Ahead of our Nov 16-20, 2024 League of Travelers trip to Mérida and environs, R&K’s Nathan Thornburgh caught up with Jeremiah Tower—Mérida resident, chef, author, diver and now Substacker—for a chat.

Chef Jeremiah Tower seems the quintessence of old-world, mannerly cuisine and letters. So what on earth is he doing on the trop nouvelle web platform Substack? Well, it seems he’s having an uncomplicated good time putting memories to paper from his home in Mérida. The joy, the caviar, the mezcal old fashioned recipes, the hauteur: it’s all in there and deeply readable.

Part of the appeal is that Tower’s style of writing—heavy on the first-person and foodporn, also not afraid to dish—seems well suited to what you might call the Internet Era. But the real reason to subscribe to Jeremiah Tower: Out of the Oven is the same reason that people have thronged to his restaurants and events for decades. It’s why Anthony Bourdain helped produce The Last Magnificent about Tower in 2016. It’s because no matter the era or format, Tower is gifted at creating a mood.

Too many examples to cite them all, but in what could be a simple enough ode to Gin & Tonic, suddenly Tower is describing:

a good mid-summer late afternoon in Capri 400 feet above the darkening sea. We would walk down towards Punta Tragara though an arbor passage hanging with grapes and jasmine, enter a tiny courtyard of flowering orange trees humming with bees, and sit at a table cooled from the Mediterranean breezes sweeping up the cliff.

Or a classically Jeremiahian twist in The Travel Bug, making posh ingredients also feel… carnal?

The kilo tin made the proper little discrete “whoosh” when its natural vacuum was broken, and the sight of old-gold colored eggs nested against each other made me blush, as I always do in front of sturgeon eggs when someone else is paying.

It’s his writing at its best: All foie, no filler.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

From Jeremiah Tower: Out of the Oven

Roads & Kingdoms: So you live in Mérida. A logical first question: what are you eating today?

Jeremiah Tower: We’re about to have barbecued lamb, from a local place called the Corral del Carnero. The best thing there is the braised lamb and lamb consomé. I always ask for it especially con grasa. Otherwise, when they see a gringo, they just make it as dry as possible.

R&K: So you asked it for the proper way, swimming in an oily broth of its own cartilage.

Tower: Exactly. And I got some habaneros at the market this morning and some key limes. Cut up the habaneros, thread them into the lime juice, add some salt, and put that over the lamb as well.

Totoaba ceviche with burnt habanero and pineapple from Cocina Ramiro in Mérida. Photo by Evan Sung

R&K: The last time we spoke for an interview was five years ago, which is ridiculous but there it is. What is the update from Mérida? How is the city going for you?

Tower: Well, there’s an explosion of new restaurants, some of them reasonably decent. Lots of things going on. So it’s a perfect time for you to come and do something here, especially on your location [at Casa Lecanda], on that street that’s being turned into a “gastronomic mile” or whatever they’re calling it. You might even be in time to take the first Maya Train [laughs].

R&K: Mérida wasn’t exactly unknown when you moved there, but it wasn’t an obvious destination for you.

Tower: It was pretty unknown to the United States press at least. The first article appeared like seven, eight, or nine years ago, with the Times saying, “what in the world is Jeremiah Tower doing in Mérida?” And after that, lots of articles were written and suddenly it became the Destination of the Year, which is pretty amazing, given the rest of the world. Perhaps I’m part guilty.

R&K: Is there a point at which Mérida will be too hyped up? Do you worry about that?

Tower: Well, the traffic has at least doubled in the last five years. It’s recovered completely from the pandemic and traffic is unbelievable. Maybe that myth is true, that all the drug lords sent their families here because it was the safest place to be. I never believed that story until I saw little BMWs running around the poor parts of town. I haven’t seen an old jalopy in two years. It’s become a rich city. Again.

R&K: Again. Right. Back in the henequen days, it was one of the richest cities in the…

Tower: …in the world. For its five minutes of fame it was THE richest, like Manaus in Brazil for rubber. So it’s rich again, but I’m not sure why.

The great ones in hospitality would always say yes, and then think, now what the fuck am I gonna do?

R&K: You have a new writing project. How did you find your way to Substack?

Tower: Ruth Reichl was my inspiration. She chose it, and she’s a lot smarter than I am, so I figured it had to be the right choice.

R&K: What are people able to find on your Substack now? Tell me about the project.

Tower: I realized that I have about terabyte of photographs and menus and stories, not to mention the recollections that I’ve never told anybody about in my career and the world of travel and food starting way back in Sydney in 1947. Dining in the best places in the world, and what it was like traveling then, what it’s like now. So I just got inspired to… yak about that a lot [laughs]

R&K: It’s off to a strong start. I read a big article about it in the SFist. Which, actually, my father forwarded to me. My family is from San Francisco, and your name rings out there very loudly. It was good to see SF media catch onto your Substack, because some of these also strike me as stories about San Francisco’s past, little untold gems from the groundwork for what San Francisco dining is now.

Tower: Poor old San Francisco, it’s just in a terrible state right now. I don’t know when last you were last there, but it needs a little boost.

R&K: You know, last year we had a Japanese whiskey event with Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski, Michelin star people from Statebird and Anchovy Bar. It was all of the best of San Francisco. And while we were there, kind of toasting each other with our Japanese whiskey and our tremendous passed plates, somebody was walking down Fillmore with a bat and just bashing in all the windows of the cars, including my own very empty rental car.

Tower: God.

R&K: So I limped back to San Francisco airport without a rear window and thought that I had just had the quintessential 2022 San Francisco experience right there… But. San Francisco has yet to be fully defeated. I’m bullish.

Tower: Me too. But, you know, needs a little help from all of us.

From Jeremiah Tower’s Out of the Oven

R&K: You’ve written a bunch of books and just came out with a newly revised edition last year. Why do this as a Substack instead of organizing your notes and dropping a memoir or another book project?

Tower: When was the last time you dealt with American publishers? I’ve been through publishers and agents. But I don’t have a TV show, so it’s very difficult to get the media attention that they want. I don’t need that kind of attention to do this. To repeat, I saw Ruth was doing it, so it had to be a decent operation. And with this, you can publish and have fun writing without worrying about your agent… No, no, no. This one you just come down every morning, have a coffee and get to work.

R&K: So you’re a morning writer.

Tower: Yes. When I wrote California Dish, that was my first routine: start at eight o’clock in the morning, write until two or three, go take a shower, have a hit of vodka, and walk down to Balthazar and have lunch.

R&K: Writing followed by a shower, a shot and a seafood tower.

Tower: Absolutely. But you’re writing too with this travel project. Even just the trip to Puglia, the material, the photos, the experiences of the guests. That’s a great chapter or two in a book, honestly. You’re making books as you travel.

R&K: Reminds me of your missive about travel, that seamlessly wove travel and self and food together. The idea that we’re all just sort of a single person, and these are all just different expressions of who we are. So when you cook, you’re traveling. When you’re traveling, it’s an act of cooking. Even back when we talked in 2017, you said you were living in a state of travel by being in Mérida…

Tower: Yes

R&K: What is something that has surprised you as you’ve gone through this catalog of memories and people?

Tower: Well, the thing that occurs to me every day is, what am I doing in Mérida, when I could be in Puglia. What am I doing here when I should be staying with somebody with a fabulous cellar in London and drinking 1963 vintage port?

When was the last time you dealt with American publishers?

R&K: Let me ask you: when you do travel and meet young chefs coming up today, do you envy these chefs? Do you pity them? Somewhere in between?

Tower: Well, I mean, as long as they realize their future is partially written in the past, I think the opportunity now is amazing. The pandemic turned out to be more than three months. And everyone asked, what are we gonna do? I said, just remember that after the Black Death was the Renaissance. So as long as you’re not broke, long as you’re not homeless, I mean, as long as you still survive, this is the greatest opportunity you’ll ever have… So, you know, get a good bottle of wine in front of you and think about it, and you’ll come out brilliantly at the end.

R&K: You say that the future of hospitality is partly written in the past. What can today’s restaurants learn from the past?

Tower: I mean, look back at some of the great hospitality figures, like Harry Cipriani, the grand old man. My experience with him was that he just pulled miracles out of the air. You look at the great ones, you realize that they would always say yes, and then think, now what the fuck am I gonna do?

R&K: What’s an example of a miracle from Cipriani?

So we were doing Meals on Wheels and ran very late. We’d always change and then go up to three or three or two or three latest wonderful restaurants. But this night we had no time. So we were still basically in chef jackets and jackets over chef’s jackets. I said to my chefs, line up behind me, don’t look, don’t let the maître d’ see you. The maître looked at us, he smelled us, smelled the fish guts and the smoke from the grills. And he said, I’m sorry, we’re full. And I saw Harry looking over. Harry suddenly came out and said, oh Jeremiah, right this way. There’s an empty table. The best table in the house.

He didn’t say a word to his staff, and then he brought my food himself to me. The beauty of that incredible reprimand, while making us feel the most important people in the world. All his famous customers were looking at us, God, who ARE those people?

Header image by Evan Sung. You can sign up for weekly dispatches from Jeremiah Tower’s Out of the Oven on Substack. And you can find more information on our Mérida and the Yucatán journey (Nov 16-20, 2024) here.