Jeremiah Tower, the chef behind legendary San Francisco area restaurants Chez Panisse (with Alice Waters) and Stars, is considered one of the fathers of California cuisine. He almost settled in New Orleans (he was thwarted by Hurricane Katrina) and currently lives in Merida, Mexico, where he likes to scuba dive and write. He visits the Southern Food & Beverage Museum at 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 19, to discuss and sign his book Table Manners: How to Behave in the Modern World and Why Bother. He spoke to Gambit about his book and work.
How did you almost settle in New Orleans?
Tower: I was living in New York and 9/11 occurred, and after about a year, I couldn't take that very much longer. So I went to Cozumel (Mexico) to see what that was like for diving. And while I was there, I thought, "Well, if I have to move back to the U.S., what's the most civilized city in America?" And of course, it's New Orleans.
I went back to New York and I moved to New Orleans. Then I thought, before I unpack and remodel the house and all that, I'll go for another week of diving and pull myself together and then go back to New Orleans and face it all. While I was in Cozumel, Hurricane Katrina hit.
When I was in college, I would come down twice a year for the sidecar cocktails and eggs remoulade at Maylie's. It was the best place to get over a hangover that I have ever been to. And lunch at Galatoire's. I kept going back.
To me, no matter how Michelin-starred a place is, it's all about the level of satisfaction. For me, it's a taco at a roadside stand in Merida today. But in those days, there was nothing like a fried oyster po-boy with good bread, homemade remoulade sauce — any sauce made on premises — and fried oysters. In the '60s and '70s, this was common. You have to search theses days, because everybody buys their sauce from Sysco and it's not quite the same. But the everyday food is fantastic. It's the kind of the food you can eat every day— and the quality of the seafood.
How did you come to write a book about table manners?
T: I make the point: If you have good table manners, you probably have good all-around manners. It's a useful tool to have good table manners, because everyone assumes that you're alright in every other way. It's a good business decision.
(The book) came about by accident, just like my culinary career, when a publisher in New York asked me out of the blue to do a book on manners. I was complaining about people in elevators and restaurants, and he said, "Well, I'd like you to do a book on manners." I said, "That's the stupidest idea I ever heard. Who cares about manners anymore?" And he said, "That's the point."
On the book tour, I was in Washington, D.C., at Politics & Prose Bookstore. A women came in a little early. She was grandmother age and obviously quite wealthy and stylish. She said, "I have eight grandchildren and I am getting eight books." I said, "Have you given up on your children?" And she said, "Absolutely."
What type of cooking do you do in Merida?
T: Cooking like the natives I leave to the natives because they do a much better job. Cochinita, which is braised leg of pork — it'd take me a month to get through a leg of pork. The best things (cooked locally) here are chicken and pork. The rest is seafood, which I use a lot of — fresh octopus, stone crab claws that are massive and cheap. The lobster fishermen knock on my door every morning with a basket full of lobsters. Not bad, eh? Spiny Caribbean lobster are very difficult to cook. They overcook in seconds. You only eat the tail meat. I just steam it in butter and fresh garlic for a few minutes. You never boil it. You just cook it till it's not translucent and eat it right away.