The former restaurateur, cookbook author, and PBS host tells his life story, explaining what drove him to achieve what he demurely calls his “national fame as a chef.”
He didn’t have any formal training, but Tower’s hungry amateurism, the kind that spawns great innovations, made him a force in the new American cooking of the late 20th century. Employing a formal, aggressive voice that manages not to be off-putting, he chronicles the upstart chefs’ campaign to blend “the aesthetic chasteness of nouvelle cuisine and the hearty, robust hominess of bistro food.” He writes engagingly of the many fiascoes his various restaurants faced, from lawsuits to kitchen snafus, as well as the near-unanimous raves his food gathered. (Quite a few menus appear that testify to his ingenuity.) Though Tower can be counted among the era’s celebrity chefs, he convincingly expresses ambivalence about the phenomenon, and if he is happy to count the many ways he contributed to the revolution in the American restaurant, he is also quick to give credit to his brothers and sisters in arms. Alice Waters in particular stands out. Tower worked with her at Chez Panisse and has much to say, good and bad, about “her advocacy for farmers’ markets, for sound and sustainable agriculture, for Slow Food, and for the Chez Panisse Foundation,” even if he feels constrained to mention that she “didn't know a little vegetable from a rotten one.” Tower was “Apollinaire to her Breton,” or so he says. And few would deny his mantra: “I would sum it all up as a sensual love for the flavor and texture of beautiful ingredients. And knowing how to marry them.” He performed the rites with brilliance.
The pervasive brashness and the ain’t-I-difficult image-mongering can grate, but when Tower writes of his inspirations and the extraordinary foods and people he worked with, he is unfailingly intriguing and righteously grounded.