Remembering Savoy

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Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell
Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell

When Peter Hoffman announced that on June 18 he would shutter Savoy—the SoHo restaurant he has run for 21 years at the cobblestoned corner of Prince and Crosby—Manhattan learned it would lose more than just a fine dining landmark, a longstanding icon of its culinary landscape. Hoffman, you may have heard, promises to open a more casual, up-to-date place in the space by September. But when Savoy’s golden glow goes dark, with it goes the urban version of our very own hearth, our collective spiritual home—the kind of place where people gather around the fire not just to eat, but to commune with kin and take the long view of life.

The hearth, after all, is a literal one: Until the end of next month, at least, the restaurant boasts two fireplaces, both used for cooking.  The restaurant’s many regulars will long mourn the loss of Savoy’s cassoulet suppers simmering away inside the fire each fall in embertopped cast-iron Dutch ovens, and the shad feasts celebrating the return of that fish to the Hudson River each spring. For this year’s shad dinner, Hoffman and his executive chef, Ryan Tate, nailed the boned and bacon-larded fish to planks inserted right into the flames the way the Colonists did. In true Savoy style, they served those fillets with smoked shad fritters and a charred spring onion aioli; a briny-sweet bite of house-pickled fish tucked between a buttery crisp of bread and a layer of green garlicky omelet; and a wedge of its creamy roe with brown butter cream in a lemony sorrel broth.

If you’d been paying attention at Union Square Greenmarket just a few days before, you’d have seen Hoffman tuck the sorrel into the back basket of his trademark giant tricycle, emblazoned with a sticker reading “The revolution will not be motorized.” That line is exactly the kind of idea those family-style, special-occasion dinners are meant to highlight. Savoy has long been Manhattan’s place not just to share in one season’s harvest and plan the next, but to critically evaluate what we eat, how we live and the American state of home economics, in the Wendell Berry sense of those words. (Berry, for decades regarded as the back-to-the-land poet laureate, has personally spoken during one such Savoy dinner, as have Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, Mark Kurlansky and just about every other living luminary in the farm-to-table world.)

Savoy has always been a Greenmarket-showcasing pioneer, starting in 1990 when Hoffman and his wife, Susan Rosenfeld, opened its doors in what had been a shiny luncheonette. (And before that, a barber shop: The old painted pole still stands guard in the downstairs dining room.) Savoy has since steadied city souls with its über-sustainable sustenance: A crusty wedge of real bread redolent with rustic local grains and slathered with cultured Vermont butter; a snarl of saber-toothed dandelion greens slicked with anchovy dressing and crowned with a slow-poached egg laid by a hen Hoffman may have even met.

True, if farm-to-table awards were given out by how much product a chef buys from local farmers, Hoffman wouldn’t win. Even combined, the volume at his two restaurants (Back Forty, his more casual spot, opened on Avenue B in 2007) couldn’t come close to a place like Gramercy Tavern, which could serve a hundred hungry locavores at lunch alone. He wasn’t Manhattan’s first cook to obsess over Union Square, nor would he score first-place for flat-out farm-driven deliciousness, either. Which is understandable: Many of the best city chefs regard ingredients with integrity as a win-win, but their main goal is taste; for Hoffman, one gets the feeling it’s the other way around.

But Savoy never sought to be a Fine Dining Experience, as Blue Hill or Del Posto or Gramercy Tavern all are. It’s the kind of place to order a pint of local suds and a few fat slices of housemade mortadella at one of the city’s loveliest little bars, or where your Eileen Fisher–wearing aunt can come after her environmental book club for a wedge of silky, oil-poached wild-caught striped bass, perhaps paired with house-pickled ramps and spring’s first spinach with walnut-mustard dressing. And Back Forty is decidedly down home, an Alphabet City outpost serving outstanding burgers, berry crisps and beer milkshakes—dishes that Dan Barber, who long ago supplanted Hoffman as the locavore spokesmodel, would never offer on his extraordinary—and extraordinarily refined—menus.

But while Hoffman’s fare may be more rustic than rarified, it’s often wonderful—and if you’re hungry for a heaping helping of meaning, he serves up multiple kinds of satisfaction. That’s because for him, farm-to-table is not a cooking style or a purchasing preference: It’s a belief system that’s just one piece of his progressive worldview. Ask him what he ate for lunch, and he’ll likely connect the answer to healthcare reform or congestion pricing or this morning’s op-ed about fracking in our foodshed.

This is a man who would never willingly miss a single day at Union Square Greenmarket, and not just for the grub. Other chefs may drop in for a frenetic Saturday spree before hailing a cab (or simply send their sous-chefs), but Hoffman’s approach is to savor the experience. He’ll park that giant trike and lean against box trucks and benches for hours, discussing pests, peapods and parenting, what the Japanese nuclear crisis means for Obama’s energy agenda and whether it’s possible to taste the difference between maple sap collected in metal buckets and sap that ran through plastic tubing. (Hoffman claims he can.)

There are hellos to the grad student working Flying Pigs’ stand (ever the mensch’s mensch, he asks after her dating life); a chat with the president of Abrams publishing company (“your bar was the best thing about working at Scholastic,” he says wistfully of his time in that SoHo office); and a stop to score ricotta at Dancing Ewe, a sheep dairy whose owners, like so many farmers here, credit Hoffman with their success. Hours later, the chef has still not bought the sorrel he originally came for.

“That’s part of the whole point,” says Hoffman of all these exchanges, “there’s a conversation that doesn’t happen at Whole Foods.” Here you don’t just read a sign that tells you how much sea scallops cost; you spend 20 minutes talking with the fisher about the social-political-ecological meaning behind their place in history.

These are all ideas he’s been pondering since adolescence. As a 16-year-old in Tenafly, New Jersey, in the early 1970s, he knew he wanted to do something “intellectually stimulating but still physical,” he says: “I didn’t want a desk job.” Seeking work connected to the natural world, he considered forestry and biology, but was set

on a culinary path by an unlikely friendship with a retired commercial fisherman and a shot of a chef clutching vegetables to his chest on the cover of Time.

The fisherman was Chris Letts, now a Hudson River Foundation frontman in his 70s who long ago introduced the teenage Hoffman to his lifelong love of the sea and to the concept of foraging via Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus.

The chef was Paul Bocuse, the Frenchman famous for his farm-forward food. “I think the title was Cuisine du Marché,” recalls Hoffman of the Time cover. “I was like, ‘that’s it.’ I don’t think I even read the article.” (Skimming is not standard practice for Hoffman, who’s celebrated Proust with a four-course meal and counts New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik as a friend.)

Hoffman decided to fast-track high school and took an entry level job at a resort restaurant in Stowe, Vermont. The continental cuisine didn’t thrill him but the kitchen energy did. “I loved the theater of it, the community, the performance and the climax of Saturday night at 8:30.”

When the weather warmed, Letts landed him a fishing gig back home, plucking writhing shad from nets off 138th Street, when the waters were still alive with the herring cousin heading up the Hudson River to spawn. (Hoffman chronicled the experience in this magazine in 2009.) But before he could go back to cooking, there was college to attend, as per parental demands. So Hoffman enrolled at UC Santa Cruz, where he counted gray seals for a professor and learned about the perils of the green revolution before dropping out to cook at a local restaurant. He again loved the line but, ready to come home, ignored a friend’s advice that he should go work at this place in Berkeley called Chez Panisse.

Instead, back in Manhattan, he cooked at La Colombe d’Or, one of the first French restaurants in New York to serve rustic Provençal cooking rather than haute cuisine. That sensibility appealed to Hoffman—simpler food that wasn’t “Frenchie La French,” as he puts it. So did John McPhee’s 1979 New Yorker piece Brigade de Cuisine, about a European-trained chef in a tiny town in Pennsylvania raising his own trout and cooking what grew nearby.

When the opportunity to master that kind of cooking arose, Hoffman jumped at the chance. He had wanted to study in Paris with chef Madeline Kamman after reading her book The Making of a Cook but her classes were full. “I got a phone call on the pay phone at [La Colombe d’Or],” he recounts: “‘There’s been a cancellation,’” a voice informed him. “’If you can be in France in two weeks, you can be in Madeleine’s class.’” He made it, and spent the last of his college money on three months cooking with Kamman, whose core concepts have formed the framework of his cooking since: that regional foods were rooted in geography and social history, and that the true way to cook was using, he recalls, “what was in the moment and what was in the market.”

Those seem like no-brainers now that everyone has turnip tattoos, but at the time, the approach was just taking root stateside, coalescing as something called New American cuisine. Back home, Hoffman immersed himself in it, reveling in the food of trailblazing

restaurants like An American Place, originally opened on the Upper East Side by chef Larry Forgione—“I ate my first morel in his restaurant,” Hoffman dreamily recalls—and the Quilted Giraffe, the quirky French farmhouse-y spot in Turtle Bay where Hoffman cooked alongside Ray Bradley, who would go on to be one of the Greenmarket’s most beloved farmers. He moved to the kitchens of Hubert’s on 22nd, a townhouse turned New American bistro where he met Susan Rosenfeld, who would eventually become his wife.

They knew they wanted to open a restaurant, but first he would complete two more stints abroad—one in Provence with Richard Olney, the Iowa-born author of cookbooks on French country fare, the second at a restaurant in Japan. (“I saw an aesthetic that would bring the natural world to the plate,” says Hoffman of the latter trip, counterbalancing the French penchant for what he calls “manipulation of the natural world: dots and cubes and brunoise.”)

Hoffman married Rosenfeld in 1988, and they set out in search of a space to open the restaurant they’d been imagining together. When they stumbled on that shuttered SoHo luncheonette, Hoffman looked up the lease in the city’s records. It was coming up for grabs, and thus Savoy was born in a fledgling artists’ outpost in the wasteland east of Broadway, a lifetime before direct trade macchiatos proliferated and shoppers’ stilettos provided the sidewalk soundtrack. Susan worked the simple, 40-seat dining room, behind which guests could glimpse Peter in the tiny kitchen. He made connections with local farmers and fishers and foragers, cooking their harvests into dishes like marinated halibut with cucumber salad and braised duck with Concord grape puree. In 1995 they annexed the upstairs apartment, got a liquor license, and put in a bar and a working fireplace. The Times noticed, and critic Ruth Reichl awarded the restaurant two stars.

Hoffman was still Savoy’s sole chef, and his handiwork would go on to become signatures of a scene: He has an “instinctive understanding of vegetables,” Reichl wrote, a way with salads (“you will instantly be seduced”), plus a penchant for breaking rules:

“Who would expect that rosy slices of grilled peppered tuna in a vinaigrette based on the classic Catalan romesco sauce (ground nuts, peppers and tomatoes), would be served with good old American onion rings? Fabulous onion rings, I might add, made of sweet red onions.” Reichl nailed the feel of the place itself: “The small restaurant is so casual, so comfortable and so unpretentious,” she wrote, “that it is hard to believe it is in Manhattan.”

Many restaurateurs have taken the same approach, and several have done it better, but Hoffman’s serious study of farm and food issues remains a rarity. Which makes it easy to see why, when Frank Bruni gave Savoy its second glowing two-star Times review in 2009, he called the restaurant New York’s Chez Panisse, an East Coast answer to Alice Waters’s Berkeley-based birthplace of the good food revolution.

Both Waters and Hoffman drew inspiration from youthful tours of France and Italy, but both ultimately formed consistent allegiance to Americana—from half-wild cress foraged on a Hudson Valley riverbank to wild salmon caught by Native Americans off the Alaskan coast. (“It’s a delicious fish, and it’s supporting indigenous fishing communities,” says Hoffman, for whom the latter is as important a trait as the former.) Both kitchens have served as springboards, their line-cook lineage traced like one big family tree across the country’s locavore landscape. Hoffman’s culinary offspring all but created what New York magazine dubbed “New Brooklyn Cuisine:” Minds behind RoseWater, Diner, the Grocery and Franny’s were all sparked at his stoves.

But moreover, like Waters, Hoffman has long been happy to leave the stoves to hired hands like Ryan Tate at Savoy and Shanna Pacifico at Back Forty, freeing him up to save the world. While others pursue television spots and lucrative advertising sponsorships—

Hoffman has turned down both—this guy is after another kind of action, the kind whose payoff is a different kind of change.

He’s always been much more than a chef, even back when he was still the one cooking. The man spent 10 years as the only chef on the Greenmarket’s advisory board, helping guide and grow the city’s market system to the marvel and model it is today. He is a founding member of Chefs Collaborative, the national network of professional cooks working to teach their colleagues where, how and why to find sustainably sourced products. And when he’s not considering the concept and a name for his new restaurant—it will balance his philosophy with a price point and feel that fits Soho’s touristy clientele, he says—he’s hard at work on a marketdriven memoir (with recipes) that we can’t wait to read.

Those projects are only possible when you delegate the day-today: Having traded his whites for brown cords and button-downs, he still shows up at both restaurants nearly every day with new product and new ideas, but insists on changes only when something’s really wrong. (Missteps, like a basil cocktail from a new bartender in February, are pretty rare.) “I’m not the chef anymore,” Hoffman freely admits, “but I’m still the culinary director. I hold out a set of guidelines by which the restaurants operate.”

Those go beyond sourcing to stuff like caring about your staff: “One good thing about Peter,” says Tate, “is he wants his employees to have a life.” For the most part, he lets Tate and Pacifico do what they want if they follow his heart. “It doesn’t have to be his food,” says Tate, “it just has to be his philosophy.”

This summer he’ll focus that philosophy at Back Forty, which he named after the hidden quarter of land on the Midwestern parcels doled out by the Homestead Act of 1862. The government gave away 120-acre blocks, Hoffman explains, sketching rectangles on a scrap of paper, and the quarter farthest from the road was most likely to be left wild and wooded. It was also the place, he adds with a smile, “where you would go to make out.”

That’s maybe true of his own Back Forty, too, thanks to its sweet backyard, communal tables and that laid-back menu—“great ingredients in casual delicious ways,” as Hoffman puts it—that will likely inspire what happens at the space where Savoy now stands.

Back Forty’s menu is largely driven by the butchery skills Pacifico mastered in order to break down whole carcasses from Fleisher’s Grass-Fed Meats upstate. While her vegetables shine—roasted roots and tangles of the sweetest spring greens—Back Forty is a carnivore’s delight: fried pork jowl nuggets with pepper jelly; fat housemade sausages that change nearly every week; a terrine with stoneground mustard; grilled flatbread made with lard and topped with a mouthful of pig’s trotters, bacon, melted onions and thyme. Yet Back Forty is best known for Pacifico’s contender for best-in-city patty, transformed from trimmings of her two weekly deliveries of a half steer, served on a buttered sesame bun with spicy ketchup and a housemade pickle. (Tomatoes, too, says Pacifico, but only in season).

Despite the handiwork of his chefs, Hoffman is still master of ceremonies, especially during those idea-centric fireside feasts held for 18 years at Savoy. At those family-style nights of dinner and discussion, all manner of tastemaker—from Betty Fussell to Joel Salatin to Stephen Jay Gould—have held forth in front of the upstairs fireplace and, between each course, discussed the fate of local fisheries, the flavors of the Riviera, the follies of the Farm Bill or the forestry skills of Umbrian truffle hunters. Way back in 1995, Michael Pollan spoke about the history of apples in America—a decade before his Omnivore’s Dilemma would hit nearly every nightstand in the nation.

As much about philosophy as they are about food, those communal hearth-side chats are what we’ll miss most about Savoy, those nights when the place transcended typecast and become nothing less than a salon. Savoy’s final shad dinner this March featured a lecture on the species (and a recipe for the pickled fish) by none other than Chris Letts, who took Hoffman fishing for shad back in 1974 and put him on the path to Prince Street. When he and Hoffman took the floor that night it became a pulpit, as they re-inspired eaters that when it comes to voting with your fork, hell yes you can, and hell yes you should.

Still, while Hoffman is often called the ur-locavore, he doesn’t identify himself as such: “It’s a simplistic look at an extremely complex topic,” he says of the term. Citrus, olives, chocolate and countless other foods from afar share pride of place on both his menus, just as long as his sustainable sensibilities—that those foods come from independent groves or eco-enlightened fishers—stay true. Moreover, Hoffman claims the question of what to call his culinary philosophy isn’t what matters. “You don’t think Jackson Pollock called himself an experimentalist, do you? He was too busy painting. I could talk about it,” he says of his life’s work, “but mostly I was just doing it.”

As it happens, for once we disagree. It’s not so much Hoffman’s cuisine that draws us back time after time, or Savoy’s menu that we will miss most, but his fireside wisdom, and his longstanding role in illuminating our place in the world. “Savoy has been my life for the past 21 years,” he says wistfully, “that place, that style and all the rest…but now I am getting excited about what it will become.” If that includes conversation by the hearth, then we are, too.

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