Restaurateur Jeremiah Tower Cooks by the Book—his Own

updated 04/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Jeremiah Tower knows, just as sure as oil and vinegar mix, that his tombstone will read: "He invented black bean cake." This spicy side dish is but one of the culinary innovations closely identified with Tower, 44, a star chef in the California cuisine's back-to-local-ingredients movement. "I wanted to do something with Mexican food, but no one likes to eat a great big pile of black beans," says Tower. Instead he mixed cooked ground-up black beans with chili powder, cumin and cilantro, fried this into little individual cakes and topped each with sour cream and fresh salsa. "It looks very nice," he says. And it tastes even better.

Black bean cakes are only one of the ever-changing Tower specialties available daily at Stars, his San Francisco restaurant. Since its opening three years ago in the Civic Center neighborhood, Stars has become a must stop for visiting celebs, among them Liza Minnelli, Michael J. Fox, Nick Nolte and David Byrne. For those who may never make it to San Francisco or can't afford the typical tab ($75 for two, including wine and tips), Tower last year published his cookbook, New American Classics (Harper & Row, $25). Read it and you too can whip up Eggs in Hell, Texas Style, Artichoke Bottoms Stuffed with Fava Bean Puree, Warm Salad of Lobster and Avocado, Fresh Fig and Mint Salad, and Squash Blossoms with Goat Cheese.

Don't be put off if you have no formal culinary training. Neither does Tower. His undergraduate and his architecture graduate degrees both come from Harvard (which has no cooking major). A recreational cookbook user in his college days, Tower says, "I spent every Saturday, as a relief from school, making these elaborate meals." He went professional in 1972 when, finding himself in San Francisco with no job and little money, he heard that a small Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, was looking for a cook. When he turned up for an interview, he was asked to play emergency soup doctor. Tower added some white wine, some cream and salt and—ta-dah!— the evening's soup was rescued, and he was hired.

Chez Panisse and its founder, Alice Waters, are now legends among the food cognoscenti. It was mandatory for gourmets in the '70s to journey there in quest of the latest wonder, California cuisine, and Tower was the apron-clad figure to whom these pilgrims made obeisance. "After trying to cook French food with California ingredients, I just started cooking with the ingredients," he says, creating in the process a cuisine that was light, improvisatory, deceptively simple and filled with new and contrasting flavors. "The philosophical difference was cooking from the marketplace instead of cooking from fixed menus," he says.

Tower spent six years at Chez Panisse, leaving when he decided "I had,' gone as far as I could go." He moved on to teaching cooking classes, working on the Time-Life cookbook series and in the kitchen at two San Francisco restaurants. In 1981 he took over a failing restaurant in Berkeley called Santa Fe Bar & Grill. He featured fish, steaks and game grilled over fragrant mesquite wood, and soon the restaurant was a hit. His success at Santa Fe attracted the backing to start Stars.

Tower's palate developed early. Although born in Stamford, Conn., he spent much of his youth abroad, first in Sydney, Australia and then in London. His father, a movie sound-equipment manufacturer, was posted there; by his employer, a Western Electric subsidiary. Jeremiah got hooked on food during the six months the family spent at London's Hyde Park Hotel, where he befriended the service waiters and got them to let him help prepare and serve the meals. Says Tower: "I had been around the world 2½ times by the time was 16. All the traveling gave me a taste for great food."

Today Tower still travels, but now it is work. "Trips to France or Italy become tastings and trying restaurants," he says, conceding, "I can't complain."

When he's home, Tower, a bachelor, lives in a Victorian house in San Francisco's Bernal Heights neighborhood. His kitchen there is ordinary, and he uses it only to make occasional meals. Mostly he eats at Stars, where he spends his day overseeing every aspect of the operation, from menu planning to mushroom buying.

Like the one word of career advice, "Plastics," in The Graduate, Tower has a prime piece of advice for would-be cooks: "Fresh herbs." Maintains Tower: "If you have fresh herbs, all you need is butter and olive oil, salt and pepper and lemon juice and you can work up miracles." Or at least one whale of an appetite.

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