American culinary star Jeremiah Tower is coming to Oxford. Donald Sloan tells us why his trip is significant

Whilst his name may not be familiar to many in the UK, Jeremiah Tower holds legendary status in the US food scene. As the acknowledged godfather of modern American cooking he is one of the most influential chefs of the last thirty years.

Born in Newport, Australia, Tower’s first cooking lessons came from an elderly Aborigine called Nick, whose repertoire included wild parrots roasted on spits on the beach, which his young protégé found unpalatable. He preferred his trips to tide pools where he could find oysters, mussels and crabs to fry, or juicy black urchins to eat raw. These early experiences embedded his love for natural, unadulterated flavours – something that would characterise his culinary style later in life.

But it was his unconventional upbringing that would shape other aspects of his distinctive style, not least his champagne-fuelled decadence. As Tower comments in his candid autobiography, California Dish: ‘Deprived at an early age of being an orphan, I was forced to live with my parents: a childhood hardly suitable for children.’ His wealthy father moved the family to the UK, first to a suite at the Hyde Park Hotel, from where the young Jeremiah enjoyed trips to Harrods to marvel at its magnificent Food Hall, as well as to the city’s grandest restaurants.

It was to be in the US that Jeremiah would make his mark. After graduating in architecture from Harvard he took the role of Head Chef of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, which he subsequently co-owned with Alice Waters. There he had the freedom to experiment and develop his culinary talents, initially indulging his passion for regional French cooking of the type extolled by his friend Elizabeth David. It was also at Chez Panisse that he began to promote the use of the highest quality, fresh, local ingredients and of celebrating their natural, authentic flavours. Whilst all leading chefs now adhere to these principles, in 1970’s America this was not the norm. His distinctive approach and the popularity of his dishes garnered intense media attention, establishing him as the United States’ first celebrity chef, long before the term was in common use.

A rocky relationship with Alice Waters and a burning desire for independence led Jeremiah to San Francisco. Having built a reputation for breaking with established practice, it was not surprising that his favoured site for his own restaurant was in one of the city’s less salubrious areas known more for its drug dealers and homeless than for fine dining. But his instinct paid off, and after three years and numerous legal battles, he launched Stars, which became an instant sensation. Despite its opulent interior it had a welcoming informality similar to the Paris brasseries that were Jeremiah’s inspiration – Le Vaudeville and La Coupole. Leading the 1980s fashion for conspicuous consumption, it became a mecca for celebrities, with regulars in including Barbara Streisand, Kirk Douglas, Rex Harrison, Rudolph Nureyev, the Reagans and the Kissingers. Indeed, the prominent Berkeley critic Charles Perry commented: ‘The promise of hobnobbing with the wealthy, famous and powerful is almost as big a drawing card as the menu.’

Given the pace and intensity of Tower’s life and work he eventually had enough, took a conscious decision to withdraw from the public stage and lived in relatively obscurity. Journalists no longer had access to him and the narrative surrounding his influence was lost. But recently this has been addressed. Driven by a ‘sense of rage and historical injustice’ the globetrotting chef Anthony Bourdain was inspired to make The Last Magnificent, a film that tracks Jeremiah’s colourful life and career and which explores his considerable impact. As Bourdain states: ‘The way we eat in restaurants today – the way the restaurant looks, the way we experience it, our expectations for it, the food we eat, all of the menus we read, all of those things – were hugely influenced by Jeremiah. And I didn’t feel like he had gotten his due.’

Jeremiah Tower will appear at Oxford Brookes University at 5.30pm on October 12 for an evening hosted by celebrity chef Ken Hom, to include conversation and a screening of The Last Magnificent. He will also appear at the Blenheim Palace Festival of Literature, Film and Music at 2.30pm on October 16.

* Donald Sloan is Head of Oxford School of Hospitality Management and Chair of Oxford Gastronomica: the Centre for Food, Drink and Culture