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Q & A with Back Forty’s Peter Hoffman

peter hoffmanWhen Peter Hoffman opened his seminal, farm-to-table restaurant Savoy back in 1990, terms like “local,” “seasonal,” and “sustainable” had yet to become part of the dining lexicon.  Now, you’d be hard pressed to find a Manhattan chef that doesn’t make regular runs to the Union Square Greenmarket, or a Brooklyn eatery that fails to cite the origins of its Heritage pork, free-range eggs, and artisanal farmstead cheese.  “The movement is stronger today than it ever was, and I’m thrilled about it,” Hoffman said.  “It’s only a good thing, because there continues to be all of this industrialized crap taking up our shelf space and our brain space.”

But ask Hoffman if he misses Savoy, which shuttered in 2011, and he’ll tell you, “Some of our old customers miss it, but for me, it was time to move on.  You don’t tell Picasso that you liked his Blue Period better, and ask why doesn’t he paint that way anymore.”   Instead, he transformed  Savoy into Back Forty West, just under a year ago, now using the famous, second floor fireplace to burn the top of his crème brûlée.  The menu is equally virtuous at  Back Forty West, where you can start your meal with a freshly baked Parker House Bread, made with local Red Wheat and House-Smoked Butter.  There’s a Whole Grilled Catskill Trout with Roast Pumpkin Pine Nut Relish and a Chocolate Torte with Heirloom Citrus Marmalade to finish.  Eating well never tasted so good!

Why did you decide to close Savoy, especially since you still had it in mind to open a restaurant in the Prince Street space?  Why not just tinker with the menu, or the interiors, instead of overhauling Savoy completely?
When we opened Back Forty on Avenue B, we saw that the casual restaurant experience appealed to a lot of people, particularly a lot of young people.  We wanted to bring that whole group of folks and that buzz back over to Prince Street.  

When we opened Savoy, it was also casual in its way and its day.  But there’s an ever-changing definition of what casual looks like.  For example, at Back Forty West, we don’t take reservations.  That’s part of the vibe, just drop in, come by, have a drink at the bar.  If this were still Savoy, it would have been very jarring to tell our old customers that, all of a sudden, they couldn’t make a reservation anymore.

Savoy was a fixture in Soho for twenty years.  Do you miss it at all?
Not really.  Some of our old customers miss it, but for me, it was time to move on.  You don’t tell Picasso that you liked his Blue Period better, and ask why doesn’t he paint that way anymore.  People evolve when it comes to how they express their thinking and their point of view.  So I moved on, and just kept the canvas.

What are the commonalities between Back Forty West and Back Forty?
We have a very interesting meat program that we’ve been able to build on at both of the restaurants.  We buy half a steer every week, which gets broken down on Avenue B and divvied up depending on who’s offering what on the menus.  So the commitment to locally and properly raised animals continues to find really good expression in both places.

What makes Back Forty West entirely unique?
We installed a wood-fired smoker at Back Forty West, which was not something we were able to do at the other restaurant.  It’s exciting… you can have a party, book a large table, and have a whole joint of meat for everyone to share.  So it’s definitely not just a knockoff of Back Forty.  There are some very unique aspects of being in the old Savoy space, too.  The fireplace is still there on the second floor, same as it was at Savoy, and we burn Crème Brûlée in it during the wintertime.

Why did you decide to move chef Shanna Pacifico over to Back Forty West, and how has that shuffle changed the vibe at Back Forty?
Opening a new restaurant is a very intense and demanding experience, so it made sense, in terms of Shanna’s growth as a chef, to move over to Back Forty West in Soho.  And what that meant for Back Forty was that her sous chef, Michael Laarhoven, could also move to the next stage of his career.  So it’s been a great year for Michael as well, growing into being an executive chef.  And that goes beyond just putting together a delicious, integrated menu.  It’s learning to train and develop a staff, learning about ordering and costing, and getting into the everyday mechanics of running a kitchen.

What are some of the dishes at Back Forty West that you’re particularly excited about right now?
What’s exciting for me is tasting anything that the chefs have created that is alive, and fresh, and full of flavor, and expressive of the time of the year and season.

Talk to me about your menus at Back Forty West as well as the East Village outpost.  They’re not traditionally formatted with appetizers, main courses, and dessert.  What was your thinking behind labeling dishes as “Hands,” “Spoon & Ladle,” and “Fork & Knife” at Back Forty West, and “The Garden,” “The Core,” and “Beef Core” at Back Forty?
I feel like people get stuck in the idea of “this is what we need to eat first and this is what we eat next.”  It’s limiting.  You could say that “The Core” is just another word for entrees, but I’m just trying to indicate that they’re larger plates.  And dishes from “The Garden” focus more on vegetables than they do on protein.  It’s the same thing at Back Forty West.

 We want to stimulate the diner to think about how they like to eat.  Do you like to eat with your hands?  You can pick up a sandwich or tear into the flesh of a piece of fried chicken or eat sashimi… it’s all very tactile.  Or would you rather eat with a knife and fork?  Sometimes that can be a more refined experience, but sometimes it’s just about the pleasure of ripping into a big steak.  It was a way of asking people to think for a second.

What do you think of the Greenmarket revolution, and the new crop of chefs and restaurants that are carrying the farm-to-table torch these days?
In the broadest strokes, I think it’s great.  The more the merrier.  If you want to see the food in this country change, we need more people cooking in seasonal ways, more people buying directly from producers and farmers, and in turn, inspiring even more people to operate that way.  I love going around and seeing what people are doing in terms of farm-to-table.

Do you find younger chefs “Greenmarket Fare” sincere?  Or do you feel like everyone’s just kind of jumped on the bandwagon without much thought to the movement itself?
I don’t want to dish on anybody or take away from the fact that there are lots of people doing this in earnest.  There are always creeps and cheaters in whatever field you’re talking about.  And I don’t want to pay any attention to them by even talking shit about them.  There are lots of chefs that really buy from farmers and cook seasonally and try and think about where their product is coming from and make thoughtful choices instead of just getting the cheapest stuff they can find.  That’s great.  End of story.

Why do you think that Brooklyn has become such a nexus for the locavore movement?
Because the rent is cheap and young people live there, and that’s who’s interested in these ideas and embraces them.

What other chefs or restaurateurs do you really respect when it comes to working locally, seasonally, and sustainably?
I have lots of colleagues of my generation, like Marc Meyer of Cookshop and Five Points, that have been carrying the flag forward for many years.  A former employee of mine out in Brooklyn, Caroline Fidanza of Saltie, is making great, delicious food.  Andy Feinberg, at Franny’s in Brooklyn, is another former Savoy employee doing terrific things.  There are lots of good people doing good work out there, and I’m just cheering them on.

What do you think of the new foraging trend?  It seems to be the next stage of “back to the land” cuisine.
Some of it’s good.  I started foraging before I actually became a cook.  When I was about 16, living in New Jersey, I began collecting stuff and cooking it.  So I think the idea of bringing foraging into fine cuisine is wonderful.  Of course, not everything out there tastes great.  I’m more of a straightforward cook, and I think sometimes some of the new cooking is a little too fussed with.  And the foraged stuff tends to show up the most in the fussed food.  I’m less interested in the fussy food than I am in the foraged food.  But in terms of collecting what’s grown in NYC or what’s wild in our environs, I think that’s great.

Any new restaurants, cookbooks, or collaborations on the horizon?
I’m trying to do some writing.  I did a piece in the current edition of Edible Manhattan about fracking… trying to put that in the perspective of a chef that uses natural gas to cook with.  You know, that quandary.  But in terms of other restaurants, I don’t really know what the future holds right now.

One Comment

  1. Keep on writing, great job!

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