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April 28, 2023

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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?

Well, it was the ’70s, for God’s sake. Even up until the early ’80s I was working 90 hours a week. I would be on the road by 6 a.m. to go to the markets, then I’d cook lunch, then I’d cook dinner. My sous chef was the one who introduced me to cocaine. At around eight o’clock, after you’ve been there for 12 or 14 hours, cocaine’s the thing. And it also was the only drug that didn’t change your taste in food. 

I smoked marijuana once when we were doing a Moroccan dinner, and everything seemed fabulous. Everything tasted great. All the waiters seemed wonderful. I’ll never do that again. 

In your essay it sounds pretty cut-and-dried: You were exhausted, so somebody sent out for a bunch of cocaine. Was that experience your first with drugs in the restaurant? 

Absolutely. That was my first, I mean I’d had grass before but not in the restaurant. It just doesn’t work. Everything seems fabulous when it rarely ever is. 

And what was the experience like? 

Well, it was pretty terrible coke. So, you know, one line, and I felt absolutely fine.

Do you remember any other details of that night at Chez Panisse?

There was a conga line that went all the way upstairs into the café, and I just kept on cooking. I remember the excitement of going into the walk-in and thinking “Hey, nobody knows what should be on the panisses that we’re serving, and I don’t really know, so I’ll just use whatever I want!” It was a great moment. Very free. 

Yeah, cocaine can also sometimes make you feel that sense of freedom… 

I couldn’t be too high because I still had to cook. My sous chef was gone by then; he was in the back doing more coke, so I was left alone in the kitchen for the last 50 or 100 people.

Over the following year you describe the cocaine use at the restaurant as out of hand. What do you mean by that?

Too many people were going to the bathroom when I needed them. Where are my waiters? They were back there. Where’s my sous chef? He’s been gone for 20 minutes. Finally, Alice and I just said “no more.”

Were staff at the restaurant doing cocaine every day?

Yeah, around about eight o’clock, nine o’clock. It enabled us to run the restaurant and got in the way. It helped, at least it seemed at the time, but it also damaged the restaurant. Damaged us

Did Alice know you were publishing this story?

This story? No, I didn’t ask her because she doesn’t respond to my emails anymore. [Editor’s note: Tower and Water had a falling out after he left Chez Panisse.] But it’s nothing that hasn’t been said or known before. Most of the people involved are dead so…

Your newsletter begins pretty lightheartedly. It sounds like a lot of fun. But the drug use takes a turn and ultimately leads to prison, violence, and even death for some of the coworkers you mention. Is there something inherent in the restaurant industry that encourages drug use?

Well. first of all, at Chez Panisse, apart from [my sous chef], nobody else involved got killed or injured or put in jail. It was not nearly as dramatic as you just described. Of course, it was that dramatic outside, in the city of San Francisco and on the streets of Berkeley. Yes, wild parties and lots of cocaine. But not at Chez Panisse, and after [my sous chef] left, I stopped all [drug] use in the restaurant. And at Stars it was not allowed at all—nothing. 

There’s been a backlash in recent years to the idea of glamorizing the drug-fueled kitchen culture that you describe in your essay. Before his death, Anthony Bourdain expressed regret for his role in this kind of culture. What do you think of the ways restaurant culture has shifted since your time at Chez Panisse and Stars?

Well, it’s about bloody time that stuff stuck. It all got away from cooking.  

We’ve read your first newsletter, but do you have plans for these pieces beyond Substack?

No—I mean if someone comes along and says “Oh, these would make a great book,” I wouldn’t say no. But I’m not going to push it. 

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