Peter Hoffman has been a fixture in the downtown New York restaurant scene for years. He opened Savoy in Soho back before the neighborhood was a glorified shopping mall, and championed a farm-friendly culinary aesthetic before the term “locavore” was ever coined. He shuttered Savoy last year, but just a few weeks ago reopened the space as a new outpost of his East Village eatery, Back Forty. We called him up to learn more about the restaurant and to get his take on New York dining today.
So why create another outpost of Back Forty instead of coming up with a totally new concept?
Well, we just thought so many people really appreciated what we were doing with Back Forty, though I’m not interested in rolling out the cookie-cutter restaurant formula, because there has to be a heart in the restaurant for it to be any good, and people trying to cook good food. That’s the difference in cookie-cutter, 1-2-3-4 places. We’ve learned so much about how things have evolved and dining in New York — the casual style and easy approach people like and the large-format style of eating where people can make a party. Savoy couldn’t handle large groups and had a different way of dining, so we’re building and extending on what we’ve learned.
How do the two Back Forty restaurants differ?
One thing is that we put in a smoker here on Prince Street, so that allows a realm of exploration that we didn’t have before. We can do pulled pork and smoked lamb shoulder, so those are all new dishes.
What is the don’t-miss dish to get?
The sammy, which is certainly something from the smoker, as are the ribs. For lots of people, the kale salad. [Chef] Shanna [Pacifico] developed it at Back Forty on Avenue B, and people are having a great time with it here. In terms of presentation, all the salads come in wooden bowls, and whether it’s because it’s more rustic or easier to chow down, there’s just something wonderfully tactile about it being in bowl rather than on a plate. I don’t know how the menu organization struck you, but I had a revelation one day thinking about how we eat might be a fun and interesting way to organize the menu, looking at what utensils we use or whether to eat with your hands, and giving license to that.
Tell me more about the large-format dinners.
We are still expanding and developing them, but you can book them for up to eight or 14 people, and with that you get an entrée with its condiments plus dessert. People can order à la carte for salads, appetizers, and vegetable accompaniments to the meat entrée. One is a smoked pork shoulder — it’s pulled pork with barbecue sauce, buns for sandwiches, and pickled vegetables, and then each of these dinners comes with dessert, so like an open-face apple tart. Or you can have smoked lamb shoulder with harissa, grilled flatbread, and carrot salad. Or goat shoulder, which comes with a more Mexican-style setup, guacamole, and salsa. The idea is to put a wonderful platter of meat down in front of a party. You have the entire table and eating communally as a group of friends. You were very involved in the locavore movement before it became trendy. How did you first get into it?
I think there are a number of ways to answer that. I was working in a restaurant in the early ’80s, and that was the beginning of all this. And the term we used was New American cuisine. And New American cuisine was about looking at the historical, traditional dishes as well as the great ingredients being grown and produced in our region. We had farmers coming to us and introducing what they had and what we could buy direct. Foods that were fresh and delicious, picked for ripeness. They were better than the fancy vegetables being brought in from California and France, and it was about having a direct relationship with farmers. It was an educational process, and it taught me what to look for. A lot was our learning from them in terms of talking and sharing what they experienced as growers.
How do you forge relationships with farmers now?
It’s lots of things. You talk to other chefs, people call us, and I go to the Greenmarket. It works in myriad ways. Everyone is looking for opportunities and sharing information, so farmers can make it worthwhile to make that trip to the city and thrive and expand. It’s not about competing with other chefs but sharing that knowledge.
What’s your favorite day to go to the Greenmarket and why?
Mondays and Fridays are interesting days at the Grenenmarket in Union Square because it’s where some of the newer farmers are, so that’s an opportunity for new people to get in because it’s less populated. I also think the Tribeca market on Saturdays has some great people, so I love going down there because of the great fish. There’s Blue Moon and a great orchardist, and a nice vibe.
Check back in tomorrow, when Peter discusses his favorite things to eat — and the foods he’d never serve at his restaurants.