You may know legendary chef Jeremiah Tower as the culinary force behind Stars, one of San Francisco’s most notable restaurants of the 1980s and ‘90s, or maybe from his even earlier days at Berkeley’s fabled Chez Panisse, where he’s been credited with creating the movement behind seasonal, New American cuisine.
Or perhaps you know him as the subject of the late Anthony Bourdain’s buzzed-about 2016 documentary The Last Magnificent. But what you may not know is that Tower is both a serious fan of the Coachella Valley and became one of desert resident and chef Jason Niederkorn’s first and most significant mentors when the two worked together at Stars. It was there where Tower and Niederkorn, now executive chef at Sands Hotel & Spa’s restaurant The Pink Cabana in Indian Wells, formed a friendship around food that’s lasted more than two decades.
Tower’s love of the desert combined with his rapport with Niederkorn led him to partner with the hotel in 2018 for Cabana Under the Stars 2.0, a six-course culinary experience that was such a success, the guys are back again this year. The Sept. 13 event is set to be an even grander evening this time around with a pre-dinner caviar-and-champagne reception and live poolside entertainment after the meal … along with a few surprises.
Tower shares why he’s making the trip from his home in Mexico to cook in the valley again, a sneak peek of what’s in store, and how he’s “upping the ante” this time around.
You still enjoy collaborating with chef Jason after all these years. What was it about him that left such an impression on you?
I loved the fact that he could cook and he had the right attitude. He really liked to get in there and get the job done. I always am attracted to people in a restaurant who cook in the kitchen if they have the right attitude. And you can teach people techniques and how to cook, but you can’t teach them attitude and he had a great attitude and work ethic.
It’s a big endeavor to travel from Mexico to the Coachella Valley to pull off an intricate dinner like this. Why did you want to do it?
Well, you know, I still am in love with California, Southern California. For me … if I lived in the United States, I would live in Palm Springs. So I love it there. I get to go back and have some fun.
“The dinner was wonderful last year, but we can sort of up the ante a little bit, because we know how we work together and I know how this kitchen is and what they can do.”
— Jeremiah Tower
How often do you make it up here?
You know, I’ve been fairly busy scuba diving in the Yucatan so I haven’t been up to the States very much, but I’ve been trying to float the idea of opening a restaurant in Palm Springs for the last five years. So when Jason said come up, [I said] yeah. I just love it there.
Do you think you could make that happen?
Well, you never know. I’ll be sniffing around while I’m up there for sure.
What’s an ingredient you’re especially excited about featuring at the dinner?
I’m sort of in love with Baja Sur, the south part of Baja and I’ve tasted some amazing fish here so I thought I would try and get some seabass from Ensenada. I mean, that’s sort of local to California. [Laughs.] It’s the kind of food that I’m doing for a new project down here [where Tower is helping some friends open a restaurant] and it’s the kind of food I thought people would love in Palm Springs.
And there’s going to be a caviar and champagne reception, so you’re going for some luxe elements?
How can I say no to a caviar bar? Jason knew I would ask for caviar anyway, so he just upped the ante. And two kinds of caviar: black caviar, and this new product that I’ve just recently found, which is Ora King salmon caviar … from New Zealand, which is amazing stuff.
You’ll be focusing on lots of seasonal ingredients. Does that line up with your overall cooking style?
Oh, yes. That was always my approach. That was the revolution that happened, you know, when I started out at Chez Panisse. We changed the menu every day at Chez Panisse and at Stars. We’d get the list, in those days faxed to us at night, from all the suppliers and we’d do the menu then and order and then cook it the next day. [For Cabana Under the Stars], Jason sent me the list of all the things that were highlighted during September [in California] so that’s pretty much how we did it.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY SANDS HOTEL
The Pink Cabana inside the Sands Hotel and Spa in Indian Wells.
So have you two been coordinating over email?
Oh absolutely, backwards and forwards. You know, you give me 10 suggestions for dishes and I’ll give you 10 and then we whittle it down.
What stood out to you about the crowd last year?
I mean I was astonished. There was somebody who flew in from Texas, a guy who came by himself just to eat there. A woman came from Oregon. [Someone said,] “I came from Georgia for your dinner.” I was amazed. I was impressed. I loved that.
What’s something you’ll be doing differently this year?
Because it went so well last year, in working with Jason again I knew I could make the dishes a little bit more difficult to make it perfect. So, that’s a change. The dinner was wonderful last year, but we can sort of up the ante a little bit, because we know how we work together and I know how this kitchen is and what they can do.
Can you share one of those more “difficult” dishes?
One of the dishes I’m doing is French-style scrambled eggs with smoked eel and black truffles and black truffle sauce. Those eggs are done in a bain-marie [a hot-water bath] and it takes 20 minutes to make them creamy and wonderful and to do that for 120 people is a challenge. [But if I’ve got two people on either side of me, we can do it. And the result is astonishing.
What are you looking forward to most about the experience this time around?
Well, seeing the wonderful ingredients that, you know, you can get … in California. I mean, California and cooking with Jason and being there. I love that hotel. I love Palm Springs and just, you know, everything about it. I’m looking forward to this. I’m excited.
Tickets for the Sept. 13 Cabana Under the Stars are $275+ per person, including spirit and wine pairings, caviar reception, and live entertainment. For reservations, visit sandshotelandspa.com or call 760-321-3772.