Bryan Miller / June 2011
Food Arts presents the June 2011 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Peter Hoffman, one of the earliest and most articulate American chefs to extol farm-to-table cooking and an appreciation for the regional and seasonal, both as a staunch chefs' advocate and as a creator of two much-emulated New York City restaurants.
In the 1980s and early '90s, when New York City's Union Square Greenmarket had yet to bore into chefs' consciousness, Hoffman was all over it. He peddled around on his curious-looking bicycle with a large cargo bay mounted on the front, overloading it with upstate turnips and mushrooms, fingerling potatoes and bitter greens, sweet corn, and delightfully deformed organic tomatoes. Negotiating the cobblestone streets of SoHo, he unloaded the bounty at his homey town house restaurant, Savoy. (Savoy closed this month after 21 years and is expected to reopen in the fall with a new name and different concept.)
That bicycle could be a metaphor for Hoffman's career. After a brief apprenticeship at the original Quilted Giraffe, in New Paltz, New York, Hoffman, who grew up in Tenafly, New Jersey, tooled around Italy and France "looking for the real thing: regional products and traditional cooking." He studied briefly with the teacher and cookbook author Madeleine Kamman, then returned to New York City, where he found himself—and his bike—in the employ of a quirky, creative couple, Len Allison, a chef, and Karen Hubert, who shared many of his culinary sensibilities. Hubert's opened, quietly, in 1981, with Hoffman as a line cook. It was a seminal place in many ways, though few recognized it at the time. Not even the owners.
Noting that he likes to "stir the mind as well as the pot," Hoffman, 55, has hosted dozens of culinary theme dinners at Savoy with noted speakers from the world of gastronomy and beyond. He intends to continue the programs in the new restaurant. He describes the yet untitled venue as more casual in decor and food, along the lines of his East Village outpost, Back Forty, which opened in 2007. The new space will hold a larger bar on the ground level that is suitable for dining. One of the two upstairs spaces will be configured to accommodate communal meals for up to a dozen or more, featuring items like suckling pigs and crab boils.
For all of Hoffman's renown as a champion of things pristine and healthful, he is not a didact. "I‘ve never been a radical with these things; I've never been a locavore," he declares. "That religion is too simplistic and narrow for running a restaurant like Savoy. I need to buy from California in mid-winter." And, he adds, running to the farmers' market every day does not alone make a great chef. "There are good farmers, and there are bad farmers," he says. "That's where your education comes in."