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Nick Solares

Peter Hoffman Wants Everyone to Ask More Questions

A conversation with the trailblazing chef of Savoy and Back Forty as he gets ready to close the iconic location he's run for 26 years

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In 1990, chef Peter Hoffman opened Savoy, a restaurant on the corner of Prince and Crosby streets, with his wife Susan. Soho wasn't yet a giant outdoor mall, the city as a whole wasn't yet impenetrably ritzy, and Savoy — which served rustic, approachable food made with meticulously sourced ingredients — was an instant hit. For many New Yorkers, most of whom hadn't happened to make it out to Berkeley to see what Alice Waters was cooking over at Chez Panisse, it was an exuberant introduction to the then-burgeoning culinary movement of socially and environmentally thoughtful cooking, and a welcome alternative to the Continental high-mindedness that still dominated culinary discourse.

Savoy was hugely influential, both gastronomically and culturally; Hoffman became famous not just for his cooking, which was intelligent yet unpretentious, but also for hosting dinners at the restaurant that featured writers and farmers talking about food both practically and philosophically, and he made religious visits to the Union Square Greenmarket with his cargo trike years before it was considered good PR for a chef to be seen caressing the spring asparagus.

For over a quarter-century Hoffman has maintained his fiefdom on that Soho corner — Savoy closed in 2011, replaced by a second location of Hoffman's East Village restaurant, Back Forty. The original Back Forty closed in 2014; last week, the restaurant's fans received an email from Hoffman saying that the second one is closing, and that after twenty-six years, his tenure in that iconic corner location will come to an end. This Saturday night, Back Forty West will have its final service, and at the end of the month Hoffman will hand over the keys to the space's new tenant, a location of quick-serve grain-salads lunch chain Dig Inn.

Eater sat down with Hoffman in a sunny corner of his restaurant — under a wall decorated with plates made by Susan, a ceramicist — to talk about the history of the neighborhood, his evolving culinary philosophies, the decision to walk away, and the tenuous thrill of starting something new.

Hoffman outside Back Forty West

I suppose we should start at the beginning, which is the question of why.

It’s just time for me to do something else. I think that sometimes in this world we get pigeonholed into what we think our career is, and that's our life. We have one life to live, and there's so many things to do and places to go. When I started the restaurant in 1990, it was thrilling and totally engaging, and it remained that way for many years. It was a certain path, and it took me some places, but it's no longer thrilling and exciting. It's time to do something else.

I turned 60 in March, and I was just kind of like, This is the moment to grab and go. There could be another chapter, or I could kind of play this out, drag it out, and then I'd be in a place where I don't know if I'd have the energy or the facility or whatever to take on another project.

Is this a feeling that's been building for a while?

Oh, yeah. This is a big boat that's hard to turn around. When you're 25, you can make a big life change fairly quickly. You can say, "I'm selling all my shit," or, "I'm giving up my apartment, I don't have any kids, and away we go, I'm moving to Denver," and start a new life. But when you have two kids — my kids are now 19 and 23 — and a wife, and an apartment, and lots of employees, it's a slower turning of the ship. It's been on my mind. Then you go, "Well, how?" It takes a while.

"It just felt like the culmination of something. It felt like our next step, and it was very much about who we were and who we wanted to be."

I sold the lease and the assets to somebody and they're taking over — it's going to be another restaurant. [Ed: A few days after this interview, Dig Inn announced that they were taking over the space, saying in their release, "The Dig Inn team has long admired Peter Hoffman's farm-to-table movement, we're honored he will pass the culinary baton to former Savoy chef de cuisine and current Dig Inn Culinary Director Matt Weingarten."] I had another five years on the lease, but I renegotiated.

I've been here on this corner since 1990, so 26 years, a long time. This corner was a very different place in 1990. I found it and turned it into a spot that people came to and knew and enjoyed discovering. In some ways, the neighborhood was already changing. Dean & Deluca was here in 1990, but Broadway was not high-fashion yet; it was still full of trimmings and fabric stores and things like that. There was a lot of crack getting smoked up on that block right there. We were part of the transition, but it was already transitioning. It was a good moment for doing something — experimental isn't the right word, but something idiosyncratic and personally expressive. This was the gallery scene, in Soho, and they responded to that. We had a great clientele.

Did you know that you wanted to open Savoy in Soho, or was it just a question of finding a perfect space that just happened to be in this neighborhood?

It just happened to end up being right. I was very close to doing a deal uptown — everything would have been totally different, and I wouldn't have ultimately been happy. It was a deal that was hard to refuse. It was on East 58th Street, and it was a completely built out beautiful restaurant — gorgeous in a way that was kind of a small, high-quality, French fine dining experience. Obviously, it had a well to do clientele to go with it. If that had come to pass, as I said, I would have been up there, and I don't think I would have been happy.

It had been a restaurant called Brive, that a guy named Bob Pritsger ran. He ran a restaurant prior to that there, with his wife, that was a very important Nouvelle cuisine spot, called Dodin Bouffant. When my deal didn't work out, he sold it to Wayne Nish, and that became March.

That's such a wild alternate history! And then you came in here with Savoy, and became part of the core of what was becoming Soho.

It was already Soho. I mean, Jerry's was down the street, if you remember that restaurant. There were restaurants down here. Raoul's was here, of course. There was a restaurant that I spent some infamous evenings at over on West Broadway, and then there was the Ballroom, you know, Felipe Rojas, and the Cupping Room and Ken's Broome Street Bar. Those restaurants, if you think about them, they represented people in the neighborhood wanting to eat, and people starting to come to the neighborhood because they were coming to the galleries.

"Savoy was an art project first. I don't mean in the way of a high level of pretension, but art is about personal expression."

It's not like nothing was here, but none of those restaurants were chef-driven restaurants. They were good, each in their own way, I'm not going to knock them. But Savoy was an art project first. I don't mean in the way of a high level of pretension, but art is about personal expression. And it was personal expression that Susan and I had a need for, and in the course of that, you needed to pay the bills, and so it was also a business.

What was the art that you were trying to express?

It was about food, but it was also sort of a way of dining and a way of being in a room. Young cooks today do the same thing, aspiring young cooks, they're eating out all the time, and part of what they're doing is going, "Well, what do I think of that dish? How does that dish change me? How does that fit with my view of cooking and taste and conception and design?" The same thing in the front of the house: "What did I think of the service? What was the wine list like?" All of those things that you're measuring and forming in yourself, in relationship to the community and what other people are doing.

And then there's a time at which you go, "I want to bring it together in my way. I want the menu paper, and the menu presentation, and the design of the room, and the lighting, and all of that stuff — as well as the food — to be an expression of my aesthetic." That was what Susan and I really wanted to do: We wanted to build a room in which we could cook our cuisine and take care of people in the way that we think people should be taken care of.

Your cuisine has stayed fairly steady over the years, though when Savoy opened it was very fresh and fairly revolutionary, in the sense of it being French informed, but not a stuffy, haute cuisine style of French food. It took a notion of home cooking and applied it to a restaurant context.

All true. What I would add to that in some ways — and again, it's not like we were the first to do that in any way, but special in our way — was that first of all, it wasn't chasing haute cuisine. I had come to the realization that I really wasn't interested in haute cuisine, or haute cuisine's values.

You'd previously worked at the Quilted Giraffe, which really embodied all of that.

Yeah, it's back to that thing of cooks going out and dining - it's also where you work. You're always measuring "Who am I?" and "Who am I not?" The experience of learning what I am not is just as important as finding models for what I am, or what we are. Working at the Quilted Giraffe was an experience on so many levels, mostly learning not what I wanted to be; however, there were some really important organizational lessons that I learned there, about how to run things and how to get work done in the kitchen. So I don't want to say, "Oh, my God. How could I be there?" But as an approach to who we were trying to appeal to, and a way of cooking, and how to treat ingredients, most of that was not who I am.

Where did your more democratic approach to food and service come from?

Very importantly, I went to cooking school with Madeleine Kamman in France. Her course was a lot of teaching us about the regional cuisines in France and Italy, and seeing how regional food grew out of climate and geography and what you had in hand. Cooking seasonally was not some concept that someone laid on there. It was just what was at hand. It's how the world works and worked — which is not to say that there wasn't and hasn't always been trade and travel, but the great regional dishes, the celebrated ones, people grow those out of celebrating what's in our backyard and developing a tradition around that. Learning about that, exploring that, finding that, looking at those tastes, and with them came boldness in flavor and a sort of direct application of technique — as opposed to some very multi-layered set of techniques to extract flavor, which is sort of the haute cuisine way. That approach had tremendous appeal to me, so that's what I started studying, and that's what we decided to cook at Savoy.

"I had come to the realization that I really wasn't interested in haute cuisine, or haute cuisine's values."

When you opened here in 1990, who else in New York was cooking that way?

I had worked at a restaurant that was cooking Provençal food, La Colombe D'Or, and that's food that was regional cuisine as opposed to haute cuisine, but it was still a Frenchie LeFrench kind of restaurant. Who was cooking then without being pretentious? Maybe nobody. Again, there were other restaurants. I mean, Larry Forgione at An American Place was doing something really important. He was a model. He was developing relationships with farmers before I knew about it, so hats off to him. That was part of my process of saying "I want that. I'm going in that direction," but An American Place and River Café were still very French bound, still bound to haute cuisine.

That's a certain reflection of the culture, isn't it? French was the pinnacle of cuisine at that time. Everything had to have a French point of reference, otherwise, you didn't get taken seriously.

Look at fine dining — I don't really know what the numbers are, but the first four-star restaurant in New York that wasn't French happened was, I think, Austrian, when when Mimi Sheraton gave four stars to Vienna Park in 1981. Now, we really hold Italian food high. In some ways, the shift was from French to Italian, and with that comes that ease of expression.

The regionalism kicking in —

And the product focus! Having three-star Italian restaurants that, again, weren't about that kind of fussiness. It wasn't about tableside preparation, because that's still a French kind of thing. Even the Michelin Stars in other countries, it's still always through the French lens. You go and eat in those restaurants in Italy, and they're still chasing the French style of dining. It's not just about what's on the plate, it's what's in the dining room.

At the time, how much did you realize you were helping to lead a revolution?

We didn't really see it in that way, because there were all these antecedents. You pick a little bit from there, and you pick a little bit from over there. It just felt like the culmination of something. It didn't feel like a break. It felt like our next step, and it was very much about who we were and who we wanted to be, but it didn't feel like we were in opposition to something. Revolutions are about breaking away from things, as opposed to some continuity.

The dinners that you used to have at Savoy, with speakers coming to talk about the ethics of food and eating — those are legendary, and speak to such an activism, such a practical philosophy of how to cook, and eat, and think about food. Surely that was intentional.

It was, but for starters, it wasn't the plan. When we opened, I didn't know we were going to do that. It came about spontaneously, in a couple of different ways. One time we were doing a Passover seder at the restaurant, which was sort of the first set of events that I did, and Ray Sokolov stood up and said something about the history of a dish, and my sister turned to me and said, "You should do more things like that." And I said, "You're right," and that's sort of where it began.

So Ray became the first dinner, with his book Why We Eat What We Eat. I realized that I was interested in exploring these tales, and it was personal, it was selfish, but it was also about what it could mean for the dining public. I hadn't read his book yet, so I read the book and built the dinner around the book, and then I said, "Okay, everybody come for dinner, and we're going to eat from the book, and Ray's going to tell some stories."

That was sort of what the dinner series was about. It did become focused and pointed, and had an outlook about what is it about the food system that we want to learn about, so all of us learned together. It wasn't like I was a master of these topics, or I was going to do it all. It was an exploration that I was both having and sharing at the same time.

When you opened Back Forty in 2007, it was a big tonal shift away from what you were doing at Savoy. I hate to say "comfort food," but —

There were a couple of things. It was deciding to do something more casual, even more in that way that we were talking earlier. Savoy had come to be seen as fine dining, but it wasn't — but people looked at it in a three-course kind of way, or it was priced in a way that for some people it was a special occasion place, romantic, a lot of "This was where I proposed to my partner." And that's as opposed to saying, "Let's eat there all the time."

But when we opened in 1990, it wasn't a special-occasion restaurant. The special-occasion restaurants were French and white-tablecloth. They weren't about the grain of the wood. Now, again, back to the question of, was Savoy revolutionary? Name a fine-dining restaurant that didn't have tablecloths at that time. For us, the choice not to have tablecloths wasn't about money. It wasn't about economics, saying I don't want to have the linen company involved with me, and crumbers, and resets, and starch, and all of that. It was about the fact that we were craftspeople and the craft of this, the beauty of the wood tables and the feeling of that material, was something that we wanted to share with people.

"People came in and paid me for dinner and in exchange, I got to explore. How great is that?"

It feels very analogous to your culinary philosophy. Don't hide the vegetable under a sauce, don't hide the wood under a tablecloth.

Right, don't puree the vegetable into something that's unrecognizable. That's where it comes together. I remember there was an American-French chef who was taking snap peas — something that's completely edible in its entirety — and, I don't know, juicing it or pureeing it, and it's just like, why would you do that? I understand the point, to further extract flavor. But one of the things about that kind of food is that you don't need to use two hands. You don't need to have fork and a knife, you can eat the whole thing with just a fork or a spoon. And I'd rather ask you to cut it or take it apart, in its form that was there to begin with.

How did that philosophy evolve into what became Back Forty?

In some ways, being Mediterranean-based was also kind of getting old for the dining public. It wasn't as fresh as it had been when we were first doing Savoy and exploring that. So there was a way that it made sense for us to open a place where we could be a little looser with that, to cook American fare.

And the other thing that had shifted was that, when I had first started getting into buying directly from farmers, it was just produce that was available, and small proteins. But there was a change when large animals became available, and that represented a challenge and an opportunity to the restaurant. The first time local beef was available to me is a real moment. We had a farmer, up in Duchess county. He found me, I didn't find him. He was selling asparagus and potatoes and other things that he was growing, and one day he said, "I'm raising these beef animals that I think are really amazing."

They were an English cross of Dexter and Devin, a smaller animal made for the English landscape instead of the Rockies landscape. The Angus has its roots in England, but it's been selected for being the largest possible animal. If you're going to take care of a life, why not raise the biggest one that you can, right? But that's not really what the English model had been, because the land that the animals had been grazing on was much smaller acreage, they pieces of property that were smaller enclosures, and so the animals were smaller. And that meant they were cut in a way that was more appropriate to real eating size. We bought this animal and I remember going, "A single person could eat the porterhouse!" It wasn't this gargantuan indulgence of overconsumption. It was an appropriate piece of meat.

When that started to happen, we then were asking, How do we take our business through the next step and handle all these animals? We need to be able to cut them and process them. And that's what, in many respects, was the driving force behind Back Forty, which had a burger, but it was really a whole-animal program. The question was, okay, we're bringing in half a steer every week, so what's on the menu?

The iconic image of you is you on your bicycle at the Greenmarket, and the narrative is all about you and the produce, but in many ways changing your approach to meat was so much more powerful than what happened with vegetables. Everyone was going to get around to vegetables eventually, but meat —

Meat hadn't happened yet. I can date that evening when we did the dinner that changed it. I went up to the farm to look at the animal — I have a photograph of me and my son leaning over the fence, looking at this guy in the summer who was going to be slaughtered in the fall, who we were going to eat. Then the meat was delivered, then we cooked this dinner, and then we had steak for some time after that. I don't think I even knew who Fergus Henderson was at the time, but I did a menu that was oxtail consomme with some shredded meat in a stuffed cabbage that was in the broth so that then you open it up and pulled the meat. I'm sure we did some sort of braised beef and it was a whole animal dinner.

How exciting was that! To design a menu, to say, "Okay, I've got this whole animal and I want to cook it in its best expression and honor." At that point, we had become aware of how disgusting the mass production of meat was, the commercialized food system particularly around beef and animals. And how exciting to be able to say, "This is different!"

Were diners receptive to it?

Completely. That was a sold-out evening. The farmer came and spoke. Then I remember we sold the porterhouses by weight, La Fiorentina-style, in the week following that. The waiters were going out to the table and saying, "I've got a" — I don't remember what the prices were anymore, but — "I've got three $45 steaks and two $52 steaks, and here's what they are, and here's what they represent."

"Ask the questions, know where your food is coming from, and how the food's been handled. It matters."

It's a totally different way for a diner to think about the meat that she's getting.

Right. Do I want it, or do I not want it? Where did it come from? And the fact that where a steak is in the anatomy of an animal makes a difference. That approach brought everybody closer to life, to the planet, to our food. Our food isn't extruded and manufactured. I mean, some of it is, but that's not where it originated, and it's not necessarily where we most want to be.

How does it feel to look around now and so many restaurants taking things like humane meat and local produce, or even this whole approach to less-stuffy French dining, and have that not be a remarkable thing anymore?

I suppose, on one hand, it's great. People took those ideas, and were inspired by them, and made changes in how and what they purchased or cooked. That's a success story. But by the same token, it feels also like the message has gotten watered down and lost. If everybody is really doing this — and not everybody really is — have we lost the sense of that message? That individuality of what's being grown and how it's being grown? People can hide behind the philosophy and buy less good products, and it still somehow looks like it's farm-to-table.

Like that incredible piece in the Tampa Bay Times that exposed all of the farm-to-table fraud.

Yeah, that's an example of it. People have perverted the term. It's sort of like buying from a local farmer. I mean, I forget who it is — let's say Frito Lay is running ads about their "local farmer" growing potatoes, but it's on a farm that's thousands of acres. So then you look at your philosophy, and you go, "What did we really mean?" It wasn't really about local, and it wasn't necessarily saying everyone should be cooking or growing small-scale and be little guys. It's about a set of values behind the food that's being grown, and processed, and cooked.

Has your sense of those values evolved over the years?

For sure. A lot. People had pegged me as being Mr. Local, and then I got attacked a number of times for having a Meyer lemon tart on the menu, for instance, or selling Alaskan king salmon. Well, nobody asked me about that before they came after me. Other chefs derided the local movement and said things like, "I'm proudly going to serve a tomato grown in Florida on my menu in January because why not? Where am I getting my lemons from or my chocolate or my olive oil?" They'd make ridiculous justifications for not thinking about the larger questions.

But the larger questions are about what your values are behind what you're cooking, what you're thinking, and where you're getting it from. Like I said before, there's always been world trade. One of the great regional dishes of Liguria is salt cod — well, there's no cod in the Mediterranean. They were getting it from the Norwegians or from the Basques who were catching it up in Norway, and the Ligurians were trading olives and lemons for it. That's been going on for a long time, and I participate in that as well. Proudly.

You could say there's a great guy in Florida growing tomatoes in the wintertime and I can get those, but there are other reasons to decide that I'm just not going to cook that right now. Maybe instead I want to support a traditional fishery in Alaska, and yes, I am proudly flying salmon in from Alaska, or I want to say that my coffee beans are selected in a thoughtful way, whether that's about fair trade or by people who are really dedicated growers to high quality, as opposed to coffee as just some commodity. The question is who is it? Who's growing it? Does it taste of a place? Was it roasted by somebody who's trying to find the best expression of that? Then yeah, I'm going to have coffee on the menu.

I never, ever said I took on the 200-mile menu, because that's ridiculous. It's an experiment. It's an art piece. But it wasn't what I was trying to do. So, yes, the values changed over time, as we learned more about the questions.

Is there one core principle you think is still the center of all of it?

In some ways, it's just: Ask the questions, know where your food is coming from, and how the food's been handled. It matters. Your values might be different than mine! You might say you only want to buy products that are raised in a fair-trade way. They may not be as good — there are certain fair trade tropical products that are not as high quality as others — but you may say about your chocolate, "I don't care how luxurious the mouthfeel is, I don't want to participate in anything that might look like child slavery or exploitation of workers along the way." I'm not going to judge that either way, but still, we need to be asking those questions, thinking about that.

How are you going to bring all of these values to whatever you're doing next?

What's next? With all of this inquiry, I found that I really was very, very interested in all those questions, and trying to both educate and make change in these realms. I'm less able to focus on that in running a restaurant here, on this corner, in 2016. There are other locations maybe where people are able to continue telling those stories, but with what this restaurant has had to evolve into — or did evolve into — there's less opportunity for me to do that. Maybe people are less interested in hearing those stories told in the way that I used to tell them. I'm not sure.

"People took those ideas, and were inspired by them, and made changes in how and what they purchased or cooked. That's a success story."

I think they're still interested!

So, maybe I'm going to find a different venue to tell those stories, but I want to be more direct and focused on that work, that part of the storytelling, that part of the transparency, as opposed to being focused on the daily challenges of running a restaurant.

Do you know what that's going to look like yet?

Nope.

Really?

Yeah, really. There's not a secret plan. I'm going to take the year to write a book, and to explore these ideas and these relationships with people and organizations. The book is about everything that we've been talking about — it's sort of about the products and the ingredients that I've discovered, and the people growing them, and what I've learned along the way and what that's meant to be here in a restaurant on the corner of Prince and Crosby for 26 years.

How do you feel about walking away from this corner?

It's been a huge anchor for me. I suppose there's two sides to that term, but it's where I've been grounded for 26 years. Saying hello to the people on the corner, developing relationships, taking care of people. This has been my home, so yeah, it'll be hard to give that up, but I'm giving that up to get something else.

I won't give up the space until the end of the month, so I'm going to be selling everything so that people can come and buy things they need or buy mementos and trinkets, and then I'm headed up to Vermont, where my son is singing at the Marlboro music festival, and I'm going up to hear him sing, and be in a Vermont, and read a book under a tree, and swim in a lake.

That sounds like heaven.

It is! I'm excited to inaugurate a new chapter in my life. This experience was something to cherish. You get one life, and I did it, and it's been fabulous. I changed my whole outlook on the world through all of this. It's been extraordinary to have this vehicle, and I'm grateful for it, and I got paid. People came in and paid me for dinner and in exchange, I got to explore. How great is that?

Helen Rosner is Eater's executive editor.
Editor: Greg Morabito

Savoy

70 Prince Street, New York, NY 10012 212-219-8570

Back Forty

190 Avenue B, New York, NY 10009 (212) 388-1992

Back Forty West

70 Prince Street, New York, NY 10012 (212) 219-8570
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