Jeremiah Tower Is Following Me

The Twitter alert dropped into my Gmail stream like a boulder: “Jeremiah Tower @jeremiahtower is now following you.” I freaked: The idol of my life as a young cook—the legendary chef of Stars, the 1980s San Francisco restaurant that defined the glamorous American brasserie—wanted to read my tweets. It blew my mind. I checked how many others he was following: 58. I was humbled. I was proud.

Then I was confused. That afternoon I ran into a food editor I know. She dropped Tower's name, and added, “He’s following me on Twitter." “I know, me too,” I said. I hoped she didn't catch the disappointment in my voice.

Over the next few days, I studied my TweetDeck panel and saw Tower amass a mob of new follows (he now has more than 800). In his Twitter picture he looks as poised as ever, if older, wind-whipped, and a little bloated, in a pose as stiff as a Victorian sea captain's. He lives in the Yucatán these days (apparently flipping colonial houses in Mérida, Mexico), though his Twitter profile says his home is Calabria, Italy. Well, he always was mysterious.

Vanity Fair's David Kamp called Tower "a strikingly handsome libertine full of vim, vigor, vintage Krug, ambitious menu ideas, royalist pretensions, and himself." In other words, Tower was a dick. But maybe he had every right to be arrogant. Along with Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck, Tower gave birth to California Cuisine, which taught the nation how to eat locally and in season. He mentored Mark Miller and Mario Batali, inspired Jonathan Waxman, and helped create the modern culture of the celebrity chef. At the height of Tower's fame in the early '90s, Stars had branches in Palo Alto and the Napa Valley in California; Manila; and Singapore. He'd opened a separate concept—the Peak Café—in Hong Kong. Tower was riding high.

And yet, everybody seemed to have a story about the chef: his rages in the kitchen; the sex and drugs. It all came crashing down. He sold off his Stars empire bit by bit, then disappeared somewhere into Southeast Asia.

But Tower was definitely back now, on Twitter, tweeting the way my mom writes Hallmark cards. It was obvious he was reading tweeters' profiles (how did he find us all?), then coming up with something nice to say before thanking them for the follow-back—I mean, who does that?

I say on my profile that I like whiskey. “So,” Tower tweeted at me, “what’s your opinion of non-single malts?”

Shit. The man who famously endorsed Dewar’s back in the glory days of Stars wants to know what I think about whiskey? Honestly, I drink ryes and bourbons, not Scotch, but how could I let Jeremiah Tower know how lame I am not to have an opinion? I considered tweeting back something about that bottle of Johnnie Walker Green in my booze cabinet, but no: too ghetto. I thought, "You’re not using what might be your one and only chance to connect with Jeremiah Tower to talk Johnnie freaking Walker." Then I remembered a Scotch whisky from my college year abroad near Glasgow.

“I kind of like the Famous Grouse Gold Label,” I wrote.

“Ah,” the chef tweeted back, “the favorite many years ago of all my old Russian uncles.” I was pleased with myself for randomly hitting something with such personal resonance for Tower, but I felt guilty for floating such bald-faced bullshit. Damn.

Food writer Andrew Friedman recently published a two-part Q&A with Tower on Toqueland, Friedman’s blog. Why was Tower suddenly diving into Twitter like Liza Minnelli’s entourage attacking a pile of coke at Studio 54? “I just decided to go for it, you know?” Tower told Friedman. “To figure out what Twitter was.” But it overwhelmed him, all the flattering or lying tweets like mine. “Suddenly ... there were several hundred emails there [alerting me to tweets] and I just went, ‘Well, you know, I’m just riding the tiger again.’ So for three days I sat there.”

Tower went to see his doctor. Twitter was making the chef’s blood pressure explode like a bottle of Veuve Clicquot somebody shook before popping. He told his doctor, “I’ve been Twittering. I’ve just answered 500 tweets in 72 hours.”

That's not all. Tower also recently soft-launched a very strange website about his past, with personal ruminations on what he calls the English Regency, Lauren Hutton, and how “everyone” wore miniature swords around their necks in the 1970s for “scooping up drugs.” Thirty years later, Jeremiah Tower still scares me. The only difference is, now he thinks he knows my taste in Scotch.

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John Birdsall is senior editor at CHOW. You can follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW, too, and become a fan on Facebook.