The best way to educate your palate is to eat your way through the finest restaurants in the world. Nice work if you can get it, right?
As a child, Tower was able to do just that, as his father, who worked for an international sound equipment company, traveled the world, family in tow. Tower ate at award-winning restaurants all over Europe, and developed very early a taste for how food, really good food, should taste. Throughout boarding school and college, he delighted his friends with elaborate meals he staged from Auguste Escoffier’s cooking bible, Ma Cuisine. But it was a bold act of arrogance that truly launched his career as chef and restauranteur.
In 1972, having no commercial kitchen experience and no formal culinary education, Tower applied for a chef’s job at Chez Panisse. Relying only on his self-taught cooking experience, he made some adjustments to a soup that chef Alice Waters asked him to taste — apparently to her satisfaction — and was hired immediately. After a year, he became a partner and elevated the farm-to-table idea to new heights, since he was willing to wing the menu nearly every night, depending on what ingredients showed up at their door that day.
But given his European-trained palate, most of his dishes were inspired by France. It wasn’t until he produced a northern California-sourced menu — with oysters, fish, geese and vegetables sourced from the region — that he truly made an impact on American cooking. Several years after introducing that menu, “California cuisine” was born — the healthy, locally sourced cooking that Tower had been producing at his restaurants, including Stars.
Now focused more on restoring buildings than cooking (he holds a degree in architecture from Harvard University), Tower’s legacy remains as an indelible part of the evolving landscape of American cuisine.
WHAT WINNING THE JAMES BEARD FOUNDATION OUTSTANDING CHEF AWARD HAS MEANT TO ME: “In 1974 [James Beard] was visiting San Francisco, and to thank him for writing in his syndicated column that Chez Panisse in Berkeley (where I was the chef) was his favorite new restaurant in the United States, I invited him to dinner at my house. Shopping in Chinatown early that morning to see what I could surprise him with, I found some large sea urchins. My mind flashed to something I had read in Fernand Point’s Ma Gastronomie and I decided to make sea urchin soufflés. When they arrived in front of him, the soufflés rising like pink sunset clouds out of the green, spiny shells, Beard became quite quiet. Putting a spoonful in his mouth, a huge smile opening his enormous face, he breathed out: ‘That is the best thing I have ever eaten!’ Perhaps it was not, but the daring flavors started a long friendship.”
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