Norman Van Aken's Kitchen Conversations: Jeremiah Tower
Norman Van Aken, a member of The Daily Meal Council, is a Florida-based chef-restaurateur (Norman's at the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando), cooking teacher, and author. His most recent book is a memoir, No Experience Necessary: The Culinary Odyssey of Chef Norman Van Aken. This is the first in a regular series of Kitchen Conversations — informal but revealing interchanges with key culinary figures — that Van Aken will be contributing to The Daily Meal. He also writes a regular series of Kitchen Meditations for us.
Jeremiah Tower began his culinary career in 1972 as co-owner and executive chef of the seminal Chez Panisse in Berkeley. He later ran the popular Stars in San Francisco and opened restaurants in Seattle, Hong Kong, and Singapore. He has written numerous books, including America's Best Chefs with Jeremiah Tower, a companion volume to his 26-episode TV show of the same name, and California Dish, a memoir and history of the California-born American culinary revolution, in which Tower played a key role.
Norman Van Aken: What is the very first thing you remember eating and enjoying?
Jeremiah Tower: I have had four serious pineapple loves, and I remember them all the more vividly now, as I sit on a 12th-floor balcony at the Royal Hawaiian "pink palace" looking out at Waikiki and the vast Pacific, 50 years after I first sat in these same rooms, as the first surfers swim out at sunrise, with the crests of the waves foaming rose-colored in the early sun against the baby-blue water. But it was after we left Honolulu that I had my first pineapple love — in Fiji. We had flown on a DC-3 converted warplane, first class, Pan-American, on our way to Sydney. I was five years old. The 16-hour trip on the way to Hawaii was nothing compared to the four days it took to get to Sydney, and by the time we reached Fiji I had had it. I fell to the tarmac and wrapped my arms around a pole in the tiny terminal. “Nyet!,” I screamed, “Nein!,” no more planes! They sent for the police. There was only one policeman, and he was around seven feet tall if you count the hair combed straight up on his head and wrapped in a red ribbon; he wore a white tapa cloth skirt, a military top, and no shoes on his size-15 feet, which were the first things I saw of him from my position of face firmly down in the dirt. If I couldn’t see the plane, maybe it would go away. At a close up sight of the feet, it did. He sat me on his deck-chair-sized lap and fed me a huge glass of chilled fresh pineapple juice. After days of warm water out of a cistern in the plane, and stale sandwiches (all there was), and 70 hours of airsickness, I fell in love. With Fijian policemen, with calm tropical air that smelled of frangipane, and with ripe pineapples. This was the easy love. After a couple of riotous days of charming but lascivious French convicts being transported from New Caledonia in the seats behind us, we reached Sydney. Over my few years there, my pineapple love continued, as on Queensland plantations where aborigines looking like my policeman lopped off the top of pineapples picked ripe from the fields, and I could eat them with cupped fingers, since there was no hard unripe core.
Are you the first "chef" in your family?
Yes. The first professional chef. All in the family could cook. And my mother was a very good "natural" in various cuisines.
When did you start cooking?
When I was about 12 and helped with the food for the huge summer garden parties my parents gave at our country house outside London. I would decorate the poached salmon, slice the legs of mutton, etc.
When did you realize that cooking was "serious" to you?
“Serious” not in terms of a job — that was first as head chef at Chez Panisse, my first day on the job — but in love of cooking: senior year at Harvard College when we lived off-campus and my bedside reading was, as it had been since I was 16, Escoffier’s Ma cuisine. Here is a menu from that house, from 1965. This was the "Who Can Tell for Sure?" dinner for friends. It was a farewell to Cambridge, but also in celebration of a New York Sunday News article called “A Growing Concern: Many British Lads Have Longer Hair Than the Girls.” I had copied it to all the group, and reproduced for the menu the photo of long-haired and beautiful boys in a group on a Carnaby Street corner. The caption read “These may be boys watching all the girls go by — but who can tell for sure?” The dinner was also an occasion to drink the 1884 Madeira that my friend Michael Palmer had given me for my birthday in 1964. At the dinner were Michael; Colin Streeter, the most beautiful boy at Harvard; Cathy Simon, Matthew Stolter, who arrived late to shoot up the whole dinner part, blanks only; and John Sanger and friend. The menu: Pâté (frozen buffalo grass vodka). Consommé madrilène. Salmon en gelée aux truffes (Pouilly-Fumé 1962). Filet de boeuf périgourdine (Châteauneuf-du-Pape 1957). Strawberries and French cream (Asti Spumante). Coffee ("Napoleon" Armagnac; Sercial Madeira 1884.
Where were you cooking when that moment took place?
Our house on Green Street, Cambridge, with its little garden in the back where we grew herbs and lettuces.
For those fortunate readers who have read your excellent memoir, California Dish, there are many details to learn. For the readers not yet so fortunate, let me ask this: Who is the best pure cook you have ever worked with, other than for a special event?
Richard Olney — on and off cooking with him over the years at Chez Panisse, cooking at his house in the south of France to come up with two weeks of menus for the Chez Panisse Zinfandel Festival one year. For example only. One occasion that stands out is a surprise visit I paid him while I was in Nice consulting for Pan-Am, in 1978 or so. And he had “nothing in the house” (he said). He looked in his little fridge and found the remains of a veal shank ragout with his garden tomatoes. In minutes — after raw favas from the garden served with olive oil, lemon, anchovies — we had that over some penne pasta, one of the best pasta dishes I have ever tasted.
Do you feel the cooking life caused you to sacrifice having a "normal life"?
I've never have had a "normal" life as far as I can tell. But being 100-percent restaurant chef and owner working 90 hours a week, obsessively, did mean that I had not time for a life with someone else.