Jeremiah Tower is a restaurant legend, one of the originators of California Cuisine and among the first in a line of what we now call “celebrity chefs.” His fascination with cuisine began as a child, as documented in “The Last Magnificent” (2016), and continued into adulthood in kitchens at Chez Panisse in the 1970s, followed by landmark restaurants Stars and Tavern on the Green. Tower now resides in Mérida with his husband Curtis Cox. Yucatán Magazine’s Lee Steele sat down with Tower for a talk.
First, I want to know about your attraction to Mérida or, even before that, your attraction to life outside of the States.
Well, I mean, I was living in New York, and it was the 9/11 attack, and I was living fairly close to the site. And so I thought I’d just move to New Orleans. So I did it right away. When I was in New Orleans, I thought, before I unpack and get settled, I’ll just go to Cozumel and learn how to dive with sharks because that was the only thing that made me nervous at the time, after earthquakes and terror. So I was in Cozumel, and Katrina occurred. So I was homeless, possessionless, everything gone. And I thought, well, if you’re going to be homeless, we’ll be on a tropical island, so I stayed. And then Wilma hit Cozumel. And I went to Mérida and found it completely magical. There was something very woo-woo about Mérida. I thought, no, that’s ridiculous. But I kept thinking about it. So I came back here, and I felt that magic again. So I moved to Mérida.
So your exit from the States has nothing to do with politics or culture. It was really more about …
Well, it is now. I was walking around Sixth Avenue in New York just before 9/11. And I just looked at all the millions of people and skyscrapers and everything. And I thought, What is this about? I don’t want it. Everyone says New York is so fabulous. Well, of course, it is in many ways. But I thought, is it worth the effort it takes to live here?
Yeah, I think I remember at the time, New Orleans was a favorite place to sort of go and escape, you know, but then Katrina.
It’s recovered nicely. Not quite the same, not quite as louche. If that’s the right word.
How did you hear about Mérida?
I was in Cozumel. And this is before Wilma. And some friends had a restaurant there. And she’d said, you know, do you know about recado negro? And I said, no, no. And so she took me into the jungle with three Mayan women. And they showed me. They had roasted chilies until they were black, which was incredibly astounding and astonishing. And then, the next day, they showed me how to make the recado paste. And then they cooked the relleno negro, which was my benchmark for that. I mean, it was the most relleno negro you get in Mérida because, you know, it’s okay. Not great. So then I tasted that, and I thought, this is world-class.
I mean, was that a pretty good introduction to Maya cuisine?
Absolutely. And then the same women showed me papadzules, prepared the proper way … and then I tasted cochinita tacos, and I went, “Okay, I’m done.”
One thing you haven’t done here is open your own restaurant.
Ah. I had 35 years of 80-90-hour weeks and a lot of success and everything, but now I’m only interested in a beach bar or something like that.
Do you think you may?
I might, yeah.
How do you feed yourself? Do you go to restaurants here or …
We cook and go to restaurants. I still go to the same places. I had that first cochinita at the main market right inside the entrance.
Near the main entrance. Do you know what the name is? Well, now we’re going to ruin it by …
Yeah. That’s where I go mostly. And Roberto Solís [another well-known chef in Mérida] was there the other day. There’s another stamp of approval.
So those are your favorite places to eat. As opposed to …
I know some others. But if I say my favorite, I have to leave town. But Calle 47, let me say, is a very interesting street. And Santa Lucia. Good food there.
When you cook here, and this is an obvious question, and I’m embarrassed to ask, but what do you cook for yourself?
Simple vegetables from the market, even though they’re mostly pretty boring. The thing about the main market and Santiago. It’s the same stuff all the time… What is fabulous here in the Yucatán is citrus. Kinds of citrus I’ve never even seen before. The fish, of course. Octopus. I love to go down to the main market and get octopus, bring it back, and cook it. Paprika with recado negro. So what do we eat? Simple food. I haven’t tried the pork yet.
So you really become a fan of the local cuisine. Which is funny because you know, the guidebooks kind of tell you there are no good restaurants, and the best meals are at home. Is that still true?
No. That changed in the last five or six years. I mean, that was true. But now, no longer, because the whole population’s changed.
Do you remember your first meal out?
I remember was a very big deal when La Tratto opened in Santa Lucia. Huge deal. Because I looked at that square when it was boarded up. And I thought, boy if I ever get my hands on that. And I tried and tried and tried, but because it belonged to the city government, you could never get an answer.
When was the last time you were in the States?
It was a few months ago. I go back occasionally. But I mean, it’s much more civilized here.
Note: Jeremiah Tower now has a weekly Substack that contains his personal archives of writings, photos, videos, and menus. Subscribe here.