One of San Francisco's first celebrity chefs, Jeremiah Tower, who came up during a time when "celebrity" and "chef" weren't often said together, still has a few things to say food and restaurants. And at age 81, he has just launched a Substack newsletter.
Calling the newsletter a "weekly selection of my personal archives, written, photos, videos, menus, and other visual materials, on eating, cooking, and travel from the simplest to the grandest, everyone from local fishermen to the world’s most famous names," Tower arrived in my inbox a little over a week ago. The first entry, titled "Cocaine & Cooking at Chez Panisse," appears to be an excerpt from Tower's controversial 2003 memoir California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution. And it tells the story about how he and some of his compatriots in the Chez Panisse kitchen, and on staff, were fueled by cocaine in the early and mid-1970s, beginning with one particular dinner.
"At Chez Panisse it started on the restaurant’s third birthday in 1974," Tower writes, going on to describe the prix fixe menu ($5 per head) that he came up with, offering up "panisses" that he saw in a cookbook without knowing what they were or ever having cooked them. After trying to make the chickpea-flour pancakes one time, Tower says he gave up and just made "little pizzas," telling everyone that that's what "panisse" meant.
[Sidebar: Chef Melissa Perello has had panisses frites on the menu at Frances since the restuarant's early days, which she fashioned as breaded, fried, oblong sticks of chickpea custard — closer to what is served in the South of France, and the namesake of Alice Waters' restaurant, which actually originated with a trio of films by Marcel Pagnol.]
But then, he said, making single-serving pizzas all night using leftover ingredients from a bouillabaisse the night before, was getting exhausting.
I was flagging a bit, and everyone was buying me champagne, which slowed me down even more. Word went out that the chef needed a boost.
In sauntered a friend of one of our waiters with a black-leather- coated accomplice. Flashing a gold-toothy smile as he glided by me, he pulled a plastic bag out of his coat. Then dumped half a pound of white powder on top of the chest freezer at the back of the kitchen. He cut it into several long lines and handed me a straw fashioned from a rolled-up twenty-dollar bill.
In an instant, I was back at the stoves. Then a conga line formed (this time not for the pizza), snaking out through the kitchen, into the dining room, and up the stairs into the bar.
He says that this ushered in a few years of constant cocaine use at Chez Panisse, and while "Alice disapproved of using cocaine... she turned a mostly blind eye."
Tower has a paid-subscription tier on the Substack, but the latest free newsletter, published Tuesday, is titled "Basic Dough." It is also pretty saucy, as he recounts sitting in a neighborhood bar drinking a Manhattan, after turning in edited galleys for a book, and noting on a sign on the wall that warns pregnant women against drinking. (This also appears to be excerpted from something, possibly written about 20 years ago, but it does not say.)
"My mother had a couple of martinis every day she was pregnant with me, and here I am slurping down a giant cocktail when I should be working off all this mental fatigue in the gym," Tower writes.
In San Francisco, a while after his days at Chez Panisse, Tower became most famous for his Civic Center restaurant Stars, which closed in the late 1990s. The late Anthony Bourdain counted hismelf a fan of Tower, and he executive produced the 2017 documentary about him, Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent.
Tower's last literary effort, a revision and new introduction for Henri-Paul Pellaprat's The Great Book of French Cuisine, was published last year.
Find the Out of the Oven newsletter, and sign up for it, here.
Top image: Film subject, chef Jeremiah Tower speaks on stage at CNN Films - Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent at TFF Panel & Party on April 16, 2016 in New York City. 26123_001_0117.JPG (Photo by Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images for Turner)