Earlier this week, Tavern on the Green owners Jim Caiola and David Salama announced that they’d finally replaced Katy Sparks, the opening chef who was driven out of the kitchen by scathing reviews. Their pick for her successor, though, is somewhat baffling: Jeremiah Tower is donning the chef’s whites behind the burners, and he’s overhauling the menu with, as he told the New York Times, “fries and pasta” (and, presumably, other easily mass-produced dishes).
Tower is a high-profile legend in his own right — he worked at Chez Panisse and then presided over the San Francisco temple Stars, becoming an exalted member of the highest gastronomic class. He also trained more than a few chefs who later relocated from the West Coast to the East- and now run venerable restaurants in New York City.
But he’s been more or less retired for a while now, and he hasn’t really done anything of note since he closed Stars in the late ’90s — which means the cooking for which he’s known is less pioneering than it is, well, a relic of a different era. The guy also has no connection to New York City, at least not professionally (though he’s lived here during retirement, when not scuba-diving in the Caribbean).
This is not to say that Tower will do a bad job — who knows? Maybe his cooking will be brilliant. But if you’re trying to revive a place that’s long been plagued by a reputation for stodgy, bad food, is this the guy on whom you’re going to place your bets?
It can’t be easy to find a chef these days who’s willing to take responsibility for this place — most new-guard chefs are more focused on turning out pristine plates to, like, 40 seats. But there are guys and gals who could do it who make a hell of a lot more sense than Tower, if only because they have an actual connection to New York. Here’s who we’d have tried to slot into that role instead.
When Caiola explained the hiring to the Times, he noted that Tower’s entrance meant “an icon meets an icon.” Thing is, New York’s not exactly short on icons, and this one actually cooked in Tower’s kitchen. Since then, Batali has been building a New York-centric empire, and his restaurants have made him an undisputed Croc-wearing king of the scene. What’s more, he hasn’t retired — and his restaurants continue to devise innovative offerings, several years after they’ve opened.
Tower says he was asked to take over Windows on the World at some point, but Lomonaco actually had a hand in running it, and he did so during a time when owner Joe Baum was intent on the place becoming a center for American cooking. So he has some experience in running a high-stakes landmark restaurant. He’s also built a solid neighborhood following in Lincoln Center, which is no easy feat in a pretty non-residential neighborhood, over at Porter House, a large restaurant where he turns out solid steakhouse fare.
That Marc Murphy has experience running large restaurants is almost beside the point here. The Chopped judge (ahem, culinary TV star) also sits on the board of the New York State Restaurant Association, which makes him a de facto face for the industry in this town. If Tavern on the Green is going to reclaim its role as a face of New York City fine dining, it could use a connection like that. And if nothing else, the Restaurant Association could host luncheons in TOTG’s lovingly bedecked halls.
Eric Demby and Jonathan Butler
OK, so these guys aren’t chefs. But via Smorgasburg and its offshoots, they’ve managed to reprogram huge swatches of unused real estate in this city by bringing together a bunch of chefs (or would-be chefs) who set up shop with Bruffins and ice lollies that woo the masses. No reason they can’t do something like that here. Their lineup would probably encourage locals to check out the space — not just tourist passersby and private parties — thereby fulfilling a stated goal of the new owners.
Sarah Simmons made her name in this town by partnering with chefs from all over the country to cook creative multicourse feasts for large parties — and she did it all out of a poorly equipped church school kitchen. Imagine what she can do on a range the size of the one that’s at TOTG. And hey, she could still serve her fried chicken and Champagne when she’s not doing pop-ups — because the key to succeeding on that scale is to simplify, right?
Can Derek Jeter even cook? Who knows? But The Captain needs a retirement project, and hey, why not this one? Just imagine the branding possibilities that come with renaming the restaurant 2OTG.