Find your cullinary voice

Interview with Peter Hoffman

Chef Peter Hoffman shares his culinary perspective with the Institute of Culinary Education.March 2009

Peter Hoffman has been the chef-owner of Savoy for 19 years, and of Back Forty since late 2007. He is known for his patronage of the Greenmarket and local farmers, with whom he has created longstanding relationships that reflect in the carefully selected ingredients found in his dishes. Chef Hoffman has served on the board of Chefs Collaborative---a organization of 1000 culinary professionals that promotes sustainable food choices in the restaurant industry---since 2000, including six years as national chair, and on the advisory board of the Greenmarket for more than 15 years. The Main Course met him recently in the sun-filled dining room of Savoy.

Savoy has been opened since 1990, correct?
Yes. We’re coming up on 19 years in December. When we opened here, it was a backwater of SoHo, with lots of crack being smoked on the block, and we were pioneers in the neighborhood. A lot of neighbors said how glad they were that we were here as an outpost, with evening activity. Obviously, the neighborhood has gone through massive transformation, Broadway in particular. Lots of businesses have moved eastward, so we’re not on the edge of anything; we’re right in the heart of it.

How has that changed what you do or how you do it?
There were a lot of art galleries down here during that time, and so a lot of the daytime lunch business was more gallery owners, dealers, and art folks. Most of those have now moved out to Chelsea. Otherwise, there was little commercial shopping at that time. Now it’s all about bigger stores, which has changed the clientele somewhat, to less lunch regulars and more tourists, people wandering the neighborhood.

I would imagine that tourists just wandering in may not necessarily know about the restaurant, or your philosophy.
Certainly, there’s some of that at lunch. The dinner business has seen less of a transformation. It’s always been about people who lived in the neighborhood, and the neighborhood is anywhere from SoHo to downtown to, even much broader, just New York City in general. Dinner people are meeting their friends, they’re traveling for this kind of a restaurant. So it’s always drawn from a broader base.

Have you always been focused on using local seasonal produce, from the very beginning?
Yes, we have. Even before I had Savoy, I had begun to have direct relationships with farmers and producers, and that was fundamental to what we were doing.

You were a pioneer then, whereas now it seems that every press release announcing a new restaurant emphasizes that it uses local, seasonal produce. How has that transformed the market?
One thing that has transformed enormously is what’s available to us. Back when we started, there were very few people doing livestock, so there was very little meat and poultry available. That transformed very, very dramatically, so that all year round there are whole pigs and whole lambs that come into the restaurant, all raised locally. We still work with farmers whom we were working with 20 years ago, and that’s terrific. Some of them deliver to us directly and are not part of the Greenmarket system. There are new people in the mix as well. Certain people in the Greenmarket system have retired or passed on, so those suppliers have changed. We’re always looking to teach ourselves more about what we’re using and how it’s produced. A really important part of our work is to know what we’re serving and how it’s produced.

What are some of the ways in which you learn about ingredients and the ways in which you teach your staff about them?
It really starts just by, when you buy directly from the producer, asking questions and being curious and learning. For instance, right now we’re buying sides of beef for my two restaurants and sharing that meat. The prime cuts come here to Savoy; the bulk of the burger meat gets used at Back Forty. Learning about that, how to share that meat, about how beef is actually raised and why we make the choices that we make has just been part of the learning process.

But that does make it more complicated on your staff because it means also having a great range of skills or knowledge of ingredients.
Right. It is more complicated for them and is part of what distinguishes Savoy as an interesting restaurant and not just another one of the restaurants sort of giving lip service and press releases about cooking seasonally. That’s an easy thing to say, but how you work that into the menu, keeping things changing and using all the different parts of the animal that you get in is part of what we do here.

Do you take your staff on trips to farms or to the market with you?
My people sometimes meet me at the market and we walk around and talk about things. I’ve done trips. Not so much with the current crew, but it may happen again. We’ve sent people up to Flying Pigs Farm in Shushan, New York, and spent days learning about how the pigs are raised. That will probably reemerge as an actual program that I’m working on with Jen Small and Mike Yezzi, the owners of Flying Pigs Farm, to have something called Chef Camp.

Have you ever thought of opening or having your own farm or growing things yourself?
Yes. A goal is to try to expand outside the city at some point. It’s trying to be more than a thought, but it’s a complicated economic moment. So I’m not buying any farms right now.

You mentioned Back Forty, which opened a year ago. For nearly 18 years, you only had one restaurant. What made you decide to open another one?
It was a number of things, but really, it seemed like it was a good moment to take this, all the ideals that we stand for, and express them in a different form, in an easier-going setting, lower price point, but still showing the same commitment to sourcing as we do here at Savoy. And I have a number of people who’ve been with me for many years, so it’s an opportunity for them to expand and take on more.

What role do you occupy here on a day-to-day basis? Are you on the line? Do you create the menu?
No, my day-to-day activities are really about helping people think about the job that they’re doing. Sometimes it’s about my knowledge of sources or food or dishes or wines and the Greenmarket, but it’s also about staff relations and shaping, sort of seeing that the activities that we engage in, the traditions themselves or the projects that we take on, are in keeping with the mission of the restaurant.

Do you still cook?
I don’t cook in the restaurant. I cook at home, sort of living in that seasonal way. I’m working on a book. I’m trying to put down on paper for lots of people what we’ve been thinking about for the last almost 20 years. It’ll have recipes in it, but it’s also really explaining the sets of values that we buy with and what the decision-making process is in the restaurant.

How did you become a chef?
I had the notion that it was something I wanted to do. While I was still in high school, I decided to take a year off between high school and college. I moved up to Vermont and cooked in a restaurant there, did some skiing, got a taste for the business, and then did a few other little projects. Then I went off to school in California and found my way back into the restaurant business. I got myself back to New York and worked in some interesting restaurants here, a place called La Colombe d’Or, which was my first exposure to the idea of regional cuisines in France and the importance of that. I was more interested in that than aristocratic food, haute cuisine. I worked at The Quilted Giraffe for six months or so, and then I went to France, where I studied with Madeleine Kamman in her cooking school and really immersed myself through her in all the regional cuisines of France and Italy, learning about the historical traditions and how the history and the geography of the land and the people were expressed in dishes that you could find on menus. I was with her for three months, and then I traveled around Italy and France, some on bicycle, for several months looking for those foods, eating those foods. I came back to New York, and it was at that time that, in a certain way, those ideas were being really translated in the American context for the first time. People were working with, really celebrating, local producers and looking at the historical regional foods of different regions of the US. I was working at a place called Hubert’s, on 22nd Street, and that was what we were doing there. We were really on the vanguard of what became called new American cuisine. It’s not a term that’s used anymore, but it was that very exploration both of celebrating local producers, local production, turning away from straight European continental food, and presenting that to the American dining public.

How do you think that term came to be?
I guess I feel, to begin with, that the reason that it didn’t exist prior to that is because this is really an immigrant nation. So what you find in terms of regional dishes are really pockets of immigrant groups, whether those dishes developed here in this country or are dishes that were brought over and been transformed over time and in their place. You’ll find Portuguese dishes on Cape Cod and the coast of Maine, or the cooking of New Mexico with its influence from Mezzo-America from Native American peoples as well as the Spanish influence. A new generation of chefs started to look at that and say, “This is our patrimony. It doesn’t look like what it looks like in France with that national continuity, but it’s here to, as a treasure, it’s here to learn about and to mine.” People then started presenting it in a non-ethnic environment, but in an upscale restaurant that wasn’t sort of like a Portuguese fisherman’s seafood shack on Cape Cod. The other thing, and I really think it is very much ingredient-based, is that people started to turn their backs on flying things in. We have great products here and a great tradition of those products. Nobody else in the world does soft shell crabs besides the people in the Mid-Atlantic region. At that time, soft shell crabs were, and are still, a regional product. Nobody was flying them in to San Francisco. Now it’s completely nationalized, and one of the ways that you see that is that there’s very little price variation day to day, week to week, in the crabs; whereas, because they shed in response to the lunar cycle, you would have very wide fluctuations over the course of a month. You’d get a flush of crabs in the market so the price would drop, and then they would stop shedding and then you’d have fewer in the market and so the price would rise. Now, chefs all over the country are buying crabs, having them out of season through the spring. so you don’t have that fluctuation because there are always people buying them. There isn’t a surplus that there would be at the full moon as you previously had.

Is that why you say that the term new American cuisine doesn’t exist anymore?
We weren’t calling ourselves new American cooks, new American chefs. We were just doing what we were doing. Whether you’re talking about the art world or music, things like that, terms are applied after the fact. Nobody called themselves a postmodern artist or a postmodern architect. That was a way to describe what a lot of different people were doing that seemed to have shared similarities, because they were working with similar themes and similar ideas. So we didn’t call ourselves new American cooks. At a certain point, it became a shorthand. I could say to somebody, like I said to you, “That restaurant specialized in new American cuisine.” But that wasn’t our term. So why did it stop being used? The shorthand became less meaningful. I’m not exactly sure.

If you look at restaurant guides, websites, guidebooks, they still use that classification.
Right. There are so many things that are in it. I’m reluctant sometimes about whether to check that off for what I do here. A more important term became that we are a market-driven restaurant. We were always doing that. We got more deeply involved in that. It became a term that people understood, so we used it. But now we’re at a place where if everybody says they’re a market-driven restaurant, then---again, I don’t want to say that that’s not true of us or it’s not true of the other people---but is that still the important way to distinguish yourselves, for people to understand it? At the moment, yes, I think that a market-driven restaurant is more descriptive of what you’ll find here and what you find in common with other restaurants that describe themselves as market-driven than using the term new American cuisine. I think also that, in terms of Savoy, which I never really called new American, I went back to Europe. In terms of the inspiration of the food here, it still is more European-based than the mining of American traditions that we did at Hubert’s. But it seemed a little narrow to me, as I was developing the cuisine here.

To limit yourself to one country?
Yes. There are sets of flavors that you don’t find here that were interesting to me. I think one of the problems with some of those terms, especially if chefs think of themselves in those ways that happened with new American, is that it became a free-for-all and you could cook anything. You could combine soy-glazed salmon with Moroccan spices, vegetables and a sauce and a ginger beurre blanc. To me, it’s horrible, horrible food that I don’t want to be associated with and never want to serve and never think that anybody else should be serving. I think that, in some ways, is where I distance myself from that term. It’s really important for cooks to be really connected to the product that they’re using, its seasonal nature, but as well that the food have a grounding in some historical or regional expression. When too many cuisines are represented on a plate, you’re nowhere. Too often, chefs want to do completely personal cuisine and create things that have never been created before. I’m not interested in that kind of cooking. I don’t like going to those restaurants. I feel like we are stewards of a tradition, and our food should always reflect something about that tradition. I’d rather cook an old dish really well, with modern technique and our current products and way that we like to eat, but having it still reverent of the historical tradition and region of food. For instance, we’re serving cassoulet on the menu at the moment. It’s a dish of the southwest of France, a dish of beans cooked with lots of different meat products. We do our version, we do it the best that we can, and people can say, “Oh, I had one once in France (or some place) that was really wonderful and this reminds me of that,” or, “This is better than anything I ever had in France.” So I’d much rather have those compliments than try to cook, as I said, a food that’s never been put together before.

France seems to have been a huge influence for you. Where do you see French cuisine heading these days?
I think France has sadly lost touch with a lot of that. A lot of those regional foods have disappeared; they’re not there in the way that they were 20 or 25 years ago when I was traveling there. In the same way that there are seed banks to preserve genetic diversity, we have to really honor those traditional foods and dishes so that we have that to draw on for the same kind of diversity of ideas. When you lose that in the culture, you’ve lost an important piece of the heritage. I think a lot of that has happened in France, so that what’s left is haute cuisine without a regional anchor, and it’s not very interesting. It shows tremendous technique. It shows tremendous respect for the ingredient and the handling of it, but, in terms of the source of the idea, it’s lost its way. And then, if you’re not eating haute cuisine in France, there’s not a lot to eat. It’s very homogenized food and a lot of it not very good. Even in Provence, you can eat a lot of bad food. You can eat a lot of bad food here too, but what we always thought was a culture that was deeply, deeply committed to fine food is less than it was a generation ago.

What advice would you have for young chefs starting today?
Historical knowledge is so important, to have a grounding in cooking. I think that these days in the US, and maybe beyond, there are two sets of chefs: chefs in overalls and chefs in lab coats. You know which one I wear. Deepening our understanding of where our food comes from, what makes it taste as good as it does, and not using industrialized techniques to serve that, that food will serve us better as chefs. The flexibility that we can have as cooks, the creativity coming from riffing on traditions, is so important, so you have to know what the traditions are. What are the classic dishes and why did those dishes come about? I feel that an understanding of the regional cuisines of Europe is really key to people’s development as they come around. Otherwise, you’re just a technician, not a bearer of the cultural torch. I think that we want to be more than just true technologists.

I feel obligated to point out that some of the chefs with lab coats do care a lot about the source of the ingredients.
Oh, they do indeed. I know that they care about the ingredients. For me, it just sometimes gets over-manipulated. Or the ideas are too far stretched about working with processes that are less interesting to me than what the traditional processes are.

Tell me about your work with Chefs Collaborative.
I’ve been involved with Chefs Collaborative since 1994. The organization started in ’93. It’s a nationwide organization of chefs and people in the food industry who are thinking about how to have a more sustainable, seasonal, artisanal food supply, and how to celebrate those aspects in our restaurants and in our businesses and to teach ourselves more about these products as we go along, so that we’re not as ignorant about where our food comes from and what effect it has on the environment in its production or collection. That’s been a very important part of my growth and thinking over the last few years. I’ve been on the board since ’97 and I was the chair of the organization from 2000 to 2006.

Chefs Collaborative recently posted online a letter to the Obama administration, asking for more attention to sustainable and good foods, which you and many other prominent food people signed. Can you talk about that?
It’s a number of things. It was really sort of saying that through the cooking in the White House, they have a tremendous opportunity to showcase and celebrate the best in American cooking. The best in American cooking is products that are raised by farmers, that we are growing for taste instead of for fast turnover, and that it’s a wonderful opportunity that they have to demonstrate to the nation why eating well is so important to our personal health, but also our national, ecological, economic health, and that the pursuit of cheap food is destructive to the nation on many, many levels.

What do you expect the administration to do?
I think that he has his hands full at the moment, and so I don’t have high expectations in that regard. I think it’s an opportunity to continue to make public the importance of these issues and the connectiveness between the food choices that we make to many aspects of our health.

Do you ever go to Washington and talk to policy makers, or try to translate your public platform into concrete policies?
No, I’ve done very little of that. It’s very difficult to get it to translate into policy. There are so many parties at play there. I see my role as the chef of a restaurant, of a public place, more than to be about policy making, but about inspiring people to think about these issues, to make better choices. Where there’s opportunity, we can influence. But it’s not been a focus of mine up to this point.

Is the downturn in the economy affecting the Greenmarket? What are the people you talk to there telling you?
That’s not clear. Some people may be cooking at home more and so they can shop there more. I think there are certainly going to be pressures in the restaurant business for sure, for people to cut their food cost percentages and, therefore, buy more conventionally produced ingredients, which is sad if that’s where things go for people. But I understand those pressures.