Chef Jeremiah Tower, who made a name for himself in the Bay Area first behind the line at Chez Panisse and later as the chef-impresario of Stars in San Francisco, has decided to come out of retirement at age 71 to take over the kitchen at the iconic Tavern on the Green in Central Park. Tower's been hinting for a couple of years about wanting to leave behind his self-imposed exile in Mexico, and even attached himself to a food-hall project in New Rochelle, NY two years ago. Now, he says, after a friend suggested the Tavern on the Green job to him on a whim as the New York Times reports, the owners have been looking for a replacement chef after reopening chef Katy Sparks quit in September it only took him a day to seriously consider it.
"Out of the blue, he came to us with this real passion for this restaurant," [said co-owner Jim Caiola]. "Jeremiah Tower contacts you, and you understand what he represents. An icon meets an icon... The 26-year-olds out there have no idea."
Tower tells the Times that he's prepared for the challenge of this 400-seat, high-volume restaurant, saying that Stars was a similar sort of operation. At Tavern on the Green, he says, he wants to bring "more flowers, more fun" to the place, and he adds that he'll probably bring some of that Stars American brasserie style to the menu. "Katy didn’t want to do fries or pasta. That leaves me speechless." (NYT critic Pete Wells was one of those who was not a fan of the reopened restaurant, giving it zero stars in a lackluster review this past June.)
Always known as much for his big personality as for his food, Tower and Stars have remained legends in San Francisco in large part because nothing quite so bustling and glamorous have come along to replace Stars though critic Michael Bauer has made connections to busy newer places like Park Tavern and Prospect, which owe some style debt to Tower. (Tower ultimately left Stars in 1998 after almost 15 years in business, and it closed a year later.) At last year's Stars reunion dinner at Foreign Cinema (the second of two similar such Stars reunion events Tower has presided over in the Bay Area in recent years), Tower wrote with signature immodesty on the chalkboard, "A great restaurant is like a Broadway show. It travels around and has revivals."
Fans may also know Tower for his 2003 autobiography California Dish, in which he famously took most of the credit for the success of Chez Panisse, at the expense of friend and former employer Alice Waters. In a 2011 interview with Grub Street, shortly after he attended the 40th anniversary of Chez Panisse, Tower said he was inspired by that trip to reconsider an earlier plan to move to Italy. Looking out at a stunning view of the San Francisco Bay from a friend's apartment, after a decade living in Mexico, he said, "Why would I not come back?"
Tower is reportedly in New York and already "plunging right in," proposing 250 different dishes for the possible menu. He says he'll be introducing just a few things at first, with a goal of completely revamping the menu by the new year.