Peter Hoffman, WHAT'S GOOD?

Peter Hoffman, WHAT'S GOOD?

Zibby is joined by restaurateur Peter Hoffman to talk about his debut memoir, What’s Good?, which not only takes readers through Peter’s own history but through those of his favorite ingredients as well. The two talk about the people who shaped Peter’s cooking style, what we all gain when we cook with local ingredients, and where to find the best strawberries in New York City.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Peter. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss What’s Good?: A Memoir in Fourteen Ingredients.

Peter Hoffman: Thanks, Zibby. It’s great to be here with you.

Zibby: No problem. Would you mind telling listeners about your book and how you decided to even make this a book? What was the impetus for inspiration for starting it? Why this format?

Peter: The book is both a memoir, which is my development as how I became a cook and then a chef and then an owner of a restaurant running Savoy restaurant and Back Forty for over two decades — interwoven with that, alternating chapters, there’s memoir chapters. Then there are chapters about ingredients following the progress of the seasons in a year in the Greenmarket at Union Square. In some ways, it’s a book that’s about the business of being in the food world and then the art and the passion. Those ingredient chapters are my muses in many respects. It’s sort of what keeps me fired up as a cook and interested in the work itself as opposed to, sometimes the business is what we have to get through to just keep it moving along. It’s interesting in that it kind of toggles back and forth so that you come with me and you stay with me as the cook that I am, and you’re also learning about my growth and development and the challenges in the business and things like that.

The impetus for the book was, after having run restaurants for over twenty-six years and worked as the chef and as the creative director and the teacher, auteur in many ways, for lots of employees in the restaurant, I realized that I had stories to tell that were mine alone, just in the development of my personal vision. That moved cooks forward and changed the way that they viewed their work and their cooking. It was time to put that down on paper so that more people could access than just the people who worked in my kitchens. That’s what the book is. It’s personal. It’s about family. It’s scientific but not too geeky and still pulls back the curtain on what life in a restaurant can really be like, a little bit environmental. It’s a very interesting blend of those things that, in many ways, go back to what the title is, which is, what’s good? Why are we cooking? Why are we living? What’s it all about? and to do that through foods that are not esoteric, they’re ones that we cook with every day, that we go to the farmers market and bring back into our kitchens and want to have a deeper appreciation for so that we have a deeper appreciation for sitting down at the table and sharing a meal together.

Zibby: Amazing. I have to say, I dogeared the chapter about strawberries, which are probably one of my favorite foods. You said that there’s some amazing strawberry that’s better than anything else that you’ve ever found before. Now I have to figure out how to track this down.

Peter: It’s a three-season berry. That’s why it’s called the Tristar. Most berries, like the Long Island berries, they’re finished now. We’ve moved on to the darker fruits and the stone fruits and things like that. The people who are growing the Tristars, they’re going to be throughout the summer and into the fall. If you’re in the city, I’d be delighted to meet up with you and go to Union Square and show you the berry.

Zibby: Amazing. All right, I’m going to need to do that next time I’m in New York. Perfect. There were two things that I found particularly interesting. Well, many things. One of them is that you were kind of a locavore before this became a thing. This eating locally, sourcing ingredients, all of that exploded as something cool and hip to do, whereas this was just your whole raison d’être for how you were cooking to begin with. That was one thing I wanted to talk to you about. The other was your very interesting family history and your mom’s family from Nuremberg and all of the backstory and then how religion kind of weaves into your food and the celebration of Passover and all of that. Let’s quickly talk about the eating local piece of your cooking aesthetic.

Peter: Right, it’s an aesthetic, not an ascetic. There are a couple of answers to that. One is that I studied in France with a woman named Madeleine Kamman. The world that she opened up for me was to really — I already was having my problems with haute cuisine as a pursuit, as a culture, and as a cuisine here in New York City. When I got to Madeleine’s, she really just took me by the shoulders and turned me 180 degrees and said, “What’s really worth looking at are the regional cuisines of France and Italy.” That’s what she knew about. They are the foods and the dishes that grow out of a place. They grow out of the ecology of what grows here because of the geology and the rainfall and the exposure and all of that. These are dishes that reflect place and speak of place. That was mind-blowing, life-altering for her to do that for me. As I said, it finally turned me away from haute cuisine completely. I traveled around Europe looking for those regional foods and cuisines. Then when I came back to the United States, I was like, what does that look like here? and pursued that. Some of that was about beginning to make connections with growers who were growing foods in our region or maybe sometimes outside the region but were growing for taste and growing for excellence, not industrial production. Slowly, I started to realize that that was my point of inspiration in terms of what to cook. What dish are we going to make? It was combining the regional cuisines of Europe, in particular, the Mediterranean, with what’s growing in our region. That’s what we explored over those decades at Savoy. It’s still the way I cook. I have this balance between what’s in the larder, what’s always on hand in my kitchen, and going to the market and going, what is peak freshness, peak ripeness? What am I going to come home with? What are we going to make for dinner?

Zibby: What’d you have for dinner last night?

Peter: Dinner last night, it was interesting. It’s descriptive. It was sort of a pulled-together little bit of leftovers in a certain way. There was some corn that I had grilled. We didn’t eat all of it the prior night. I made a salad of the cold grilled corn with kimchi that was in the fridge and some cucumbers and ripe peaches. It was hot and sweet. It was spicey. That was sort of a relish to go with some barbequed parts of chicken, also leftovers. I had bought a whole chicken, used most of it for a dinner for four people. What was left were two legs and a thigh that I split for just Susan and myself. That was marinated in garlic and parsley and some anchovies to bring umami salt into the picture, the little bit of smoke from the barbeque. Then I made a potato salad with rice vinegar and fresh shiso from the garden. Very light, very simple, easy cooking. It was still hot yesterday afternoon. The stove was only turned on to boil the potatoes. The rest of it was outdoors or already cooked.

Zibby: Awesome. Sorry, I was just curious. It’s so interesting, all the different flavors and things that you wouldn’t have thought would necessarily go together, but that’s why you’re a chef. Tell me a little more about your family and the background. I also thought it was so great how you wrote about Hortense — is that how you pronounce her name? — your housekeeper growing up who cooked a lot at home, and the influence of her and her cooking. I feel like most people do not discuss that so much in literature. You have a very literary memoir here. Tell me about that decision to include her.

Peter: Hortense was a wonderful person in my life and in my household. She was a black single mom, came from somewhere in the Carolinas. I’m not really sure where, part of that whole Great Migration northward. She was a great cook. That was part of her skill set of how to get out of the South, get out of poverty. She was esteemed for that work, not just by our family and by me, but by others. I spoke with one of her descendants over the last year. The lore in the family about her was that she was a great cook as well. There’s real truth to that. The chapter is sort of a complex chapter. It starts out by saying that my parents, as much as they cared about good food, they were very obsessed with health, maybe economy as well coming out of the Depression and coming out of the rationing of World War II. It was margarine, what was the cooking fat in the house. Hortense came into the house. She did some of the family cooking. She knew that butter was way better than margarine. I quickly understood that she was a wise woman. I don’t know whether it was intentional or just that she didn’t use it all, but on the days that she would leave, she would leave the half a stick of butter on a plate next to the butter tray where the margarine was. I quickly understood that the butter was better on toast than margarine.

I watched her cook. She taught me some things. I was less than ten. I’m not exactly sure what years I’m talking about. She taught me how to make a roux and how to make bechamel and things like that. I realized that she had deep knowledge. That was my entry into butter. The chapter goes on to talk about butter and the role that it had in French cuisine. My moment in some of those French restaurants was the moment of nouvelle cuisine and the beurre blanc, which was the light butter sauce, not flour thickened like a bechamel is. It’s a more à la minute-made sauce. Everything was finished. Vegetables were tossed in beurre blanc. Fish was. It was over the top. Then I turned my back on that. Part of that was also what Madeleine taught me. It was a moment in which people started to realize that olive oil was a great cooking fat. It was a couple of things. One is that I sort of make this whole analogy about emulsified sauces versus un-emulsified sauces, the idea that the French wanted to make everything look uniform and enrobe a piece of fish with this sauce as opposed to maybe the more quintessential Italian fish sauce for me, which is salsa verde, which is chopped up parsley and capers and some anchovies and olive oil and raw garlic and all that. All the parts are discernable. There’s no emulsification going on. We’re not hiding anything. As I said, all the parts are discernable. That is a huge departure from French cuisine, from French domination in what is high-end food.

That’s some of what that chapter is about, looking at that and talking about, again, race and class issues, how they played out in the restaurant. It was complicated. Lots of kitchens, in New York City at least, are racially — and have a class division in them. There’s the prep cook world and then the line cook world. I pushed against that and didn’t really want to have a class of prep cooks. In time, other chefs who came in from other places convinced me that the financial viability and increased productivity would be improved if we did that. You gain certain financial viability, but you lose a certain culture and teamwork in a certain way and a certain connection to the craft itself. I had a great butcher. My line cooks didn’t really learn and practice how to cut fish and cut chickens and all of that any longer because there was a skilled guy who rocked that out every day. It’s harder to develop one’s artisanal practice when you have that kind of division of labor. I pushed against it, but I still had to figure out how to be financially viable in the restaurant world in New York City. That’s a little bit of what that chapter is. As you can see, it’s everything. I’m talking about what was in my refrigerator when I was seven and who was in the house, Hortense, who taught me to love food, and then French restaurants and then into my kitchen and my wonderful butcher.

Zibby: All the ingredients for your restaurant success, essentially. By the way, what are you doing aside from writing this book and everything? What’s your plan now?

Peter: You know what I’ve decided? I thought, pretty much, that I was done with the restaurant business once I closed the restaurants. I was burnt out. I tell that story in the book about some of what got hard and where I got discouraged. I was working on the book prior to the pandemic, but the pandemic was an incredible focusing agent for me. There was nowhere to go, obviously, nobody to get together with. I would just go to my desk and work. I came out of it with a book and came out of it realizing that I’m a writer and a food thinker or food advisor, but I’m not a restauranteur anymore. I’m done with that. I’m doing a little consulting work. I have some ideas as to about what a second book might look like, or pieces of it. There were ingredients that I didn’t get to cover in the book. It has an ingredient base, but I wanted to just do this arc through the growing season. Then there were ones that got left out. I’m going to go back and do those and tell those stories and figure out how to bring them together in another way.

Zibby: If you were just starting out now in the restaurant world, would you do it again in today’s climate?

Peter: That’s a good question, Zibby. It’s a really, really tough moment. I think the pressures are — what we’re seeing, in many respects, is that move away from the middle. There’s the high-end restaurants. Then there’s the more, I don’t want to say fast food, but the fast causal and the cloud kitchens or the ghost kitchens. I think it’s very challenging for a small mom-and-pop or just a small artisanally run place to thrive. The goal of setting up a way to explore cooking and to develop one’s cuisine, I think there’s still a lot of drive for that in young cooks who find that passion. Were I thirty today like I was when we opened the restaurant, yeah, I think I would. I would find another way to try and make the equation work. It looks different. We have to figure out how to take care of all the people who are part of the operation in a way that is less exploitive than what the business has traditionally looked like. That may mean that dinner has to cost more to the diner, but that’s the real cost of dinner. Somehow as diners, we have to adjust to that, that that’s not a high-end experience, but that’s what it means to have somebody cook for you or what it means to have an artistic mind building a menu for you.

Zibby: Interesting. Then in terms of writing, what advice would you give to an aspiring author having just completed this?

Peter: One of the things that was great for me, Zibby, was that I had a writing group. I wasn’t really able to wrangle myself to meet my own deadlines even though I tried to work at it every day. Having a group that met on a regular basis, for me, it was basically monthly, and needing to bring a piece to that, and so that was another chapter, was a great impetus. In the beginning, it still was this, but the people — I was the only non-real writer in the group. Everybody else, they were English teachers or ghostwriters and things like that. I didn’t always feel competent to critique their work. In time, I realized that I am perceptive and have perception as a writer or as a reader. Listening to that conversation, listening to other people talk about both my writing and other people’s writing, it really upped my game. I became a much better writer and a much better critic. I don’t mean in a snotty way, but just as a critical thinker. My writing improved dramatically because of that writing group and those relationships. Highly recommend not being alone with it and just getting comfortable putting it out there even if people kind of — I would come home in the beginning feeling like my piece had been torn to shreds, and so a little discouraged but still knowing that people were encouraging me and that I should keep going.

Zibby: Excellent. Great advice. I know, I’m always so afraid to show people. Then they have comments. I’m like, ugh, but your comments are right.

Peter: That’s the thing. First of all, not all the comments are right.

Zibby: Not all the comments, yes.

Peter: That’s the thing. It’s not so much like, she didn’t know what she was talking about. You just go, okay, that one, I don’t agree with. The ones that do make sense, you go, yes, I already know that. There’s an honesty that you can have with yourself and go, yep, that’s true, and go back and go, okay, I want it to be better. It’s good to share it. There’s some way that we feel secretive about it. We’re protective. In fact, it’s going to be a better product and our editor’s going to be happier because it’s far further along because someone has helped stimulate our thinking and made us up our game.

Zibby: Yes, a hundred percent. Excellent. Peter, thank you so much. Thanks for talking about What’s Good?

Peter: It was wonderful to talk with you, Zibby. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for sharing it with all your peeps.

Zibby: My pleasure. Now I’m hungry. Now I got to go have some lunch after all this talk about food. See you at the farm stand.

Peter: Buh-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Peter Hoffman, WHAT'S GOOD?

WHAT’S GOOD? by Peter Hoffman

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