed him so much I would have killed him.

I had planned to buy the fish at its source in Newport, but now the team overruled me with "Let's have it in hand." Perilously off schedule, we raced to the Fulton Fish Market for an aquarium's worth of live clams, mussels, crab, and shrimp — leaving only lobsters and oysters to purchase live the next day — then barreled up the New England Thruway.

We drove around Newport searching for our lodgings, expecting something grand (given the mansions we saw), but the address on the slip of paper I was clutching turned out to be a motel. Not a bad motel, but a motel nonetheless, and that meant no room service. Since chefs never eat at normal times (defined as when we're cooking for everyone else), we survive on room service. My staff knew I could put up with just about anything provided I could get a chicken club sandwich and champagne twenty-four hours a day, so two of them peeled out of the motel driveway for the makings of club sandwiches and a case of bubbly — because, in the words of my all-time heroine, Madame Lilly Bollinger, who when asked "Why champagne?" replied, "I drink it when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I am alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it — unless I'm thirsty." I would add the wonderful words from the Pink Panther: "Champagne is a minimum of alcohol and a maximum of companionship. It takes care of all extremes." And this was going to be an extreme weekend.

I wanted my staff in tip-top shape in the early morning, so I grabbed a bed by the door to ensure that no one would slip out during the night, but the boys were too quick. Newport had been the stomping ground of Brad Barker, one of the cooks, and he decided to give Steven a tour of his old watering holes. Oxsana Czuczman, another cook from the Santa Fe, stayed behind to watch over my nerves. Staff legend has it that she sacrificed her entire stash of pot to calm her nerves while I paced our little room and fumed, waiting for the errant boys. They staggered back in the middle of the night drowned in Coors, but at least without the companions they reeked of.

The next morning was quiet, tense, and hot for April, even in those early hours. The heat made the shaky staff even shakier, and I felt worse than they did — grimly low on adrenaline and nourishment. The sunlight was already far too bright, so I stopped off in town and bought a pair of large fire engine red plastic-framed Ray-Bans, very Doris Duke or Barbara Hutton, to be worn for photographers.

We pulled up in front of the Beechwood gates, then drove up an endless, impeccably tailored gravel driveway to the mansion — a two-story Palladian house with Doric columns set a few feet above a lawn that stretched for a mile or so down to the water. I saw an open porch around two sides and the back of the house covered with the as yet unset tables for the lunch. It was all very impressive, and I expected a kitchen of comparable grandeur with space for two teams of cooks, mine and Guy Savoy's. It was not.

It was the size of a large closet.

Then just as we had figured out how to make it work and started to cook, the French arrived. I had heard Savoy was a decent bloke, but that day I never had a chance to find out. His crew preceded him, and they were armed with attitude. At first they ignored us, but packed into that small kitchen that wasn't easy, so they asked us to leave. Their needs took precedence, they said, because the serious meal — dinner — was theirs.

All was quiet for a moment. I don't know what made me keep silent, possibly my English-schooled manners, possibly my status as a guest in someone else's kitchen, but all I could think of was keeping our focus. Every moment of energy had already been spoken for, and realizing that a pissing match at that moment would get us nowhere, I stepped aside.

"All right, girls and boys," I said. "Grab everything and follow me."

I had read Sun-tzu for years, but stepping aside was my first Art of War move. By not making a scene, I let the force of the French arrogance fire up my cooks and give them a powerful sense of purpose and determination to show these guys what they could do. In an instant, they forgot their throbbing heads, and we searched for a new place to cook.

"This," I told my team, sweeping an arm over the landscape in front of all the tables, " is the place for us, right in front of the bloody press."

I dropped the red sunglasses down on my nose and got to work. We lined up four five-food grills with white, cloth-covered tables behind them — just far enough from the press to keep the smoke from their eyes but close enough so they could see the color of ours. The grills were meant to have been kept out of sight; now they would be the focus of everything — a great stage and the center of our entertainment. I insisted that only the most beautiful things should show, that all the mechanics be stowed away under the tables, so the food would "appear" with seeming effortlessness.

Two hours later, the press materialized. Their schedule gave them thirty minutes to wander around with glasses of wine before sitting down, so we served them a snack that I could cook and talk about simultaneously: the fresh fennel sausage from Balducci's, coiled into large rings, skewered, and grilled whole, then cut into bite-size pieces on large wooden planks. They were served still sizzling from the grill with the juice from our newest exotic ingredient, Rangpur limes, and sprinkled with a salt we flavored with ground, oven-dried peel of lime and cumin seeds. On the side were bowls of grilled tomatillo salsa.

A hundred food journalists took one look at us and one bite of sausage, raised their eyebrows with expectation, and away we went: salsa, grilling, and California were suddenly it.

We played up grilling as essential to the California style and mesquite charcoal as the only one we used because it burned very hot and added a slightly acid taste to the food. We didn't mention that it was the only kind of real charcoal we could get. It was perfect for fish, but in the cooking business every perfection has its flaw, and mesquite's was the occasional unspent .22 bullets put there by Mexican baggers as revenge against the gringos. A bullet blasting off and whizzing by inches from a cook's head was not something I needed journalists to see, so the press watched us sort through a huge black mountain of the charcoal before setting it in the grills. "Just the choice pieces," I lied, while keeping an eye out for bullets.

Luncheon on the Terrace

April 28, 1983

Grilled Fennel Sausage with Rangpur Lime & Orange-Cumin Salt

Grilled Mixed Shellfish with Grilled Garlic & Ancho Chili & Herb-Shellfish Butter Sauces

Cranberry Puree Marinated Grilled Lamb Loin

Mixed California Vegetable Salad

Cranberry Chili Relish

Grilled California Goat Cheese

With Garden Greens

Tropical Fruit Compote

With Coconut Ice Cream

The first course was shellfish, marinated and grilled, the lobsters cooked initially on a bed of fresh seaweed (to give them maximum ocean flavor), then finished off on the charcoal fire, which also pushed all the flavor of the shells into the lobster meat. Each guest was served a big white plate with two ramekins, one for the warm lobster butter sauce, made from the crushed shells and mussel stock, the other with a sauce made from my secret dried ancho chili puree and sour cream laced with mayonnaise. Warm towels scented with fresh tarragon and Meyer lemon gave them all the confidence to eat with their fingers.

We decorated the guest tables with vegetables instead of flowers — huge platters of leeks, red and gold bell peppers, yellow zucchini, and red torpedo onions. The vegetables were oiled, to glisten and reflect the sunlight as well as to marinate them for the grill. As soon as the shellfish was served, the waiters removed the table decor in unison, then marched over and emptied the platters onto the grills to create the illusion of vegetables cooked to order when, of course, we had the ones we were to serve already done.

Next came the lamb loins marinated in the juice of crushed cranberries with thyme, bay leaf, and olive oil. To our astonishment, the berry juice worked beautifully, making a sweet-sour caramelized glaze that was a perfect counterpart to the richness of the lamb fat and the slightly musky flavor of the meat.

So far, so good. But we had planned, while the lamb was on the grills, to use the kitchen ovens for the Sadie Kendall California goat cheeses, which were sandwiched between two thin pounded-out slices of oven-dried tomatoes (a new product in those days), a sprig of fresh flowering wild thyme on each side, and wrapped in fresh grape leaves. Only in that way could we achieve a seamless transition between the courses and hold the lunch to ninety minutes. But one last pleading at the kitchen door was like Oliver Twist in the orphanage asking for more gruel — the answer was a firm Non. The little cheeses came back to me on the rebound, so we stoked up the fires, furiously brushed off the grills, and laid out the cheeses. If we didn't have the journalists in the palms of our grillers' hands by then, the sight of all of us coolly turning (and turning) 125 individual goat cheese packages certainly did the job.

But they weren't totally floored until we grilled the dessert.

By now high on fatigue and adrenaline poisoning, I pushed the red sunglasses up on my head and commanded each cook to down a glass of champagne and pick up two huge sauté pans. On a signal from me, they filled them with mixed tropical fruits, raspberries, and passion fruit sugar syrup; then all of us in unison tossed the fruit compote up in the air like master omelet makers. That got a standing ovation. We plated the tropical fruit ragouts, scooped fresh coconut ice cream into the center of each plate, added shortbread cookies — and we were done.

At the end of the lunch the cooks collapsed on the lawn, while I went from table to table. I remember a flood of journalists blaming me for nearly killing them with food, but all were smiling. I kissed the cooks — mine, not the ones standing around on the sidelines stage-whispering furiously in French (which they assumed we didn't speak) about our use of a "nonculinary" herb like lemon thyme and our lack of chefs' hats and embroidered names on our jackets. I heard a hint of admiration in their voices, but the tone reversed when I helped my cooks clean up and wash the pans.

I took a bottle of champagne and went down to the water. I was numb. I knew that we had to pack and that I had to attend the dinner in four hours' time, coherent, with a smile, and acting as if everything the press had seen had been carefully rehearsed. In truth, I could never have planned that level of success. In those days we would have been declared insane if we had announced a meal cooked entirely out-of-doors on an East Coast early spring day. And to have grilled dessert? Certifiable.

The press had no preconceptions of what we would cook, but Guy Savoy was not so lucky. The journalists had been told to expect no sauces, no flour, no cream, and no butter. But this is what they saw:

Dinner at Beechwood

Potage de Homard aux Airelles

Saumon au Persil

Rillons de Ris de Veau aux Truffes

Bavarois aux Airelles

Savoy didn't use flour, but sauces, cream, and butter were everywhere. There was cream in the lobster soup with cranberries, cream in the salmon with parsley sauce, and the Bavarois with cranberries was packed with cream. The sweetbreads had a flourless veal stock and truffle sauce. To say the least, we were confused. The advance press from the agency had lauded Guy's innovative cooking in the same breath as that of the famous restaurant L'Ami Louis, over which I got a good laugh. A normal dinner there was an eighteen-ounce slab of goose liver, a whole chicken or entire leg of baby lamb served with a potato pancake cooked in butter and duck fat, and pastry crust and butter-sugar caramelized apple tarte Tatin for dessert, all of it weighing in at around seven thousand calories.

Actually none of my team cared whether the food was sauced or not — it was delicious. But the press still didn't get it. The California Union explained that what was meant by sauceless cuisine was actually "sauces that are done at the last minute." Having told everyone it meant no sauces was not an especially good PR hook for Savoy unless you understood the sauce tradition against which he and the other Young Turks had rebelled.

People who rail against traditional French sauces often mean the espagnole or advanced version of the flour-thickened "brown" sauce that has been screwed up for decades by hotels, luxury resorts, and the majority of French restaurants, all of which render it a muddy, opaque brown, the color of the water a child is left with after painting for hours with watercolors. A true espagnole takes three days to make, including the initial stock, and demands a monogamous relationship: full devotion from a sauce maker who never abandons his charge. Each day there has to be a rest period so that the fat on the top and the detritus on the bottom of the jellied mass can be easily removed. Then it sits on the edge of a burner for several hours finishing, cooking at such a slow rate that it barely shimmers — it merely "smiles" at the cook skimming off its last traces of fat, scum, and skin.

This accomplished, and poured over a few bones and carcasses of whatever creature it is meant to enhance, then strained and made to "smile" again, it becomes a sauce so easy on the body that four hours later you're ready for the next meal. And the flour? Transformed like the silk cocoons that become an Hermès scarf. The fat? Not a drop. The stock-becoming-sauce has never vigorously boiled, and so the fat, unincorporated and removed, can neither ruin the diners' plumbing nor mask the true flavors of what is being sauced.

Even the revolutionary Turks Paul Bocuse, the Troisgros, and the great unsung Jacques Manière knew that this great basic brown sauce could be magnificent, and a test of a truly great kitchen. But when you're starting a culinary revolution, it's easier to blame the sauce than the saucier, to guillotine the aristocrats instead of overturning the regime. It was the restaurant critics and guidebook writers Gault and Millau and then their following in the American press that lined up all the figures of classicism and beheaded them indiscriminately. Gone were the creamed crayfish-sauced quenelles of the master Fernand Point at La Pyramide in Vienne, drawn and quartered were the butter-based sauces of Henri Soulé at New York's Le Pavillon, rack-and-pinioned any flour-thickened meat essences. Fat was now labeled treason and its eaters, traitors.

All these crazy thoughts pounded through my exhausted brain as I sat at Savoy's dinner in the ballroom at Beechwood. Everything seemed to move in slow motion, the sounds coming out of the writers' mouths like a tape at half speed. I was so tired that I could not remember anyone's name, barely even what I was doing there. I knew this was Guy's night, and these journalists were professional. They wanted to give him equal time, even if they could be in no possible way as physically interested as they were before lunch. But with nine powerful journalists to my right and left, I sat just waiting to hear about my party and which way the thumbs were pointing, up or down. I knew right after lunch that we had pulled off a success, but now, at the evening table, doubts crept in. It was my first big public performance, and I wanted praise strong and constant enough to overwhelm my fears, of both failure and, oddly enough, success.

As it turned out, the French handed the event to us on a platter. Not that their event wasn't wonderful; one just couldn't feel it. The Christian Science Monitor gave France forty words and California two thousand. "Berkeley Chef's Magic Grill Dazzles Eastern Experts at Al Fresco Lunch" one headline trumpeted. Phyllis Richman in The Washington Post made our lunch one of the first full-page color cover sections, writing of a "far from down-home barbecue, with white tablecloths...and a hushed silence." Nina Simmonds quoted Ruth Reichl, then at California magazine, in The Boston Globe on July 6, 1983: "Tower's cooking is a brand of California cooking that is instantly recognizable. It is understated and depends on local ingredients, unusual flavor combinations and impeccable timing." Simmonds then quoted me, making a first stab at a characterization. I said that nothing had changed as far as the fundamentals. What was new was the marriage between "the aesthetic chasteness of nouvelle cuisine and the hearty, robust hominess of bistro food: New American Cuisine." Within weeks of the Newport event, that term was repeated widely.

The press had France on their minds when they arrived, but they left with their hearts in San Francisco — or just across the bay. The love affair between the American food press and California had begun.

Another affair began, too — with me. "Tower is a photographer's fantasy. He stands tall and regal, cool enough to tame the fire," wrote one reporter. I ate this up, of course. It would have taken a stronger person than I was not to see this as a way to get our message across and make money doing it.

Great success is supposed to be followed by great elation, but with me a great performance has always brought on that "little death" feeling. The greater the success, the more devastating its successor. I didn't have it as bad as my pal Rudolf Nureyev, who would vacuum down a bottle of Stoli in the wings right after the last curtain call. But almost. As W. S. Gilbert (of Sullivan) puts it in the wonderful film Topsy-Turvy, "There is something inherently disappointing in success."

My California kids felt they had "kicked French butt." The next morning, as we loaded up the van, I felt as if I had been kicked in the head. As soon as the road was a clear shot to JFK, I crawled into the rear of the van to find a sleep that never arrived. While my cooking team raved with delight and was filled with pride in the front of the van, I ended up in a fetal position in the back. I felt sorry for myself that I was going to get everything I ever wanted because I knew at that moment that some part of me didn't want it. I felt an awakening pain of the old adage of being careful what you wish for, and I was fairly certain that my life would never be the same again.

Something had been born, and I did not want to know what. And something was surely about to die — the unselfconscious "anything goes" exuberance of my little band of outlaws that had made our triumph possible.

Steven Vranian wrote a note afterward describing his feelings about the event. He said that the staff felt that the sight of my moving from table to table, face still flushed from the grill, revealed something new and vaguely disturbing: "The half of him that he pretends to be, and the half that others expect him to be, merged together and created the new Jeremiah." I had chosen, Steven said, "a path that would consume and redefine" me.

Did I want to be redefined by success? In my youth I'd been defined by the lack of it — first as a "Yank" in Australia, then as an "Aussie" in England, and then in the United States, where everyone assumed I was English. The truth is that I was a bit of an alien wherever I was. But at Newport I learned that my vision — of a new, serious simplicity that could change the way people thought of fine dining — had power.

I was learning that people who are best at keeping their huge success are somehow detached from it, able to regard it as something outside themselves. Only then can one stay focused, both when being lionized and then, inevitably, when being torn down. If the press loves first to proclaim "Long live the king," they love just as much to cry, "The king is dead."

As I slumped, fallen in my seat in the plane headed westward, Steven noticed me and leapt over the back of his seat — somehow not spilling a drop of his gin and tonic. "Are you all right?" he said, a note of panic in his voice.

"All right," I said. "Quite all right."

At that moment I knew I would go for it, whatever the ultimate cost. I knew that what was coming wasn't an occasional ride on the tiger's back but a life living on it. I decided to go for the crown, in full view of the guillotine.

Grilled Garlic & Ancho Chili Sauce

Serves 4-6

2 dried ancho chili pods

1 head fresh spring first-crop garlic

2 sprigs fresh thyme

1/2 cup mild extra-virgin olive oil

1 ripe lime, zested and juiced

1/2 tablespoon fresh oregano leaves, chopped

4 ounces unsalted butter


Grill the chilies over a charcoal, wood, or low gas flame until they puff up, or about 3 minutes. Put them in a bowl with enough warm water to cover them. Weight them down with a small saucer, and soak for 2 hours. Drain, saving the water, and remove and discard the stems and seeds.

Meanwhile wrap the head of garlic loosely in foil with the thyme and a tablespoon of the olive oil. Cook over low fire or under a broiler until the garlic is tender, or about 20 minutes. Remove the stem and rough outer layers of the skin and discard. Put all the cloves in a food processor and puree the garlic with the remaining olive oil. Pass through a sieve and discard the residue.

Puree the chilies with just enough of their soaking water to make a smooth puree. Sieve. Clean out the food processor.

Put the garlic and chili purees in the processor with the lime zest and juice, oregano, butter, and a teaspoon of salt. Puree until soft and smooth. Add more salt if necessary.

Serve on top of grilled fish and shellfish.

Tropical Fruit Compote

Serve the warm compote with either custard, vanilla or coconut ice cream, mascarpone, English clotted or heavy cream, and cookies of your choice, like shortbread or warm gingersnaps 5 minutes out of the oven.

Serves 4-6

2 ripe mangoes, peeled, cut in 1/4-inch slices

1 ripe papaya, peeled, seeded, cut in 1/4-inch slices

2 ripe passion fruit, cut in half, pulp and juice saved

1/2 cup medium sugar syrup

1 basket raspberries

1 teaspoon fresh lime juice

1 tablespoon unsalted butter


Put the mango and papaya slices in a medium-size nonreactive frying pan. Whisk the passion fruit pulp with the sugar syrup for 1 minute to break up the pulp, and add to the fruit.

Warm the fruit over medium heat until just heated through — about 3 minutes. Add the raspberries, lime juice, butter, and pinch of salt. Turn up the heat, and swirl the pan around until the butter is just melted.

Serve immediately in soup plates with the cream or ice cream in the center.

Copyright © 2003 by Jeremiah Tower

What People are Saying About This

Sara Moulton
California Dish delivers on the double meaning implicit in its title — it serves up a longtime insider's juicy perspective on the key players of the American culinary revolution and recounts, course by course, a career's worth of exceptional meals. It's a great read. I couldn't put it down.
Jacques Pepin
The food of Jeremiah Tower has always satisfied my belly and my soul. He was there from the start and is more qualified than anyone else to tell the story of the American food revolution of the last thirty years.
"California Dish delivers on the double meaning implicit in its title -- it serves up a longtime insider's juicy perspective on the key players of the American culinary revolution, and recounts, course by course, a career's worth of exceptional meals. It's a great read. I couldn't put it down."
--Sara Moulton, host, Food Network's "Sara's Secrets"

"Twenty years ago I met Jeremiah Tower and I fell in love with his food. I think Jeremiah Tower is one of our great chefs. For anyone interested in the food revolution and the innovative cuisine of California, reading his book California Dish is a must. I highly recommend it."
--Colette Rossant, author of Apricot on the Nile and Return to Paris

"From Chez Panisse to Santa Fe Bar & Grill to Star, my favorite brasserie in San Francisco, the food of Jeremiah Tower has always satisfied my belly and my soul. He was there from the start and is more qualified than anyone else to tell the story of the American food revolution of the last 30 years."
--Jacques Pépin

"What a pleasure to have this book. Jeremiah Tower captures the real spirit of California cuisine -- simple, fresh, and crisp. Thank you, Jeremiah. "
--André Soltner, chef-owner, Lutèce

"Only one person saw the California culinary revolution through the eyes of Jeremiah Tower. I'm glad to have his riveting, frontline perspective, which is at once fascinating, illuminating, and poignant. Those of us who have built American hospitality careers over the past couple of decades owe a major debt to this bushwhacking pioneer of product, pleasure and promotion."
--Danny Meyer, co-author, Union Square Cafe Cookbook

"This book is a celebrity-studded literary 'tasting menu,' combining the raw, tell-all energy of Anthony Bourdain with the worldliness of Jeffrey Steingarten."
--Rick Smilow, President, The Institute of Culinary Education

"Jeremiah Tower dishes better than almost anybody. His book is educational as well as entertaining. I recommend California Dish heartily."
--Robert Mondavi

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California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution 2.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
When you read through this culinary memoir there will be a temptation to compare it with Tony Bourdain's work. At the very topmost layer of the surface there will be some passing similarities, two famous chefs who can wield a pen as well as a Wusthof without the aid of a ghostwriter...but that's where it ends. In a way Jeremiah Tower is a photonegative, a bookend of Bourdain. Where Bourdain swaggers, Tower is genteel. One is NYC bravura, the other California cool one is a journeyman with a survival instinct, the other a creator with penchant for self-destruction. What is really different is the while Bourdain is rather a morbid and caustic optimist, Tower is all polish and charmingly embittered. Foodwise, nobody will ever confuse Bourdain with an innovator, he is an (excellent)interpreter of standards. Tower is an innovator and the recipes he sprinkles throughout are indicative of this. In the end what fascinates is that Tower tells the tale of how self-sabotage strikes even (especially?) the most gifted among us, in a way the reader can spot Hubris breeding Nemesis but the author can't. The book is worth it for the recipes alone, the prose is a bonus.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Lame tell-all...except that is so incredibly inacurate! Does he really think we are that stupid? really belongs in British Tabloid- His view and rememberaces are blurred thrugh the champagne.Pittiful (actually Shameful).