Meet legendary chef Jeremiah Tower before his big Sacramento gig
World-renowned chef Jeremiah Tower, formerly of Chez Panisse and Stars, has been selected to lead this year’s Tower Bridge dinner on Sept. 30. The dinner, which spotlights local farms and ingredients, is the marquee event of Sacramento’s annual Farm-to-Fork Festival.
In past years, teams of top Sacramento chefs have planned and prepared the formal dinner served on the Tower Bridge. This year, local chefs will work with Tower, who said he’s looking forward to further exploring Northern California’s ever-expanding food landscape.
“One of the main reasons I’m coming to Sacramento is to see how the food revolution has been expressed and organized,” Tower said. “They said (Sacramento) is the biggest cornucopia in the U.S., so I’m going to run around with my basket and gather everything I can.”
With the bridge dinner now in its sixth year, organizers were seeking ways to keep it fresh, said Visit Sacramento President and CEO Mike Testa. “We asked ourselves, how can we elevate this dinner further?” Testa said. “Jeremiah Tower was our first choice, and the only one we reached out to. In the (food) community, he has total star power.”
Tower, who lives in Mexico, may not be a household name for some diners, but he’s considered a legend and a visionary among chefs and culinary enthusiasts. He was the subject of “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent,” a 2016 documentary executive-produced by Anthony Bourdain. The film featured dozens of food-world stars, including Bourdain, Ruth Reichl and Martha Stewart, talking about Tower’s influence. Stewart called Tower “a father of American cuisine.”
Local chef Patrick Mulvaney, of Mulvaney’s B&L, described Tower as one of his heroes. “It’s a great idea to have him come up to celebrate his legacy ... and the work that he did to bring farmers into the forefront,” he said.
Michael Tuohy, general manager of Legends Hospitality at Golden 1 Center, voiced similar sentiments: “I could not be more excited about a culinary luminary such as Jeremiah Tower joining this incredible event.”
Tower, who served as chef at Alice Waters’ famed restaurant Chez Panisse in the 1970s, is known for pioneering what became known as California cuisine. That style of cooking, based on sourcing and spotlighting local ingredients, forms the backbone of what Sacramento now calls farm-to-fork.
Food historians say the style first became recognized at a dinner Tower served at Chez Panisse in 1976, dubbed the Northern California Regional Dinner. Before that, Chez Panisse had focused on French food. With the California dinner, Tower chose to celebrate the bounty around him, from Tomales Bay oysters to local figs and almonds to Mission del Sol, a dessert wine from West Sacramento’s celebrated, now-closed Harbor Winery.
The dinner caused a sensation – and kicked off a movement to celebrate regional food. “Tower was a real turning point for American cuisine and specifically California cuisine,” Tuohy said.
Working in the Bay Area, Tower had a strong connection to the capital region, he said. “Sacramento was one of the first places I ever got local, fresh ingredients back at Chez Panisse,” he explained. “In those days it was people coming to the back door (of the restaurant) with crayfish from the Delta.”
In addition, Tower said he relied on Darrell Corti for specialty foods that were hard to come by. “Corti Bros was really a huge source of ingredients and inspiration,” he said. “It probably still is for everyone who lives in Sacramento.”
Tower’s influential years at Chez Panisse ended in an acrimonious split with Waters, and he went on to found San Francisco’s glitzy Stars in 1984. There, he became known as a celebrity chef, and the restaurant as a see-and-be-seen playground for San Francisco’s upper crust in the go-go 1980s and ’90s.
The Stars kitchen inspired a generation of chefs, including Tuohy. “I cut my culinary teeth in the Bay Area and was very aware of the magnitude of Stars,” Tuohy said. “It was by far the most exciting restaurant I had ever stepped in.”
Although Stars closed in 1999, it has had a lasting impact. “Stars showed what was possible,” Tower said. “We did so much business we could support farms that were just starting out, and it showed young chefs they could do almost any kind of restaurant they wanted. That was new then.”
In the following years, Tower moved to Mexico, where he spent his time writing books, renovating houses and scuba diving. He returned to the States a few years ago and had a short-lived, controversial stint running the food program at New York City’s fabled Tavern on the Green.
Tower said he has yet to design the menu for the bridge event. “What I’m going to do is take a tour around the farms, probably this summer,” he said. He did note, however, that he hopes to work with “those wonderful crayfish” again, and also possibly offer a version of blini with local caviar – a Stars appetizer Tuohy remembers as a “phenomenal dish.”
But the overall style of the food is likely to be decidedly unfussy. Tower, who in a 2017 interview with Bon Appetit said he detested “little dots on a plate,” told The Bee he plans to make each dish “a celebration of the ingredients, not about how clever or au courant the chef is.”
Whatever the specifics of the menu, Tower emphasized that he will be working in concert with local chefs, who have yet to be named. “It’s going to be very much a team effort,” he said.
The Tower Bridge Dinner has been a popular event since it was launched in 2013, with tickets selling out quickly each year. The on-sale date and ticket prices for 2018 have yet to be announced. Proceeds from the bridge dinner help fund the free farm-to-fork festival on Capitol Mall.
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