The Escoffier Questionnaire: Perry Hoffman
RESTAURANT: SHED CAFÉ, HEALDSBURG
When you are learning how to forage for wild foodstuffs, you are learning to learn. That is, you are learning (or remembering) to be curious and observant. Every day is different, every piece of land holds its own ecology, every season follows its own pace.
The new culinary director at Healdsburg SHED, Chef Perry Hoffman, is a model of this nimble sort of intelligence. That was immediately apparent as I and my fellow eager acolytes followed after him, engaged in convivial conversation and plant gathering, during a recent foraging tour, cooking class and lunch offered through SHED’s series of Grange events.
Something about moving through the “mosaic of the forest,” as Hoffman called it, brightens awareness. He points out the lacy green lichen on an oak and explains how parboiling it (to release the toxic oxalic acid), draining it and then frying it will make a crisp and airy snack. “We made this recently for an event,” he says.
Yes, he used “we.” In my experience it is rare for the head of a kitchen to speak about the creative process in anything other than the first person, but Hoffman’s clear sense of collectivism makes the afternoon feel like a shared discovery.
As we walked, the vast knowledge he exhibited of our area’s flora and fauna felt spontaneous, though it was honed over many years of foraging the local woods and creeksides. Hoffman grew up in Napa, where he still lives and co-owns Carneros Micros, a culinary farm that grows organic microgreens, edible flowers, “forgotten” herbs and a unique variety of vegetables for high-end restaurants and hotels. His grandparents, Sally and Don Schmitt, opened a little restaurant in Yountville in 1978 that they named the French Laundry after the former tenant in the space, and ran the restaurant until they sold it to Chef Thomas Keller in 1994 to move full time to their acclaimed The Apple Farm culinary center in Philo, CA. Hoffman’s mom was a waitress at the restaurant when he was growing up.
This is in Hoffman’s bones.
Hoffman seems magisterially calm in his new culinary home at SHED, a place so bustling with activity that even our post-foraging meal was given a charming intermezzo when co-owner Doug Lipton came upstairs to invite us to watch his weekly grain milling in SHED’s own mill.
In the same spirit of collectivism, I am passing forward a few highlights of what I call the “philosophical field notes” that Hoffman imparted to our flock that day:
The best stuff is always on the other side of the creek.
As we begin to fill our baskets with wild herbs and greens, we quickly become accustomed to an abundance that we couldn’t even register at the beginning of the short walk. What we once saw as a featureless tableau now shows itself to contain over 30 different edible plants, and the number grows as our vision becomes more attuned.
Of course, we are already wanting more, stranger, different. Hoffman jokes that what delights is always just out of reach, just a bit farther down the road. This is a fitting comment for the chef ‘s career in the literal sense, as he seems always to be gazing 1,000 feet forward, thinking a million thoughts. It also makes sense in the bemused way it was meant, as he has done something unusual for a chef and remained in the same valley as a student, a stage (the French word used to refer to an unpaid intern in a professional kitchen) and a star. Hoffman’s stardom twinkled as a cook at Rutherford’s Auberge du Soleil, but truly shone at the now closed Étoile at Domaine Chandon in Yountville, which earned a Michelin star three years running under his stewardship. The first year, Hoffman was just 25, making him the youngest chef ever to receive a star from the esteemed European hotel and restaurant guide.
Most of the interesting things grow at the borders.
Despite the common trope that you shouldn’t pick an edible growing near a road or foot path (basically anywhere in the direct path of car exhaust or where a dog might lift its leg), often this is where you find the wild landscape offering its best because disruption instigates growth. Along a path that bordered a vineyard and a creek we found Valerian mint, pineapple weed and wild radish, among more the common daisies, miner’s lettuce and mustard.
Cooking should tell the story of the land around you.
Snapping off the newest growth of a Douglas fir, the tips so much brighter than last year’s needles, you can sense the tenderness of spring with all your senses.
The meal that Hoffman and his chef de cuisine, Bryan Oliver, created back at SHED using our foraged finds was not just the expression of spring, but the transcendence of it. It was a performance, in part, a salad “installation” in SHED’s upstairs event space. For their first act, the two cooks literally painted the long marble tables with dressings, foraged greens and delicate wildflowers a la Jackson Pollock. Platters of braised lamb shoulder followed, served over faro and under more wildflowers and greens. Dessert was simply a tempered Brillat-Savarin triple cream cheese, crowned with edible petals and accompanied by a basket of house-made bread.
The meal, like all of Chef Hoffman’s meals, told interwoven narratives—the spot on the earth that turns sunlight into a feast, the land where we stumbled upon the ingredients like children in a fairy tale and the space that encourages creativity.
EMWC: What was the first meal you made that you were proud of ?
PH: An open-faced toasted sourdough slice with Jack cheese, caramelized onions, apple balsamic vinegar, black pepper and fresh thyme. I was 11 and really proud of it.
EMWC: What was your favorite food as a kid?
PH: Apple Dutch Babies right out of the oven, with fresh Meyer lemon juice and powdered sugar or cinnamon, sugar and jam.
EMWC: What food do you wish you loved?
PH: Squid ink. I just don’t like it. I cleaned 25 pounds a day of squid in my first kitchen job, so that was enough.
EMWC: What food do you love unreasonably much?
PH: Tacos al pastor on a small corn tortilla, with cilantro, onions and lime—done the right way. La Bamba taco truck in Sonoma is really good.
EMWC: What is the most difficult cooking technique to do well?
PH: Finding balance in a dish—the harmony and balance between every item, and how it looks aesthetically.
EMWC: What are you exploring in your kitchen now?
PH: I am always learning and experimenting. Right now it’s making fish sauce, and learning to make kombucha. I collaborate back and forth with my chef de cuisine Bryan Oliver—it’s never ending, what we explore.
EMWC: What nonculinary influence inspires you?
PH: So many things: Nature—I discover so many things outside and when I am foraging, the way leaves fall on the earth. The garden. Global cultures and their stories.
EMWC: What is your idea of a very healthy meal?
PH: I love to eat a dish of cucumber and yogurt, with a generous pour of olive oil and topped with sumac.
EMWC: What is your favorite ingredient?
PH: I love olio nuovo so much, the texture, the hint of brininess. I love how each one is unique. Life would be hard without olive oil.
EMWC: What is your favorite hangover meal?
PH: Dim sum and a beer.
EMWC: What restaurant in the world are you most dying to try?
PH: Schwarzwaldstube in the Black Forest region of Germany.
EMWC: What kitchen utensil is most indispensable to you?
PH: Other than a knife, a microplane is essential.
EMWC: Whom do you most like to cook for?
PH: Family—for my grandmother, Sally Schmitt, and my wife, Kristin. And also for my culinary team—I love to show them things they haven’t seen before.
EMWC: If you could do one other job, what would it be?
EMWC: What is your favorite midnight snack?
PH: A bowl of granola.
EMWC: What most satisfies your sweet tooth?
PH: Good chocolate, there’s no way around it.
EMWC: What would you eat at your last meal, if you could plan such a thing?
PH: Suckling pig.
EMWC: What’s your favorite place to go (and what is your favorite thing to order)
… for a splurge meal?
Eleven Madison Park in NYC for their version of clam chowder.
… for breakfast?
Butter Cream Bakery & Diner in Napa. It’s unchanged since I was a kid.
… for pastry?
The baked goods at SHED by Loretta Patzwald. Her kouign-amann is so good.
… for a late night/after work meal?
Mexican food is the best. It’s hard not to get an al pastor taco.
… for a cup of coffee?
Ritual Coffee in Napa. I order the cappuccino.
… for a greasy spoon meal?
Soscol Café in Napa.
… for groceries?
Vallerga’s Market in Napa. They have kick-ass produce.
… for kitchen equipment?
Shackford’s Kitchen Store in Napa and Maison Empereur in Marseille, France. It’s the oldest hardware store in France.
… for ice cream?
We make a seriously good ice cream at SHED. The honeycomb and crème fraîche we have now is incredible.
… for chocolate?
La Forêt in Napa’s Browns Valley
And lastly but not leastly … what is your favorite local wine or beer for the season?
A glass of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc on a summer day. It’s perfect.