Jeremiah Tower is, by all accounts, a culinary legend. The chef is perhaps most well known for his pioneering approach to Northern California cuisine while at Alice Waters’ famed Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse and his work both there and at his celebrity-packed restaurant Stars in the ’80s gained him an outsized reputation cloaked in mythos and mystery. Over the years, Tower’s ego, charm and romantic life have all been covered with equal fervor.
Though he may now be mostly retired (and living in Mexico), he’s cemented his position as one of America’s earliest and most prolific celebrity chefs—and he’s got the stories to back it up. Now, at 81 years old, after several successful autobiographies and cookbooks, Tower has launched a Substack titled Out of the Oven. His first entry went live late last month, and, well, it was a banger.
The newsletter tells the story of Chez Panisse’s third-anniversary dinner service, when Tower begins to tire after hours of prepping and cooking. The next thing he knows a “black-leather-coated” man arrives in the kitchen. As Tower writes, “he pulled a plastic bag out of his coat. Then dumped half a pound of white powder on top of the chest freezer at the back of the kitchen.” After a few moments with a rolled-up $20 bill, Tower’s feeling fresh back at the stoves. Such was the chef’s first encounter with “the drug that made all the long hours possible, then impossible, in the kitchen.” His behind-the-scenes account does not, to put it lightly, reflect the serene, go-with-the-flow Chez Panisse that most people are familiar with.
In his newsletter Tower goes on to describe how the drug issues at Chez Panisse began to affect the restaurant and its staff—taking an extreme turn that led to violence and addiction. According to Tower’s recounting, his sous chef became a frequent drug user, eventually stabbing someone and going to prison. His telling of events is at once dark, funny, and completely absorbing. His story nods to the often hidden ecosystem of drugs and addiction that bubbles just under the surface at many of the most famed restaurants. It’s a fascinating read that points to the ways the restaurant industry has changed (and remained the same) in the half-century since that fateful night in the Chez Panisse kitchen.
In an interview with BA, Tower discussed his own drug use, the way it interfered with the restaurant, and how he views the recent mainstream backlash toward toxic restaurant culture.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’re not a newcomer to writing. What drew you to the Substack newsletter format?
Ruth Reichl has this wonderful publication series, and she uses Substack. So I thought if Ruth, with all her experience, had a Substack, so would I. Since I have about a terabyte of [photos, videos, menus, and essays], it’s time to haul it out of the oven.
Your first essay is an incredibly frank look into the darker parts of working in a popular restaurant, including your own drug use. Why did you make the choice to include those details?