Courtesy of CNN Films

“It’s way too much work, and then the people who did all the work have been around food for so long they don’t want to eat."

Rachel Sugar
November 14, 2017

The problem with Thanksgiving, if you ask Jeremiah Tower, is that it’s just too formal, the way Americans do it, what with the centerpieces and the gravy boats and the ceremonial carving of the turkey.

This is not necessarily what you might expect from Jeremiah Tower, the legendarily exacting chef who spent his childhood dining on aspic on the Queen Mary, and later, after Harvard, went on to become the father of California cuisine, first as a chef at Chez Panisse, and later at his own scene-y San Francisco restaurant, Stars. In a memorable scene in the Anthony Bourdain-produced documentary The Last Magnificent—Tower is the magnificent in question—the chef gives one of his bartenders a stern talking-to about the sorry state of his limes. Jeremiah Tower is a man with no tolerance for bad limes. But quality, about which he is meticulous, is not the same as formality, about which he is not.

It’s not that Tower is calling for a Thanksgiving revolution, exactly. “I think the occasion is wonderful,” he explains on the phone from his home in Mérida, Mexico—let’s go on the record, Jeremiah Tower is 100% in favor of Thanksgiving—it’s just that, in his estimation, the tradition needs some tweaking.

“It’s way too much work, and then the people who did all the work have been around food for so long they don’t want to eat. And the ones who haven’t eat way too much and then lie around the living room groaning,” he laughs. “I mean, what kind of party is that?”

Make the dinner longer, yet more casual. Plan for walking breaks. 

Tower, a master of parties, advocates for what he calls a “deconstructed” Thanksgiving, a boozy, all-day affair, both more casually sophisticated and less stressful. It’s not the content of the meal he objects to, but the serving of it. “The most successful Thanksgiving I’ve ever been to is the one I did in Berkeley,” he recalls. “I planned the menu and got it all prepared and did everything, but [for] the final touches—heating it up and serving it—we all took turns.” Between courses, people got up and “walked around for 15 minutes, or went for a swim or something, so it took all day.” And though it is not 1976, and mid-meal swims are not practical for most people in most places, the spirit still stands.

Delegate courses (and non-cooking tasks) to guests. 

Think of it like a tasting menu, Tower suggests. (Personally, he is tired of tasting menus, but “a little of that aesthetic is a good idea.”) Break up the meal into courses, and then, in advance, delegate the courses to guests. Not, to be clear, the actual cooking of them—“I hate that sort of potluck,” Tower says, “because you never know what the quality is going to be”—but rather the heating and serving, two guests per team. “I would plate the first course and pass that around, and then say, you go heat up the creamed onions, put them in the oven, take them out in ten minutes, I'm the host, I'm sitting having my glass of wine.” This gives guests concrete and useful ways to participate—like working dogs, guests love tasks, but rarely manage to invent them on their own—and also allows the hosts the unique opportunity to actually sit down.

Switch up locations. Eat in different rooms. 

He is likewise big on changing locations, turning the house into a progressive sort of dining room, which does not require an actual palace so much as an open mind. Have the desserts on display the living room (“so you don’t have to think about them”), and set up a bar where guests can help themselves, or not help themselves, to beer and wine and cocktails. He might plate a first course—smoked salmon, perhaps—to be followed by his childhood favorite, creamed onions and jumbo lump crab meat gratin. The main protein and accoutrements—Tower is not against turkey, though he himself would prefer goose—go onto a central buffet in the kitchen straight out of the oven, along with a thermos of gravy (gravy, he complains, is always cold), and a big tray of root vegetables roasted ahead and served at room temperature. Eat where ever eating happens: the dining room, if you have one; the kitchen; in the living room with plates on laps. 

For Tower, deconstructing the meal has made all the difference. “I finally started to enjoy Thanksgiving,” he says, listing the highlights. “It’s a day when nobody works, and you've got your best friends around you, the meal is in the middle of the day so you can drink quite a lot and still be alive the next day.”

Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent is now available via CNN on demand through cable and satellite systems and the CNNgo app. It will also encore Saturday, Nov. 18 at 9:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m. Eastern.