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Tower's tell-all has them buzzing

His new memoir settles scores, tells intimate tales and sends the food world into a seething frenzy.

July 23, 2003|Shawn Hubler | Times Staff Writer

San Francisco — For decades, Jeremiah Tower was the talk of this food-centric city. People talked in the '70s when he put Chez Panisse on the culinary map. They talked in the '80s when he opened Stars, the A-list restaurant, and showed up in Dewar's scotch ads and on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." They talked in the '90s when he hit the skids and ended up running a disco/restaurant in Manila.

Now, in a memoir that has rocked the Bay Area even before its release next month, Tower is talking back.

"California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution" (Free Press, $25) tells of Tower's rise to celebrity chef-dom and his contribution to the birth of modern California cuisine. He is widely regarded as one of the most important -- and least retiring -- figures in American cooking, but he has never achieved the international icon status accorded to, say, Alice Waters, his estranged ex-partner. The book, Tower said in an interview last week, was his attempt to set the record straight.

But "California Dish," which comes out in August, also settles scores and tells intimate tales on some of the food world's most-revered figures -- Waters among them -- and many in it are seething, even as they burn up the phone lines to share excerpts from advance copies and dog-eared galley proofs.

"I'm just disappointed that he wants to pull all this out -- not surprised, but disappointed," said Waters, who said she has known for weeks about the memoir, which portrays her as a woman scorned and a credit-grabber who turned on Tower when he ditched her for a gay man.

Waters, he writes, "did not know commercial vegetables from truly great ones" when she hired him in 1972 as chef at the then-obscure Chez Panisse, and once tried to prevent him from returning produce "so large and tough that an elephant would pass them up" because she was friends with the vendor. Her eventual advocacy for organic food and sustainable farming, writes Tower, was Waters' true and lasting contribution.

"Well," said Waters curtly, "he can take credit for whatever he likes -- and needs to take credit for. What shall I take credit for? Having the restaurant to begin with?"

"Let him be who he is," said Marion Cunningham, the 81-year-old author of the Fannie Farmer cookbooks. Tower and James Beard secretly ridiculed her with the nickname "Cookie" -- because they thought cookies were the only things she could make.

"Oh, I've heard all about it," she said. "It's come out to mixed feelings, is the best I can say."

"I'm surprised he can remember anything through that Veuve Clicquot-induced haze," said New York-based restaurant consultant Clark Wolf, who isn't mentioned but who nonetheless made it a point to get his hands on the manuscript because he is friendly with most of those criticized in it.

"I mean, attacking Marion Cunningham? Fannie Farmer? I guess Grandma Moses was dead."

The book has raised eyebrows even among Tower's allies. Denise Hale, the jet-setting philanthropist, denied that she once instructed Tower to secretly serve Haut-Brion to her and her friend, conductor Zubin Mehta, while the rest of her guests drank a far-cheaper Jordan Cabernet.

"Jeremiah is my friend, but I don't know what his memory is," she said. "It's not there, obviously because that never happened."

Mark Franz, the Tower protege who broke away when Stars became financially troubled, said he remains close to Tower. But he took issue with Tower's claim in the book that Franz "would finally have owned Stars, or whatever was left of it" when Tower died.

"Yeah. Well. I was never going to get anything, and I realize that," Franz, who now runs the highly regarded Farallon restaurant in San Francisco, said of the passage. "But maybe one of these days I'll write my own book."

Foodie tell-alls

"California Dish" is the latest in the booming subgenre of tell-all food books, which have proliferated as the pioneers of the '70s and '80s food scene look back on a movement that was also rife with sex, drugs and social change. At the same time, celebrity chefs have, inevitably, generated a market for celebrity-chef gossip.

Anthony Bourdain's controversial "Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly," was a 2001 bestseller. The boomer memoirs of Gourmet editor and former restaurant critic Ruth Reichl are both out now in paperback. An authorized biography of Waters is underway, and she was featured this year in a segment of the PBS series "American Masters." Another Chez Panisse alumnus is said to be working on another tell-all about the landmark restaurant. This week, NBC began a six-part reality show about the travails of big-city chef-dom called "The Restaurant."

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