Updated: Feb 23
Dear Mr. Tower,
You don’t know me, but I cooked your dinner once. Actually, it was your date’s dinner. Grilled salmon topped with a melting slice of jalapeño lime butter. I forgot what you ordered, that was Ralph our sous chef’s job. Mine was to grill the best god damn salmon ever, and I did. I remembered all about it again, but this time it was because of the Netflix documentary about you.
The Last Magnificent released a flood of memories of my life in the heat of the line, of the pressure I reveled in, the sound of my Wusthof singing against the sharpening steel, the satisfying pop of a ticket slapped on the nail, and the stink of my work shoes. The restaurant you dined in was The Deer Park Tavern, in Aptos, around 1985.
Like you, Mr. Tower, fate brought me to the kitchen, but that is where our similarities end, as you were born to be a chef the way a handful of people were born to be great surgeons, composers and dictators. If I had pursued the career, I would have been pretty good at it, but I forged my destiny in another direction completely, which oddly enough has lead me back to kitchens and to food.
The first time clock I ever punched was at the Ship Inn in Exton Pennsylvania, famous for its ribeye and of hosting “wayfarers” all the way back to 1797. I was hired to help the groundkeeper, a Vietnam vet who would stare at the summer drizzle and between puffs of an unfiltered Camel say how it reminded him of “Nam.” I was fourteen years old. They moved me to the floor, busing tables, and then the kitchen, washing dishes. The floor was cool for the dopamine kick from getting a dozen bucks at the end of each night, and for the French waitress, a pouty brunette whose name really was Fifi. She was probably a village girl from Mirepoix, but to me, she was 100 percent Moulin Rouge. Did I mention, I was fourteen years old? The problem with working the floor was having to suck up to everyone and that the head busboy, Troy, a classmate of mine, treated me as if he were my evil stepsister. I didn't know he was gay and had his reasons to be such a bitch, but I had never given him one, except for the night I loosened the tops to all the salt and pepper shakers at his station.
There were no such shenanigans in the kitchen. Here, the floor and everyone on it, including Fifi, were targets of our crude humor. Chef Mike was a redhead with a porn star mustache and worked the sauté station with a rural stoicism. Dave the grill man looked like Bill Cosby but was brutally funny like Richard Pryor. During the slams, he’d warn, “We ain’t got no time for laughs now, you pretty white boys,” and then put his head down and turn and burn. I tried testing him once but the cold-blooded look he shot stopped me before I could spit my second syllable. It was safe to banter only after he’d announce, “damn white boy, you sure are sweet. I never had me a sweet white boy like you before…” Dave lived in a room upstairs. After clocking out on Friday nights, he’d go up and change into pressed blue jeans, a clean chef’s coat and a starched white scarf to meet his date at the bar.
The next year I got a job at an ice cream parlor. Chris, the sandwich maker, was dating the manager, the most beautiful girl I had ever stuttered a word to since Fifi. If I were a sandwich maker, I reasoned, I too would have a beautiful girlfriend. There was power in the sandwich, but I was elbow deep in tubs of ice cream while customers watched, licking their lips. The gig ended when I filled a paper cup with vanilla ice cream and milk and placed it in the milkshake maker incorrectly. The blade ripped through the cup and sprayed the five people leaning up against the counter.
I wasn’t from Pennsylvania, so when my stepdad died I returned to California with my mom and finished high school where I had started it, in Los Gatos. I moved near Sonora for higher education and found a kitchen to wash dishes in. Junior college got me a certificate but I needed a job, so I moved up to June Lake to be a ski bum. I picked up a night job at a hotel trading shifts at the sink with a guitarist whose dad invented the microwave oven. Scott, the head cook, was fat and greasy and lived in a windowless room downstairs with nothing but a bong for furniture. He had two pit bulls that devoured the interior of his 69 Impala, where they lived. Scott taught me how to flip an omelet.
I might have stayed in June lake living alone in a trailer if I had landed the summer job cooking on a pack train taking tourists up the Sierras. Instead, I packed my Bug and moved to Aptos where I thought I'd have better luck with the girls. I got a job in Los Gatos and put my egg flipping skills to work at the Broken Egg omelet house. The restaurant was busier than it deserved. The owner Wayne had a head like a big toe divided in half by a wispy brown mustache. He was wound as tight as the rubber band on a balsa wood airplane right before it snaps and loved to show off how fast he could chop stuff with his knife while his eyes spun like dynamos.
I could flip an omelet alright at home, but during a rush with four pans going at once, I was mister meltdown. Heaven forbid Wayne was ever around during the rush. It was an open kitchen, so when he went off, and he always went off, everyone one could hear and see who his anger was directed at. It was always me.
“Get out of the way! You’re behind, you idiot!” he’d shout, and shove me away with his elbow in my ribs. He’d man the stove, four pans going and two at the ready and the whole time he’d stare me down with scalding eyes while his hands worked independently, flipping four omelets with a spatula, pouring a bucket of cracked eggs into the blender and pushing the button. The fool believed blending eggs made omelets fluffier and did not see it as three unnecessary steps and a double bitch to clean up later. I commuted 40 miles every day for four bucks an hour to get abused by a guy who kept his mother’s corpse in a rocking chair on the second floor.
My uncle opened a barbecue joint on Mission St. in Santa Cruz where I would make my next 4 bucks an hour much closer to home. He was a merchant marine. I thirsted for adventure and had asked him to get me a job on a boat. Instead, he showed me how to skewer chickens on a rotisserie and bake ribs in a convection oven. He was usually storming ports around the world, so my aunt and cousin ran the place. “This is our secret recipe,” aunt Virginia revealed, showing me how to add a cup of dehydrated onions to a five gallon jug of Heinz barbecue sauce. “Don’t tell anyone.”
The first real kitchen I wielded a knife in was The Shadowbrook. Surf and turf standard stuff, we’d do hundreds of dinners on a weekend night. Chef Mike was calm and cool and ran a tight ship. I earned my stripes cleaning scores of chickens a day, peeling and deveining pounds of shrimp, chopping boxes of scallions, clusters of parsley and whipping up quarts of Hollandaise from scratch - all skills I use to this day, except for Hollandaise. Screw that sauce.
The line cooks were cool, not that they ever lined me up, but they also did not inspire me to be one of them. The thought of climbing the ladder never entered my mind. I simply needed a job and prepping was better than washing dishes and cheaper than going to university.
Rent was $300 a month, so I got a second job on the Capitola Esplanade, a nightly parade of snivel nosed gum-gnawing adults in Hawaiian shirts, OP shorts and flip-flops. The friggin 1980s. I was assistant breakfast cook, popping toast, setting plates and opening the number 10 cans labeled “Purple Jam.” The kitchen was the size of a Port-a-John and just as pleasant. Greg, the head egg man, had migrated from Chicago with his mullet and knew all the words to all the top 40 songs he played on the radio. I was never allowed to touch the dial. That was the year of Wake Me Up Before You Go Girl and the theme to Ghost Busters. The songs smell like eggs to this day. But our Hangover Special was pretty good: a scramble with green onions, salsa and cheddar, garnished with three tortilla chips. And sometimes the dinner cook Cowboy would leave enough coke residue on a plate next to the spices for a little bump in the morning.
I became a cook under Chef Ron Gallaher at The Deer Park Tavern. His was a stable, coke-free kitchen, even if Ron’s history was far from teetotaling. I was still at Shadowbrook when I got hired as salad boy. From there I moved up the stations to the brunch line and then trained at the grill, where I excelled. Six bucks an hour meant I could quit my other job. This was about the time you opened Stars.
The Deer Park’s owners were great guys but afraid of veering from the prime rib comfort zone. We grilled local fish and free range meats from a Corralitos butcher, whipped up pasta primavera, chicken madeira, veal piccata and all the dishes the market demanded, including the abhorrent calamari steak, but not the kind of cuisine Ron desired. I worked a couple years in that kitchen, surprised I had held a job that long. Ron saw potential in me but underestimated my desire to become a famous harmonica player.
“Look bro, you’re 22 years old and trying to figure out what to do with your life. Why not move to the city, go to CIA and at the very least have fun. You’ll love it up there.”
He was right, but I didn’t know it. I would have loved San Francisco and in 1985 I would have even been able to survive on a line cook’s salary there, but I didn’t love food enough to study it. It didn’t help that every chef I knew was a coke snorting alcoholic or recovering addict like Ron. If I was going to abuse substances, it was going to be under stage lights blowing harp, not fluorescent lights 60 hours a week.
When Chef Ron came in and told us you were coming to suss him out for a gig, everything in the kitchen stopped to a halt. Celebrity chefs were still years away, but we knew you, Mr. Tower. Even our Filipino dishwashers knew who you were. Ron asked us to keep your visit a secret from everyone, including the owners, but his menu gave everything away. “Why is the daily special’s board suddenly full of Ron’s greatest hits?” everyone asked. We got down, man, like The Big Night, and prepared the best food the Monterey Bay had ever seen, even though it meant our success would leave us without our beloved chef.
Every time I have grilled fish in the decades since that night, I remember the jittery chill of sliding my very lightly oiled spatula under the fish, then gently and firmly turning it for exemplary 120 degree cross hatches, and then the flutter in my gut as I flipped it over wondering if any flesh would stick to the grill. No fish has ever received such attention, anywhere.
Frank, your waiter, was a tall and teddy-bearish man of 40 with curly brown hair and a neat beard Ron had tasked with being your waiter. I sent that salmon out knowing it would melt in your companion’s mouth and make him wet his pants and that Ron was going to work for the best chef in the country. I stood there reading the next ticket, chest out, spinning my tongs around my finger when Frank returned with my salmon and a sly grin dripping in irony. “It’s under-done,” he said.
For the next week I ranted about the fancy fucking cook who didn’t know how to fucking eat salmon. Then Ron told us he didn’t get the job and I cursed your cook again. “Don’t worry bro, it wasn’t your salmon. It just wasn’t meant to be,” he said.
And the years went by.
Much to Ron’s disappointment I left and got a gig at a Mexican restaurant so I could play music at night. “Way to go bro, burrito bender,” he mocked. But a few months later I was back with Ron and Ralph at a place called Severino’s, doing pretty much the same stuff we did at the Deer Park. Then Ron moved to Hawaii and opened up his own restaurant, La Bourgogne, doing French provincial on the big island to great reviews.
I moved to Chicago to pursue my dream, but I needed a day job. I went to the Hyatt and was interviewed by the chef of the biggest kitchen I had ever seen. Two kitchens, in fact, like underground parking garages. The Frenchman fit every imaginable stereotype of a Frenchie in a toque. He sent me with a wag of his upturned nose to the butchers who escorted me through apartment-sized walk-ins to test me on cuts and weights. These guys were pale shells of men, somewhere between 25 and 50 with defeated shoulders and eyes as yellow as the first two fingers on their right hands. “You can earn a lot of overtime,” they assured during a cigarette break. I never returned.
Cooking dinners was out of the question, since I was making the rounds at all the blues bars at night. I got a breakfast gig at a state-of-the-art hotel on the Gold Coast and was the only person who did not come straight from the CIA. Those graduates spent all that money on a culinary education and useless potato peelers, fruit ballers and monkey wrenches in their red tool boxes, but were lost on the line. They never learned to work. Even the chef was clueless, and not because of his banana garlic sauce. My assistant's job was to keep him off the line so that he wouldn’t see that I had pre-cooked the “home fry” spuds I was required to prepare to order, as if the customers had all morning to wait for their three-minute eggs garnished with caviar.
When my roommate’s trust fund kicked in, he decided to open a jazz dinner club even though he knew little of either. He had, though, tended bar at a north shore country club and recruited their chef and sous chef to run his kitchen. Chef John played accordion, did not approve of swearing and smeared honey-mustard goop from a plastic bucket onto a grilled chicken and considered it genius. I worked there for about two months before my checks started to bounce. The display bottles of booze behind the bar had been filled with tea a month earlier.
The last time I wore fighting checkers was at the sparkly new Bella Luna, where I was the lunchtime grill man for Chef Rick Tramonto. I liked Rick and he liked musicians. Our salad boy was a drummer. Rick changed the color of his mullet every week and once confessed that his dream was to be a rock and roll roadie. That was around 1989. It was a damn good kitchen with damn good food but I thought I could do better for myself painting houses.
I left my Wusthofs with my ex-wife, moved to Poland in 1996, and have been in Europe ever since, working as a journalist. My knife callous vanished long ago. With the exception of a missing tip of forefinger, there is little evidence of my former life except those moments I’m cooking dinner at home and get hit with a PTSD tantrum. “Hot stuff! Outta my way! Look out, look out, goddamnit!” I glare at my wife who is nowhere near me by this time and see the reflection of Wayne in her eyes.
I haven't been down rubber mat memory lane since I read Kitchen Confidential 30 years ago. Never order fish on a Monday! I rarely watch food TV but I’m not surprised to see how food travel has become an industry, as eating has always been the impetus behind my journeys. I am, however, flabbergasted to see how cooking has become a spectator sport.
Food found me again about 7 years ago when a global food tour company, Culinary Backstreets, asked me to be their local bureau chief here in Tbilisi. My job was to dive into the local food and wine scene and write about it - the best beat I ever had. Then the Parts Unknown crew asked me to lunch with Tony Bourdain for their Georgia episode. He caught me up on Rick Tramanto (I can't believe he went Christian). We ate nigvziani badrijani, a roasted slice of eggplant stuffed with a spiced puree of walnut and garlic, topped with pomegranate, shkmeruli, a salacious creamy garlic chicken, and mtsvadi, roasted chunks of pork topped with fresh white onion slices and pomegranate. We should have washed this down with wine, especially for the cameras, but we were both hungover and had beer instead.
Gastronomically, Georgia is one of the most exciting places in the world right now. Local chefs and winemakers are shaking off the dust of a Soviet legacy, redefining tradition and giving glorious peasant dishes a sophisticated makeover. It is not unlike 1970s California and the cuisine you helped revolutionize by utilizing fresh local and seasonal ingredients.
I run my own food tourism company now, called Meet Me Here Tbilisi. I would like to think you in some way are responsible for this. Like, if my salmon had been over cooked the way your sous chef liked his fish, Ron would have gone to Stripes and I would have been bumped up to sous chef with a better salary. Instead that fish came back, I turned my back to the line and now live half-way around the world from it. Sometimes I fantasize about opening up a little joint of my own. I really love to cook, but I’ll be god damned if every time I put a fish on a grill I don’t think of Jeremiah Tower and his fucking companion who didn’t know how to eat salmon.
Mr. Tower, thank you for the memories and for changing the way we appreciate food. If you are ever in the neighborhood, I hope you would look me up. I know some fabulous sparkling wine makers I’m sure you will love and a couple restaurants that will blow your mind.
P.S. I emailed Ron and told him how The Last Magnificent sparked the memory of my perfect salmon and he corrected me. It wasn’t you who came to The Deer Park, but Bradley Ogden. It was his sous chef who didn’t know how to eat fish. My apologies, I have been telling people I cooked for you and your sous chef for years. Seems a pity to change the story now.