A Word From The Lone Wolf's Loyal Pack

One of Jeremiah Tower's former cooks, pastry chef Emily Luchetti, looks back on the Stars days.

June 26, 2017 ● 7 min read

By Emily Luchetti | Image courtesy of Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, The Orchard

Luchetti cooked at Tower’s landmark Stars restaurant from its first year in 1984 until 1995, first as a savory cook and then as pastry chef. She is now Chief Pastry Officer at Big Night Restaurant Group (Marlowe, The Cavalier, Park Tavern, Leo’s Oyster Bar and Petit Marlowe) in San Francisco.

I went to see the documentary, Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, with anticipation, curiosity and some reservation.    

While the film focused on the circumstances that shaped the man who would eventually create Stars and change the industry as we knew it, lost in the opera of JT’s (as we called him) life and times onscreen was the food itself (which was transformative) and the extraordinary experience of what it was like to work and dine at Stars in its heyday.  

I’d argue that most wildly creative people feel somewhat alienated from the rest of us. True geniuses—everybody from artists and musicians to architects and technological innovators—just don’t think like the rest of us; they operate on a different wavelength and in some ways live in their own worlds.

Jeremiah is Jeremiah. He is unique. All of us who worked for him knew that, and now because of the documentary, the world knows it too. We needed Jeremiah to create the vision; he needed us to make his culinary dreams a reality day in and day out. We each had our role, knew what it was, and worked hard at it. We also knew we were part of something much bigger than ourselves. We put up with Jeremiah’s personality and he put up with ours. At times his leadership was contentious but it was always effective. Together we built a culture-changing restaurant; even back then we could feel that we were making history and we all treasured that opportunity and treated it like gold.

Stars was one of a handful of restaurants of the era that set the tone for the dining rooms we still eat in today: It was a sprawling, multilevel space with an open kitchen, expansive bar, and an energy that bounced around the room like a pinball. As electrifying as the ambiance was, Jeremiah strolling the dining room with his omnipresent flute of Champagne and the piano playing, people wouldn’t have come back time after time if it hadn’t been for the hyper-creative and expertly executed food.

I started on the savory side, opening oysters, making pizzas and grilling hot dogs for the bar menu. At Stars, bar food was not old-school nibbles banged out from a hot plate behind the bar. Instead, we offered classic mignonette with the oysters, individual pizzas with morels or grilled vegetables, bratwurst on San Francisco-made sourdough rolls. All of it was treated with the same care, flair, and precision as the dining room menu.  

Once I graduated bar food and moved to cold salad, Jeremiah stood at the corner of my station for several weeks to keep an eye on me. He did this with all the newbies, and it was also the perfect vantage point to watch the whole kitchen and the dining room. It was his favorite spot, second only to the end of the bar, where he held court. I went to work every day with a huge knot in my stomach, wondering if I could keep up with the made-to-order Caesar salad dressing and perfectly arranged romaine leaves. The cold salad cook also expedited all the tickets for first courses — coordinating with the warm salad station and summoning waiters to pick up the food. Like a drummer in a band, the cold salad cook set the pace for the whole service. Multi-tasking was essential to survival.  

Long after I had pushed through the terrors of the cold salad station and moved into my life as pastry chef, I would get to work around 5:30 in the morning. The only other person in the 8,500 square-foot restaurant at that hour was the purchasing agent. I’d walk across the gold-starred carpet to the bar to make myself a cappuccino, marveling in the emptiness that would be replaced by the nightly party in twelve hours. The room would be so crowded that you couldn’t see those stars on the carpet, or find a sliver of a spot at the bar. Every morning I looked forward to that walk, that moment of solitude, before the day transformed into an organized and orchestrated frenzy.  

During service, we didn’t have to look at the clock to know what time it was. At 5:30 pm, the restaurant filled with people going to the opera or the symphony. At 7:45 pm, the room emptied as they rushed out to make the curtain. By 8 pm, it was full again with people dining or enjoying the bar. And at around 10:30 pm, the swells returned for dessert, while others popped in for a nightcap. It was like watching the ebb and flow of a giant wave every night: in and out, in and out, the rhythm of the city reflected in our professional home.  

It never crossed our minds to make the same food two days in a row, and we wrote new savory and dessert menus every day. After dinner service, Mark Franz, Jeremiah’s chief lieutenant—what we would today call a chef de cuisine—and the dinner crew would sit down with beers and hash out dishes for the next day. (My pastry team and I sorted out our menu during the day as we did production.) Any leftover bits and pieces of food and ingredients went to Stars café. Their menu was the original and the ultimate mystery basket challenge every day. Jeremiah, the God of our little universe, had the final say.  

"JT," Julia Child, and Luchetti | photo courtesy the author 

Jeremiah has one of the best palates (followed by Mark) of anyone I have met in my lifetime in kitchens. He can coax the most flavor out of even the simplest ingredients. Auguste Escoffier’s phrase “Faites Simple” (“Keep It Simple”) was his daily battle cry, and it is imprinted now on the memories of cooks and chefs across the country. (It would make a good epitaph, but I'm sure Jeremiah would like something more colorful.) His personality may have been complicated at times, but his food was straightforward, elegant and arresting—you took note of it before, and while, you ate it.

It was the food that kept the cooks excited and coming back to the heat of the kitchen, the long services (5:30 -11:00 pm all out), and the endless prep to keep up with the volume. On a Saturday night, it wasn’t unusual to prepare 600 dinners and 300 desserts, all while consciously rewriting the rules. We were taking the best techniques and recipes of classic European and American dishes, cooking with the highest quality local and seasonal ingredients, and formulating something new. There was so much creative interchange it was intoxicating; grilled sweetbreads, braised lamb shanks with artichokes, brioche filled with warm lobster and poached garlic cloves drizzled with lobster and chervil beurre blancs.

In pastry, Jeremiah introduced me to traditional sabayon, the most ethereal sauce. More velvety and billowy than pastry cream, as creamy as crème anglaise, it was and still is the perfect sauce to serve with or in a dessert. We created numerous variations: Champagne, Calvados, orange, amaretto, chocolate, espresso even once with Chateau d’Yquem, and after all these years I still can’t and won’t write a pastry menu without a sabayon. Traditional Italian tiramisu morphed into peach and raspberry or passion fruit, coconut, and mango trifles. Dull, dense English steamed puddings became best-sellers with care and new flavors like rum walnut and blueberry molasses.
We were constantly on a quest to create one amazing dish after another, teaching the customers—and ourselves—how unforgettable food could and should taste.

The kitchen staff make-up at Stars was stellar. Many of the line cooks and pastry cooks could have been sous chefs in their own right, some even chefs. It was like having all Olympic athletes on a college team. Even the caliber of the entry-level cooks was above their peers. You had to be fast, and you had to be good. Either/or didn’t cut it. When Jeremiah’s focus shifted to opening Stars in other cities it was this dedicated and talented group of 20 and 30-somethings that kept Stars at the cutting edge.

There were, of course, tense moments when Jeremiah would dress down a cook, and we would all cringe with a sympathy partly mixed with relief that it wasn’t us, but those moments never smothered the bigger picture. Even those who partied, as was common in the restaurant world, showed up to work every day with their A-game, no matter the excesses of the night prior. It wasn’t just that they didn’t want Jeremiah to yell at them if they slacked off; they were loyal to the team. In the midst of all our work, we were always on the lookout for Jeremiah’s burning gaze, so well-known that he didn’t have to utter a word to get his point across.  

Jeremiah was extremely demanding, but he was also exceptionally generous. On out-of-town events he would take cooks to new restaurants, sparing no expense to expose them to new dishes and wines. On his 50th birthday, a group of us went to the Bordeaux region of France to taste Premier Crus. He financially supported many employees with AIDS. He has a fabulously dry sense of humor and a quick wit.
He would spend every Sunday morning handwriting thank you notes and responding to letters he received from customers. One New Year’s Eve, he turned the clock back so we could get all the desserts out before midnight, when all bedlam would break out and the waiters wouldn’t be able to make it across the dining room. Jeremiah may have altered reality occasionally, but it was always for the benefit of the customer.
I’m sorry that young cooks today never got to experience Stars and witness the changing culture of food in this country first hand. Restaurants like Stars are now commonplace; the food revolution that Jeremiah and others created has been fully realized. But being there on the front lines was an indelible, intense experience I’ll never forget. It was the culinary equivalent of being at the command center in Houston when we first put a man on the moon. It was, on its own terms, historic.  

When discussing Jeremiah’s legacy, you can’t leave out the number of cooks, myself included, who came through Stars and built careers on their own after they left. We all owe a great deal of gratitude to Jeremiah. If he put us through the wringer on some days with his extraordinary demands, we all benefited from it in the long run and have great memories and stories as a result.

Roughly fifty percent of the cooks and chefs—like Mark Franz, Loretta Keller, Colleen McGlynn, Bruce Hill, Eric Litzky, Larry Doyle, Natalie Sellers, Mark Gaier and Clark Fraiser, David Robins, Dominque Crenn, Noreen Lam, Steve Ells, Steve and Jules Vranian—went on to open their own restaurants, food businesses, or catering companies.

Am I looking back on this period with rose-colored glasses? Maybe. But if it was possible to go back, to recapture a moment in time, most of us who were there would sign up in an instant. I would be first on the list.