Tale of Tales: In Style and On My Own Terms from Singapore to Mombasa, by Jeremiah Tower
World-renowned photographer chef and restaurateur Jeremiah Tower’s Tale of Tales chapter is part of a series commissioned by Silversea Cruises to chronicle a world cruise through the eyes of some of the world’s best writers, photographers and visual artists. This anthology celebrates all those who were part of the extraordinary 2019 World Cruise. Those who travelled further into the world to discover its beauty. Those who were fascinated, amazed and delighted by the stories they encountered – the stories they shared – and the story they created. Tower traveled from Singapore to Mombasa onboard Silver Whisper. This is his tale.
The greeting by a crisp white-uniformed man in the fenced embarkation line for Silver Whisper in Singapore brought memories rushing back of my first ocean voyage – on the original Queen Elizabeth from New York to Southampton as my family moved from Australia to England in 1951.
It wasn’t just the huge platter of freshly made canapes in the suite I shared with my brother – a suite large enough for two steamer trunks opened and ready for the butler to unpack – or the deck chair I soon found on the sun deck with a card saying “Master Tower” slid into the holder above the cushion for one’s head. It was all of it as a brilliantly welcoming service – as it was …again that morning to board the ship.
First was the view of the sparkling white ship. And then it was “Jeremiah Tower, welcome to Silver Whisper.” Almost like a line from The Importance of Being Earnest, it was the friendly voice of Norman, the ship’s Hotel Manager, in white and gold uniform, waiting at the end of the line to whisk us aboard and suggesting we go to the bar while our butler unpacked.
Up in the Panorama Bar the music from its quartet was eerily the same as that in the Elizabeth’s lounge, and I half expected my mother to appear in her Dior clothes made for the trip and tell me “for god’s sake, get changed into your ship clothes.”
Fortified by a couple of glasses of champagne, my suite mate Curtis and I headed down to the suite to meet our butler Abi, and suite attendant Thu Thu. Their smiles made us feel that we were in for a lovely voyage. “Champagne, sir?”
Had the word gotten out?
The bottle and ice bucket were already there, and within minutes of helping us to unpack, a bottle of our choice of vodka was there too.
We stayed in Singapore for a couple of days in a hotel across the street from my old restaurant Stars Singapore in the old converted nunnery called Chijmes.
In 2000, right after Stars Singapore opened it was called “the most beautiful in the world.” Now it is long since gone, but the other highlights of Singapore were not: street stall dumplings (my favorite Xiaolongbao or pork soup dumplings) and the amazing, educational and futuristic botanical Gardens by the Bay.
The days at sea are when you find out who is on board
When on the way to Sri Lanka we heard Australian accents from two deck-chaired women with vodkas in hand and looking like a lot of fun, we went over and did our version of “g’day.” More drinks appeared instantly, courtesy of one of the ever-attendant pool deck servers, and a friendship was born from stories of my childhood in Sydney and Queensland, and their lives there now, one with a macadamia nut farm in New South Wales and one with a multi-million-dollar house for sale in Port Douglas.
Then they asked me if it was true that I had asked for glasses of champagne to be served at the showing of the documentary Anthony Bourdain made about me? And having seen in the program that the film is called The Last Magnificent, was I − and was I the last? Great title for a movie, I told them and as I told the audience at the movie’s first showing, if a bit embarrassing for me since I certainly hope that I am not the last of anything. The title was taken from my hero since college days, Lucius Beebe, and mentioned in my culinary memoirs. His column in Gourmet magazine called “Along the Boulevards” described a life I wanted to re- create, and the terms on which I wanted to re-create it. “If anything is worth doing,” he once said, “it is worth doing in style and on your own terms – and nobody goddamned else’s.” I wanted to be as James Villas described him in an article of that same magazine called “Lucius Beebe: The Last Magnifico”: the randy and dandy boulevardier, the “eminently polite, generous, witty, and kind gentleman. Who was not out to impress anybody and simply relished a civilized evening on the town over ‘a hot bird and a cold bottle.’”
Setting sail that night into a magnificent sunset, that is exactly what Curtis and I did.
By the time we arrived in Sri Lanka at the port city of Trincomalee, our cocktails group had grown. Two couples, one from Switzerland and another from England, whose stories of making sure everyone acting in Downton Abbey looked aristocratic and Edwardian, had kept the ship riveted every other morning in the theater. We all gathered at the Trinco Blu beach club, where I ordered crab curry. Someone in our group timed the delay of the food arriving. It was about 45 minutes when a fisherman came running from the beach up to the restaurant carrying a tray of wildly squirming crabs who then jumped off the tray, landed at our feet, and ran for cover.
Waiters rushed to catch them and in another 45 minutes a huge white tureen was put on the table. I lifted the cover and the whole area was filled with the perfumes of spices mixed with fresh crustacean.
It was the best curry I have ever had.
I had always wanted to dive in the Maldives, but it just seemed always to be too far from San Francisco where I had my base and flagship restaurant. Now, with just a few hours in port in Malé, it seemed just as much fun to stay on board at Silver Whisper’s pool with its perfect service and wait for another perfect Indian ocean sunset from our Deck 5 balcony.
So far, the ocean had been very calm. That night, as we pulled away and set off, it was mirror-like. So calm that in the reflected light of the sun, the surface of the ocean took on that breathtaking gun-metal, grey color that made flying fish more silvery and dramatic, as they desperately escaped the bow waves. All this, seen from the balcony with a glass of chilled champagne in one’s hand.
It is very good to be alive.
Scheduled for the next day, my presentation in the theater was on my mind. How would guests receive it? The title of my talk was “The role of chaos in success when paired with opportunity and a heavy dose of glamour.” Glamour, as when, after the 1989 San Francisco earthquake rattled all the vodka bottles in my restaurant, Stars, Elizabeth Taylor quoted her famous saying to me: “When the going gets tough, pour yourself a cocktail, put on your lipstick, and get on with it.” Which is what I did, I told the audience, “Without the lipstick. I sold the Stars group to a Singaporean Chinese collector and moved to New York.”
We were headed for two different islands in the Seychelles: Praslin and Mahé. The biggest concern, decided over more champagne with our group, was which one had the best beaches. After hearing the brilliant lectures on each of the islands, we decided to try the Cote d’Or of the former (which is often voted “most beautiful beach in the world”), but we had higher hopes for the huge and very long beaches of the latter, Mahé.
The ship’s concierge told us three places to go, in order of preference. First, The H Resort, then just down the beach from there, The Savoy and The Coral. A taxi took us on a thrilling, winding ride across the high ridge running through the center of Mahé, up to the grand entrance of the H. A majestic staircase took us to the reception.
We asked to purchase a day pass to the pool and restaurants, after a quick back and forth by the people at the desk we were (though well dressed) told they were full. After a 15-minute walk down the white sand beach, we found not only the Savoy but the Australians and the British from the ship.
Never has a first pool plunge felt so good. Nor has a very cold double gin and tonic, enjoyed while lying under a vast white umbrella on a pool chaise. Nor a lunch with friends, savored at the resort’s Gecko Bar facing the beach and swept by cooling breezes.
Two days at sea followed, as we journeyed towards Dar es Salaam – a place that I thought had to be one of the most exotic places in the world, ever since learning about the destination when at school in England. Before the ship arrived in Dar, I had an appointment in the theater with the ship’s Cruise Director, and Silverseas’s guests. He was to ask me questions and then I was to sign copies of my latest book, Start the Fire. I was a bit nervous about how a somewhat conservative audience would like my culinary memoirs – my first-hand account of “How I Began a Food Revolution in America.” I told them that the final line in the book is my summary of it and a famous Russian saying: “He lies like an eyewitness.” They loved it.
“As it must have been way back then, but was now more,” Paul Theroux said in his book on travels in Africa, Dark Star Safari. The view from the ship at dock at six in the morning was not so terrifying as some of his descriptions. But make it we did to the Swiss counter and were soon in our own little pods in the airplane on our eight-hour way to Zurich. From there to Los Angeles and in 16 days we had circumnavigated the earth. Most of it in the comfort and style of Silversea.
A world-renowned chef and restauranteur, American-born Jeremiah Tower began his career as the Co-Owner and Executive Chef of Chez Panisse in California in the 1970s. He then opened branches of Stars restaurant in San Francisco, Manila and Singapore, among other locations, plus Peak Café in Hong Kong. Martha Stewart called him “The father of American Cuisine” and the late Anthony Bourdain said that “Tower’s menus made a complete re-evaluation of not just American food and ingredients – but food.” In 2017, a full-length documentary on Tower, The Last Magnificent, was produced by Bourdain for CNN.