Jeremiah Tower: a prophet and an erection.
That feels about right, now: at various stages in his life you could characterise him as one or t’other, but it’s only in 2017, as the retrospective The Last Magnificent comes to cinemas – executive produced by our boy Tony Bourdain, no less – that we can appreciate him in his glorious, tawdry totality.
So, yes: a prophet, the man who says he wrote the menus that made Chez Panisse famous; a man who is undeniably a central figure in the rehabilitation of New Californian cuisine; a man who has a legitimate claim to having been the best chef in America for a brief window, at the 80s / 90s San Francisco sensation Stars, before Thomas Keller swept in, sprucing up and ironing out the dirty laundry.
And – yes – a bit of a dick, too; a prototype for Bourdain’s dong-centric worldview, its attendant ceaseless slaking of indiscriminate appetites for drugs and pussy, coke and cock. Stories abound of excess; bin lids dusted with white powder, an urgent sexual appetite (Mario Batali recalls an offer of a handjob in Tower’s Mercedes behind the restaurant), an at-all-costs need to be the centre of attention: “Nothing,” he tells John Birdsall as they contemplate his time in the wilderness in Mexico, “is worse than not being noticed”.
You need both of these facets to understand a Jeremiah Tower menu, to appreciate both its aesthetics and its heady, slithery erotics. And it’s his menus that I care about; I’ve never eaten the man’s food, but would challenge anyone to name a better composer of a meal on paper; you’d call his gift poetic if it didn’t leave you so short of breath. The Stars-inspired New American Classics starts with a list of some of Jeremiah’s favourite things; reading it on an empty stomach is to elicit a bodily longing that is comparable only to sexual lust. Fine wine and rich food, Château d’Yquem and veal, sea urchin soufflé, truffles, cream, cheese – all qualified with adjectives that heighten their promised pleasure even further; of a black truffle hamburger on a toasted muffin, for example, Tower writes:
The fitting drink with this sandwich, and one without which the burger falls short of its overwhelming effect, is a luscious, old-fashioned, deep red, rich, and powerful Burgundy—a La Tâche, any wine made by Roumier (his own or Comte de Vogüé), or a Morey-Saint-Denis—in a large balloon glass, so the perfume of the wine and the truffled beef hit one's brain at the same time
“Overwhelming” is right: this is a home cookbook! In the best possible way, it’s all too much, sails too close to corruption in its quest for perennial ripeness – as in one especially onanistic signature, cornmeal blinis heaped with an orgy of caviar and butter, so much of it that it would dribble down your arm, leaving a salt-cream streak on your wrist. There is a space in the hollow of your mouth that exists somewhere between the formation of “Oh” and the formation of “Ew”. That site – there, just on your tongue – is where Jeremiah built his tower.
Is it wrong to want him to put it in there? I mean that literally, and yet also in a way that’s somehow compatible with my happy long-term hetero-relationship (sexuality, after all, is a spectrum over which Tower roamed widely): when I read Jeremiah’s descriptions of food, I want something, some confusing mix of the food and the man and his skill and his brusque confidence and his outrageous devotion to pleasure, and I want it now. With immediacy, but also in the present moment, 2017, where food has been stripped back to roots and shoots and wine has had its perfume smothered by minimal intervention oxidisation. I don’t want to feel guilt – of any kind – about what I’m eating; I want beauty, indulgence, superfluity, fat.
And a few months ago, in New Orleans, I got it. The restaurant was Commander’s Palace, a place so up itself it has a strictly formal dress code in 95% humidity and so knowing that its Friday lunch special is still a 25-cent martini. We arrived for dinner late, fuelled by sazeracs and French 75s; we drank a huge oaky Chardonnay and a couple of bottles of crushingly unsubtle excessive Pinot Noir. I had a trio of soups, including turtle topped with sherry; I had a side of champagne-poached crabmeat and some mashed potatoes that were basically pure butter; we finished with bread pudding soufflé, and shortcake submerged by strawberries and Chantilly.
When it was over, I felt like I was floating, and I felt like I was going to be sick. It was the sort of vertigo you only get from scaling something very tall. Something like a tower, say.