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Q & A with Peter Hoffman

peter head shot 02.jpgFresh and local are unwritten laws in the dining world nowadays.  That wasn’t the case in 1990 when Peter Hoffman opened Savoy in Soho.  That was the era of Continental cuisine.  Hoffman was one of the original Greenmarket chefs, who shopped at the market for seasonal produce and changed his menu accordingly.  “I first started buying from local
farmers when I was at Huberts on 22nd St in the early ‘80’s,
but it took a few years for the farmers to educate me before I had a
deeper understanding of what went into growing delicious and healthy
food,” Hoffman explains.

Just a few years ago, he opened Back Forty, his second American restaurant with classic drinks and imaginative cooking.  After twenty years, he’s still creating inspired dishes, like salt crust-baked duck with ruttabaga and cherry risotto.


What did you want to be when you grew up?
(I wrote a letter to John Glenn asking about what he ate in space);
psychiatrist (part of my job is still helping people figure out how to
get along with each other); and forester (my concern about the
environment was channeled into food and agriculture issues).

What was your first job in food? What did you learn?
Dishwasher and prep cook in Stowe, VT.
The theatre-like thrill of an evening’s performance —  anticipating
and preparing for the night, the climax of activity as service hits its
stride, and the teamwork required to pull off a great show totally
enthralled me.

When did you first become
concerned with locally grown produce and sustainability
I first started buying from local
farmers when I was at Huberts on 22nd St in the early ‘80’s,
but it took a few years for the farmers to educate me before I had a
deeper understanding of what went into growing delicious and healthy

What was the dining
scene in New York like when you first
opened Savoy?
Did you encounter resistance or guests who didn’t get it?
Savoy was one of the
first restaurants to provide tablecloth service and ambience without the
tablecloth. Now that is commonplace. There was also still a default
setting for New Yorkers that fine dining was European (French and
Italian). It’s taken some time but we have definitely moved away from

How do you think you’ve managed to thrive
at Savoy
for over twenty years?  How did keep the menu new
and relevant?   How has your cooking evolved over
the past two decades?

Care and attention. As a
restaurateur, I know it’s easy to be distracted by peers opening places
all over town (or the globe), but every day there is plenty to attend to
in one small restaurant if you want to do a good job and run a quality
operation. Consistency is hard to achieve but holding oneself to a
standard is an important place to begin. We have kept the menu relevant
by staying interested and curious about food rather than trying to just
run good numbers. We are cooks first and foremost.

What are the fundamental differences between the menus and
dining experiences at Savoy
and Back Forty?
Back Forty
is another iteration of easy, unpretentious atmosphere and delicious
food that we started with Savoy.
Savoy has two fireplaces, Back Forty has an outdoor patio; Savoy
accepts reservations, Back Forty is first-come, first-served and has a
larger bar.

How do you divide your time between both restaurants?

desk is still at Savoy so that remains my base of operations, but some
days I just feel like I am cycling in circles between home, Savoy and
Back Forty, round and round and round.

As one of
the original greenmarket chefs, you paved the way for a generation of
responsible chefs and seasonal cooking.   How much
farther do you think we have to go to get back to real American food
(not processed or corn-fed meats?)
More chefs need to know what they are buying and not get snowed
by marketing messages covering for “business as usual.” We need to
shift away from large scale corn and petroleum based agriculture to food
that is grown for taste and the long-term health of the planet.

We hear that you’re working on a book about green market
shopping.   Any tips for readers?

Taste when
you are in the market. Not all strawberries taste alike even if they
look similar.

Beekeeping was recently legalized
in New York City.
You’ve been keeping a rooftop beehive for awhile now.  Does
that mean you were illegally beekeeping?   Do you
use the honey in your restaurant kitchens?

Really? I had no idea. We do get to use some of the honey at the

What is your favorite dish at Savoy?  At Back Forty?
ever evolving salt-crust duck at Savoy; chicken liver mousse on toast
at Back Forty.

What is your least favorite (and
yes, you must pick one)?

Popular though they may be, I
don’t like onion rings.

Do you have a favorite
fruit or vegetable that you use most in your cooking?

really love shifting with the seasons. Favorite ingredients that get my
juices flowing are asparagus from Guy Jones (Blooming Hill Farm),
apricots from Red Jacket Orchards, strawberries from Franca Tantillo
(Berried Treasures), cooking tomatoes from Rick Bishop (Mountain Sweet
Berry Farm), and pork shoulder from Flying Pigs Farm.

Where do you like to go for a great meal in New York City?
like to take my kids out of Manhattan in search of real immigrant
cooking — as close as possible to what was made in the homeland and as
far away from American pablum as we can run. Last Saturday we went out
to Flushing for dumplings and just before Passover, Savoy
chef Ryan Tate and I went to Rego Park
for Bukharian food. What’s New
York if not diverse?

future plans on the horizon?  Spill the beans…

Find a place to farm, continue to connect more people to the
joys of eating out of the market, and get the book written that I have
been talking about for years.

Address: 70 Prince Street (at
Crosby Street)
Phone: (212) 219-8570

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