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California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution, Jeremiah Tower, The Free Press: 336 pp., $25

August 03, 2003|Richard Flaste | Richard Flaste is The Times' features editor and a collaborator on several cookbooks with chef Pierre Franey.

At bottom, Jeremiah Tower's memoir is all about who gets the credit: Who gets our thanks for the revolution in American cuisine that took place in the '70s and '80s?

One line of thinking holds that the movement began at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and radiated out so that California cooking soon became synonymous with a new type of American food experience. From the beginning, Chez Panisse was ripe for legend, a restaurant that grew out of the iconoclastic political turmoil of the '60s and had the good fortune to be run by untrained, intelligent people who knew so little about formal cooking that they could more or less do what they wanted.

But who should be anointed as the champion of this revolution? Is it Alice Waters, the public face of the restaurant, or is it Jeremiah Tower, the cook who worked there during several of the critical early years in the '70s?

The feud between the two has been going on for years and, every now and then -- with a friendly word, a public hug -- shows signs of abating. But it isn't. Tower, always the more vituperative of the two, is still proclaiming his bitter belief that Waters got more adulation than she deserved and that he got less.

In his fascinating, elucidating and often mean-spirited book, "California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution," he does everything he can to hammer home his position. It's as if he said to himself, "They still don't get it. They still don't understand that Alice was doing PR, and I was the creator," and so goes about documenting his role, even including his job description at Chez Panisse.

As he tells it, Waters was an almost marginal character in those years while he was creating in the kitchen. And lest there be any doubt, he peppers "California Dish" with testimonials. At Chez Panisse and later at his hugely successful restaurant Stars in San Francisco, journalists and diners are nothing less than thrilled. Repeatedly he describes how the food press was blown away by his brilliance, as it was in 1983 when he traveled to Newport, R.I., to show off his wares. It was there for the first time -- at least in his mind -- that the national press recognized California cuisine. The writers in attendance, by his account, swooned over his genius, and "[t]he love affair between the food press and California had begun. Another affair began, too -- with me."

But give him this: Tower did have his charms. Ask anybody who remembers him during his heyday. Their eyes go wide as they tell you what a beautiful, riveting man he was, immaculately dressed, able to carry off clothing combinations that shouldn't work but did, always with a glass of champagne in his hand as he strolled through the dining room, his head adorned with a crown of stunning curly hair.

In "California Dish," we learn about the little boy who liked to prepare nasturtium sandwiches; the brilliant young cook; the self-destructive San Francisco celebrity, always being sued or suing over one thing or another; and the still-handsome man, who in late middle age remains resentful, striving to establish a preeminent place in culinary history through sheer force of will and spite.

Tower was educated at Harvard as an architect and never trained as a cook, but he had read and reread the greatest food writers of the modern era, from Escoffier and Curnonsky to Elizabeth David and James Beard, and was influenced by them all. Tower understood centuries of cooking and could take it all into the kitchen.

As much as Tower tends to put himself in the spotlight in the developing restaurant movement in America -- one that ultimately would bring not only restaurants but also home cooks some of the finest, most interesting food in the world -- he seems fully aware that the "revolution" was not just about Chez Panisse and Stars or even about California. It was much more.

The new American cuisine, as defined by Tower, reveres fresh, home-grown ingredients and encourages creativity based on tradition at the same time that it boldly departs from it. As Tower concedes, and others frequently point out, this philosophy had a number of influential early advocates.

David and Beard worshiped freshness, and Beard, as early as the 1950s, urged Americans to value what they grew on their own land and caught in their own waters. Nouvelle cuisine in France showed Americans the value of innovation, of stepping away from tradition. About the same time that Chez Panisse and Stars were gaining recognition, American regional cooking, often prepared with great finesse and popularized by the likes of Paul Prudhomme, was hitting its stride.

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