The Roots of American Food: Paying Homage to Jeremiah Tower

The Roots of American Food: Paying Homage to Jeremiah Tower


By Michael Laiskonis, ICE Creative Director 


Earlier this month I had the honor of cooking for an American icon: chef and author Jeremiah Tower. The dinner was part of the second annual Imbibe & Inspire conference in Chicago, the broad theme of which was “The Roots of American Food.” Jeremiah was the guest of honor, celebrated as a luminary who refined and redefined our understanding of American regional cooking during his groundbreaking tenure at Berkeley's Chez Panisse in the 1970s. By rejecting any product he considered inferior and focusing on the idea of local (which was surprisingly difficult in those early days), his efforts made possible the farm-to-table relationships that are so prevalent today. In the 80s and 90s, with his Bay Area restaurants Santa Fe Grill and Stars, Jeremiah set in motion many ideas which were ahead of their time, both in the front- and back-of-house. His efforts helped evolve the cultural status of chefs back when the food “scene” we know today was still in its infancy.

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Seeking inspiration for the dinner at Chicago’s two Michelin star L2O, I returned to Jeremiah’s important (and, sadly, out-of-print) first cookbook, New American Classics, published in 1986 (thanks to the lone copy held in the archives at Kitchen Arts and Letters). It was the books of this era that comprised my own stitched-together culinary education, and revisiting this one made me realize just how fresh Jeremiah’s perspective remains today. Through Jeremiah and his contemporaries, I began to discover the underlying stories connected to food and cooking, the sense of place that heightens our appreciation of ingredients. Jeremiah often relates the frustrating hardship in finding things as simple as fresh herbs and olive oil back in the 1970s—staples that we take for granted today. Just as we now can’t imagine the world without the Internet, it is increasingly difficult to imagine contemporary cooking without the bounty of high quality ingredients we either ship in from overseas or forage in nearby fields.