Aug 6, 2021 • 1HR 0M

A Conversation with Peter Hoffman

Talking to the former chef-owner of New York City's Savoy and Back Forty, as well as the author of the new memoir 'What's Good?' about the meaning of farm to table.

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There are eras of the recent culinary past that I was only able to experience through reading magazines and retroactively digging into cookbooks, and what I find most exciting was the development of farm-to-table “New American” cuisine in New York City. How chef and author of What’s Good? A Memoir in Fourteen Ingredients Peter Hoffman came to be a major figure in that development through his restaurants Savoy and Back Forty is an absolutely fascinating story, thanks to his candor and ability to self-critique. The book also explores the significance of certain ingredients, showing how local ecology and cuisine develop hand in hand.

Going back through the transcript to get this conversation ready for publication made me realize how deeply it dug into my psyche, that I have been thinking about its themes ever since we spoke in mid-July. This conversation forms the foundation of a lot of my forthcoming essays, because it is a rich and generous one that I know I will revisit again and again. We discussed the cultural significance of the embrace of olive oil in the U.S., why it’s important to name Palestinian cuisine, and how difficult it is to run a restaurant while maintaining one’s ideals. Listen above, or read below.


Alicia: Hi, Peter. Thank you so much for coming on today to chat. 

Peter: Yeah, it's wonderful to be taking this time with you, Alicia.

Alicia: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate? 

Peter: Yeah. 

So I grew up in Bergen County, New Jersey, a suburban town just over the George Washington Bridge from the city, where most parents commuted and traveled into the city. But my dad was a dentist. And so, he was locally based. My mom taught little pre-K, and then taught moms how to play with their kids in educational ways. And so, she did that locally as well. 

And our food, it was interesting, sort of what the food world was like there for us. My mom was born in Germany. She was an émigré from Hitler's Germany. And so, there were some strong European influences in some of the dishes, but clearly in the sensibility. And so, she was not one to embrace industrialized food for the most part, and really cooked with real ingredients and insisted on that in many ways. 

It's not like she was cooking German dishes. She was 10 when she left Germany, and actually got her culinary grounding from the Joy of Cooking, which her mother-in-law gave her when she married my dad, since she needed to know how to take care of her darling son. She was always grounded in good ingredients simply prepared. There was no Jolly Green Giant in our house. There was no Wonder Bread. When I was a young teenager, health food stores started to pop up. And she was packing me rice cakes and little gorp combos as part of my lunch. 

So my parents also brought us into the city a lot to experience the diversity of life and culture, whether it was art or cuisines. I was exposed as a young person to Middle Eastern food and Hungarian food. And an important sort of dining experience for me was when I got taken to a Brazilian spot and I ate feijoada.

The world is diverse. And it's exciting, and food is part of that discovery of difference. And whatever homogeneity was part of my experience in the suburbs, or deadening about being in the suburbs, they counteracted that with a lot of exposure to the world. So, grateful to them for that.

Alicia: And in the book, you write about this very food-centric upbringing. But was it different from how your peers were growing up, this no Jolly Green Giant, no Wonder Bread, and going into the city a lot? Did you have a sense that this was in contrast to kind of the dominant ways of eating?

Peter: I mean, we had other friends that ate good food. But my mom, if I think about my peers at the time, we definitely stood out as not completely outliers, but definitely on the good food edge of things. But in the dominant culture, in the school cafeteria, where lots of people were buying what the cafeteria ladies were preparing, I always brought my lunch. And so, that was always an expression of my mom's values. 

And so yeah, I had to explain lunch to people. [Laughs.] What are those rice cakes? But I don't remember it being a source of too much embarrassment. But it definitely was a shift there to say that I didn't look like everybody else. But there were lots of ways that I didn't look like everybody else.

Alicia: [Laughs.] And I've read a lot of memoirs of farm-to-table chefs that really aren't grappling with kind of economics or restaurant realities in the way that yours does. You write that your first jobs in French restaurants, you saw them as serving rich foods for rich people, but you kind of came around to the idea that a restaurant could have a bigger purpose through reading Wendell Berry. How did you establish your own politics, and how did they evolve while you went from working in restaurants to owning restaurants?

Peter: I mean, my politics — it's about how did I realize that food had a political side to it? Because my politics were always liberal. I mean, my parents were lefties, and so that kind of thing was always in the household looking through a leftist lens of politics. I don't think they had much awareness of what the cultural politics were. And a lot of people didn't. And some of that's only coming into conversation now. It's just what paintings hang at the Met or in MoMA is a conversation that nobody was really having about whether that was just white guys, or were looking at objects that were stolen from peoples who lived in other lands. And there was sort of the discussion about the Elgin Marbles being stolen from Greece, but that whole larger conversation about colonialism and wasn't one that was being had until very recently. 

So in the world of food, once I said and expressed the idea that I was interested in becoming a chef, it was well, ‘Go for the best.’ And so the best was defined as what's at the top of the pyramid, which is old cuisine, French old cuisine. 

And so, I tried to pursue that. And I got a job in a, what I say in the book, is sort of a second-level French restaurant, the holy trinity of Le Cirque, not La Cremaillere—Le Grenouille, and Le Pavillon. Those restaurants weren't interested in taking me, and—La Côte Basque, that's actually the three. And they sent me somewhere else. And so they needed some help. And I found it a completely oppressive kind of cooking and bogus in this sort of wonderful chapter. 

Speaking about your latest thing about wounds, I write the chapter about how I burned myself terribly in trying to hold on to my job. We were opening cans of escargot that were—that came from Taiwan and stuffing them in little shells and plugging them with herb butter. And the specials would be developed by the chef when he came back and was just kind of this interchangeability of this garnish mixed with that garnish, therefore, it has this name that Escoffier created 100 years ago. And it had no relationship to ingredients, to freshness, to anything inspirational. And I was like, ‘I hate this place.’ And I got fired. But I got fired because I didn't belong in that culture. 

And so, I found my way to—I mean, there probably were some other jobs. But I found my way to a job at La Colombe d'Or, which was cooking the food of Provence. And so, that was my first entry into regional food as opposed to old cuisine. And with that comes a very different approach to ingredients. It's not about making it richer and adding lots of butter and making it so refined that you didn't need a fork and a knife. You could eat it with one hand, or that you're attenuating the taste by adding all this butter to it. 

Regional food is much more direct. I worked unsuccessfully. I tried to get into the old cuisine world of Midtown, high-end French restaurants. It was a culture that I didn't belong in. And I also realized it wasn't food that was exciting me in any way. And slowly, I found my way to a job at La Colombe d'Or, pretty much the first Provençal restaurant in New York City, and certainly one to put it out there in a modern way for diners at that time. 

And what I realized in being there was that regional foods, and the cuisine of Provence in particular, was really diametrically opposed to what old cuisine, which was always trying to make things richer and more delicate and more attenuated as opposed to cooking directly with the ingredients. Maybe keeping the animal on the bone, but also that the vegetables were less adulterated. Not to say that we didn't chop things in brunoise or wanting it to look orderly, but that power and punch and zest and sort of explosions of flavor were goals in that cooking as opposed to delicacy. And that started to really change my head, and I never looked back from that and never really tried to get into the world of old cuisine again. 

But with it, there was also this conversation. I remember having a conversation with a fellow cook. And he was talking about, ‘Well, let's study the cuisines of the poor people of the world.’ And I was like, ‘Why?’ And I started to realize that this whole notion of old cuisine was wrapped up in a kind of colonialism and exploitation of cultures, in terms of trying to go out and conquer the globe. 

So then it sort of started to morph into ‘Well, who's in the dining room? And are these fat cats people that I want to cook for?’ And so there's always sort of that balance between what are we cooking and who are we cooking for? In a certain way, that was a choice that I made in terms of what kind of a restaurant that Susan and I opened, that it was never trying to be a high-end restaurant. It was not priced that way, because I didn't want to cook for those people and just be surrounded by that. It's not like it was cheap, or it—I mean, it was still a mid-priced or higher price restaurant, but I never wanted to develop a milieu in the restaurant, that this is food for the wealthy and what comes with that.

And I write about this a little bit as well, is that those restaurants are trying to sell—they're still selling you the idea that they have access to something that nobody else has access to. It's not just that the diners have more money in their wallet or on their credit card than other people. But it's this mythical notion of selling the idea that the chef, as the gatekeeper, has access to ingredients that nobody else has access to. And that's why you should come eat in my restaurant. 

And I've always sort of hated that notion. I want to be a good cook. I want people to like my cooking or appreciate what I'm doing, because I do it well and I deal with technique. And I make it delicious, or I make it beautiful. But I'm working with the same ingredients that everybody else is, has access to. And we can build the cuisine and a reputation based on abundance, not on scarcity. 

Alicia: Absolutely.

And I mean, how do you think about the role of a chef? In the book, you write about trying to have a non-hierarchical kitchen and trying to—and how that didn't work. Having an egalitarian kitchen didn't necessarily work. But we've been having these conversations now about how do we create an egalitarian, equitable kitchen space. And how did you take these ideas that you learned from what you didn't want and apply them in a way that actually made sense when you opened Savoy?

Peter: Well, we can only ever work with where we're at, historically, in a certain way. What might feel like standard practice today wasn't then, which was the idea that the front of the house was all pooled tips. And that was a way that I wanted to encourage cooperation and teamwork, now people have—

I mean, we understand even more acutely what's wrong with tipping today than we did then. But the idea that you were going to give a territorial section to somebody that they controlled the flow of dollars that came and went in that section. I mean, it's just absurd, right? 

So that was a change that we made and with it, the completely expressed values that we're going to work together. And we're also going to work together between the front and the back of the house. And so, that was always a challenge. Certain people came into the restaurant having had different life experiences or work experiences, and didn't always treat—cooks didn't always treat the front of the house with full respect and in the other direction as well. And so that was always a teaching moment, always an opportunity to continue to model for people that we need to treat people with respect. And so, that was an ongoing project. 

I opened the restaurant where we didn't have any prep cooks. Everybody did their own mise en place. And I was really dedicated to that idea, because I wanted people to take responsibility for how they—for what their mise en place was. Was it cut nicely? Was it clean? Was it fresh? It's not just sort of, like, ‘What is this product? Who did this?’ 

But people—It didn't always have efficiency to it. And there's this sort of a division of responsibility that is part of the manufacturing industrial model that people tried to convince me was more efficient, meaning more financially lucrative, that I needed to embrace. And they were right. I mean, they were right, because it's so hard to make any money in the restaurant business. And so, you look to what compromises can you make that still feel ok? That they're compromises, but they're not detrimental to the product? That's a whole project to, to say, ‘What am I comfortable with? What am I not comfortable with? And how do I continue to find that balance?’ 

I don't know. Without going deeply into the whole thing around the burger, there were compromises that then got made in the restaurants that then—I ended up going like, ‘This isn't the restaurant that I started out with, and that, that fed my soul. And I don't know how to get back to what I once was. And maybe I can't.’ And that sort of led to some discouragement, and ultimately to closing the restaurants.

Alicia: Yeah. 

In a similar vein, you write about butter, and you just spoke about butter as kind of representative of cuisine and of this French dominance of what good cooking is in the minds of people who both worked in restaurants but also went to restaurants, and how the rise of olive oil led to this kind of understanding that there were other cuisines in the world beyond continental European cuisine. 

And that was really interesting to me, because I think I remember the moment when everyone was, started to use olive oil. But I never, I think, thought about it in this way necessarily. And I wanted to ask, can you kind of expand more on that moment? 

And also, you, when you talk about other cuisines, you do talk about Palestinian cuisine. And that really made an impression on me, because usually, that's not something people in food media say. Palestinian cuisine goes a little bit under the radar. 

And so yeah, those I guess, are two questions. [Laughs.]

Peter: Yeah, those are two topics. But let's talk about them. 

So the butter chapter is really, to me, a very interesting chapter. In some ways, it really reflects some of the complexity of the book. I'm not just writing a memoir; I'm also sort of telling stories about ingredients and our relationship to those ingredients. And some of that's botanical stuff. And in the butter chapter, it's really historical and cultural. 

And I open that chapter by talking about the fact that there was only margarine in my house when I was little, and sort of what that, I think that grew out of rationing food, and specifically butter being rationed during World War II. And that my parents experienced that and got used to margarine and sort of—you come to like what you have around you because that's what it is. And then it was our Black housekeeper who introduced me to butter and showed me what a far superior cooking fat and tasting fat it was. And it wasn't long before there were two butter dishes sort of side by side that—there was this half-stick leftover that she hadn't finished when she cooked food for us next to the margarine. And then soon I was buttering my toast with butter instead of margarine. 

And so that part of the chapter is sort of about a Black cook who came out of the South and came—made the Great Migration to the north for better opportunity. Used a great skill set that she had, which was that she cooked with skill and flavor, and that was part of what she did in our family and that we cherished her for, all of us. But I took that with me going forward, and so I have some gratitude there for introducing me to that world. 

But what butter was doing in French cuisine was that they were always looking—the French cuisine is sort of looking for homogeneity, right? They want a sauce that is, whether it's a cream sauce, or a butter sauce or bordelaise, it kind of lays over the—whatever you're saucing and completely envelops it. So, the idea of emulsification, it's sort of going into this, the poetry or the philosophy of pursuing emulsification as opposed to the unemulsified. 

And so, Italian food and cooking with olive oil tends to be about unemulsified sauces, that is showing the different ingredients and that something is broken or not brought together, or we see the diverse and varied ingredients. And so, there's something kind of deep in that, that we're not trying to bring everything together. We're saying that herbs are herbs and oil is oil, and here's some chopped up capers, and some bits of olive. And that there's beauty in unemulsified life. And I think that that's part of what olive oil did. 

It's the beginning of shifting away from France as the center of old cuisine and beginning to look to, well, who else cooks with olive oil? And what did they do with it? And so that took me into the Mediterranean, and being excited by the foods of North Africa or the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey, Greece, Lebanon, all of that. And all of those are such exciting flavors. 

I mentioned the Palestinian cuisine in the book, because I think it's important. I'm Jewish, and I write about some aspects of that. There's a chapter about Passover in the book, and then I used Passover to explore the world of Sephardic foods, that is the Jews who were expelled from Spain. And those are not my people. And my people are kind of the Northern European Jews, what are known as Ashkenazi Jews. And that was matzah ball soup and pot roast. And it had been served at my Passover table for decades. 

And I was like, ‘Oh, I'm so sick of this.’ All the jokes that people sometimes make about Jewish food not being very interesting, or just a hunk of meat on the plate kind of thing. And well, we've then over the last 20, 30 years, people have started to say, ‘Well, Jewish food can be really exciting. And it's really diverse.’ And so for me, I use Passover as a way of exploring all of that, and looking into ‘What are the Jews of Morocco eating? Tunisia, Greece, Turkey?’ All of that. 

And so with that, then you start to go ‘Well, many times those foods reflected the cuisine of the place itself. Where were Jews living? And is the food, really all that—aside from following the kosher rules, kashrut rules—is the food all that different from the people who were living there, around them, who were not Jewish?’ So a lot of those foods are similar, or the same. 

And so it led me to be able to then sort of say, ‘Ok, what is going on in Israel today?’ And specifically, sort of, at the same time that we have this rise of Israeli expansionism and Israeli exploitation of the Palestinian people and the conflict not moving any closer to any resolution in—it's been going on all my life, that there's this rise of interest and excitement in the food media around Israeli food and Israeli cuisine. 

And so, it immediately begs the question of what is this food? Where did it come from? What is—Not where did it come from, but I mean. It sounds like it's coming from outer space. It’s like, ‘What is this food about? What stories does it reflect and part of?’ Not all of what's being talked about in terms of Israeli cuisine, because there are many cultures and many Jews who have come to Israel. And so those dishes are diverse. 

But a lot of that is the food of the region, which is the food of the Palestinians. And what is that? And why isn't that something that we are really celebrating and paying attention to? And using that moment, to go, ‘How does this whole culinary story feed into the political story, and—or vice versa? Is the food story being used to color the political story that somebody wants to tell?’ And then, history is always told by the victor, right? One of the phrases that I think is important to look at, is like, ‘What is this history? Who's telling the story?’ And so, this is a good moment for us—a really important moment for us—to be looking at that, in terms of the cuisine as well. 

And so, yeah, our food is always has a political aspect to it and is always worth looking at and thinking about and—

I guess a while ago, you said something about Wendell Berry and all of that. It's just that moment of finding that essay, and that changed my whole outlook and my lens. So, it is expressive of our culture and our root values. And we need to be looking at that. 

One of the things that I, that I'm using as a signature and inscription in my book when I'm signing it for people who I don't necessarily know is ‘Our food is a self-portrait. Keep painting masterpieces.’ So, the part of the self-portrait is that what is it—

What is our food saying about who we are and what our culture is and what our values are? And so, we need to keep thinking about that and keep making choices and shaping that so that it really reflects what our values are.

Alicia: Right, right.

Well, you mentioned here also food media, where it was telling the story of Israeli food, and what does tha—what did that really mean? And what did it really reflect? And one of the first mentions, maybe the only mention of food journalists in the book, refers to complaints about ramps, about how they're trendy, they're not actually that great. The kind of stuff that food writers who have to write five things a day and put it out there do to just get people's attention. 

But I wanted to ask, what is your perspective on food media generally? Has it changed when you had a restaurant to when you don't have a restaurant? Do you really consume a lot of food media?

Peter: Big topic, Alicia. 

The world of the food media was a lot smaller when we opened the restaurant in 1990. But we still understood at the time that they had to generate content all the time. And so, that was both good and bad for us. We saw that if we could figure out that the reason people came around and were looking for things or that we could suggest ideas to them was that they needed content. But you also start to see where that's hollow. 

I also think that we’re in a moment where, independent of the food media, I think we've come to realize that reporters are not just innocent bystanders but they are actual participants in this story, in the shaping of the story and the framing of the way we think about things and how fraught that is in terms of the politics. And for a long time, I don't think we understood what that looked like in the food world. But now we do. We understand that in certain ways that as the gatekeepers, that certain people who write at certain publications, they are the tastemakers. And so, they tell you where to go or what to think about food experiences.

It’s fraught. And again, some of it gets shaped as white, elitist, sometimes male people being the ones who are anointed. And partly, they continue to reward the people who were part of the club that they're in. That gets back to the old cuisine thing, and it gets back to what paintings are hanging at the—in MoMA or at the Met, right? What is blue chip art, and what is blue chip food?

But we're starting to shake that up a lot, and in ways that are very, very profound and significant. And I think, still, where I'm most disturbed by where the food media hasn't really come to terms with their own role is that over and over again, we see that these chefs who are running toxic environments, whether it's sexual harassment or just a toxic workplace that is abusive of people's humanity in order to get the ultimate finest product of the night. Or the idea of that tough love is actually a valuable way of running a company culture. All of that the food media still hasn't moved off of that. 

And so that over and over again, we see all these James Beard winners or highly touted restaurants, then turns out the chef is a creep, or—I don't mean like a sexual creep, necessarily—but possibly—but not a good person. Not fostering good culture. I don't think the food media has come to terms with their own role in that. And we're still seeing it over and over again, that somebody gets called out and you go, ‘Well, how did they get here? How did that person rise to the level that they were at?’ And that's the story.

And even though some of the food writers have written, done deep research and gotten people to talk about it, it's like, ‘How did they get there in the beginning, and what is food media's role in that?’

And I have, I guess, I have some bad feelings about where and why I wasn't always considered part of the in crowd, whether it was the in crowd by other chefs or the in crowd by the food media themselves. And a lot of that had to do in its time, or in that time, had to do with that I didn't carouse in the way that was, what was the dominant social force in the food world at the time. And that was exciting, that people were living large, staying up all night and drinking hard and expensive—eating excessively and doing blowouts. I didn't want to live that way. 

So that's not as good a story as people who are living large. Still on my path and feel better about it. And my body feels better about it too.

Alicia: [Laughs.] 

Well, it is interesting, because I think that I've also wanted to see that sort of internal media criticism where when there's a great piece, maybe, at Grub Street, about—Mission Chinese Food was supposed to be this good restaurant to work at, but actually, it was terrible and toxic, the same as all these other ones. And you want to say like, ‘Well, where is the criticism of how this place was built up? It didn't come out of nowhere. Part of the fostering of the toxicity comes from the hype that we give to restaurants.’

But it's true. There hasn't been a real moment of looking inside and saying, ‘Well, what is our role in this, really?’ it's kind of just this vague correction, of course, that, you know—and I'm guilty of it, too, because I don't know how else to do my job, where we just kind of take chefs for their words on whether they're good people or not now. And we're not really still necessarily doing the real inquiry into how things really are in their kitchen. 

And now, Food & Wine changed its thing so that it was like 25 people doing good in the food and beverage industry. Why don't we just stop putting people on pedestals? Why don't we just tell stories? And it really is upsetting to me that we don't have a real reckoning because it's still trying to sell in the same old way, just kind of put it in new packaging.

Peter: Yeah, I agree with all of that, Alicia. And there's a way that as people, as individuals, that we still succumb to even if we are trying to get our politics right or we understand the stories that came before, there's a way that we are excited—or actually, maybe, I want to say titillated. I mean, that's part of it, too, is just like, ‘Where did it go wrong?’

Food is sensual, right? When we have great food experiences, it makes us feel great to be alive. It makes us thrilled. And what makes it tilt into sexual, right? 

And that's why I use the word titillate, right, because there are certain chefs who crossed that boundary. I don't mean with their workers or with customers. I mean, in their—in the way that they talked about food, that it crossed over into a sexual place. I mean, look what we called it. We called it food porn. Right? I mean, I was horrified when I first heard that term. I mean, it's like, ‘I love photographs of beautiful food, but food porn?’ 

All of a sudden, we've taken it to a place that is the debasement of one of the most glorious things that that our body has sensitivity to. And food is right there with it. It's such a debasement of people's beautiful cooking to call a photograph of their dish ‘food porn.’ And so, we continue to support that way of thinking about it through travel films, and what—

Look, I love travel. And I love food travel. It's been part of how I've expanded my mind and experience my understanding of what it means to be human and the glory of diversity on the planet, both in terms of what grows here and who lives here and what people have done with it. 

Alicia: Yeah.

And I mean, in the book too, you talk about Anthony Bourdain in a way that I think most people—I don't know. [Laughs.] We've kind of deified him in a way. And you write about how the early bravado, the devil-may-care attitude, and then the later coming to focus on land, labor, culture. For you, what was his influence when you were in the restaurant? And how do you perceive things now? What is, do you think, of his lasting influence?

Peter: Well, I think he gave license to a lot of the bad behaviors. And so, I hold him. I mean, it was there. But he romanticized that. And I think that was really detrimental to the restaurant world, to us, culturally. 

He moved off of that, and people really came to love his travel pieces and his exploration, that—and felt he had compassion and was able to connect to all kinds of people. There's truth there. I mean, he certainly was no longer following the old cuisine that he started out following in the same way that I was following that 30 or 40 years ago.

I think that what he moved on to certainly opened people's eyes to the wonders of the world and in different food and different cultures. But he still loved being outrageous, and got attention for that. And so, he continued to be a controversial speaker. And people love that. They love extremities. What we have politically going on in this country now to that, that we don't have real conversation, we have people who are at the extremities and saying outrageous things. And some people get behind it and vote for those people and other people are offended by it and vote against that person. So, he's complicated. 

Alicia: Yeah, no, very much.

[Laughs.] Well, to talk about kind of another sort of passing mention in the book, but it's actually—you're going to talk to Amanda Cohen of Dirt Candy tomorrow for MOFAD. And she emailed me while she was reading the book to say that you mentioned working at Hubert’s, because we're—we had a conversation at the end of last year where she was like, ‘You're the only person I've ever heard talk about The Vegetarian Compass.’ 

So, we are both the only people who've ever talked about this book and this person together. So when you write in the book about working for her, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ If you could tell me more about that experience, because it seems there's not a lot of information because she passed away so young and before her cookbook even came out. And you mentioned that it was where you were introduced to going to the Union Square Greenmarket. And so, can you tell me more about what she was like, what the restaurant was like, and how a vegetable-kind of focused restaurant was operating in that time?

Peter: So Hubert's was a fundamental restaurant in my development and in my life for many reasons. One is, I met Susan, my wife, there. But there was a group of people who were cooking there. And maybe this is true for lots of people that they have sort of, they're coming-of-age restaurant, or they're still connected to those people. And Hubert’s was that coming-of-age for me in many respects. 

So after sort of doing my attempts at old cuisine, and then finding regional food by working at La Colombe d'Or, then I ended up at another restaurant that was sort of trying to do old cuisine but from an American point of view. And that was the Quilted Giraffe. I had a lot of problems with what that food was. But I learned a lot there. And at least it was being run by Americans. And so that, there was a culture there and an excitement about food that was different than what was happening, or my perception of what was happening in the French world at the time of Midtown French. 

Then I went to France and I studied with Madeleine Kamman, and she was all about the regional cuisines of France and Italy. And so, she really pointed me towards not just cooking with the seasons, but that all these cuisines, all these regional foods grow out of what was indigenous to the region. And these wonderful dishes are classics, because everybody cooks them, because that's what everybody has on hand. And so, I was very excited by that notion and exploring the world of food through that. 

And so, after riding my bicycle around France and Italy and a little bit of Spain, following my time with her, I came back to the United States. And I landed at Hubert’s. And what they were realizing that they were interested in, and we were part of shaping that, but it was this idea of new American cuisine, that is the historical foods of this land, and the different peoples who came to live here from different places, but also what grows here. What's great that we can work with instead of flying things in from Europe. And so, that's the beginning of the whole farm-to-table movement. 

And so Len and Karen, Len Allison, Karen Hubert, a couple. They married while we were working together, but they had been a couple for a long time. They weren't cooks, really. I mean, they weren't professional cooks. They came to it from the world of philosophy and filmmaking, and they kind of had this idea of a group project. And so, Len saw himself as an auteur that he was. He was a film director without knowing anything about film. He was a chef director without knowing anything about food. 

And so, he gathered interesting people together and threw them into the lab of the kitchen and said, ‘Let's see what comes out of it. And it'll be interesting, and we'll serve it to people.’ And that was an incredibly exciting and liberating experience to be part of it. It wasn't necessarily a good way to run a restaurant, but there was some very exciting food that came out of that. 

And people that we got to meet, one of them being my friend Romy Dorotan, who now has Purple Yam out in Ditmas Park and had Cendrillon in Soho for many years. Masami Kawata, who I met through—we did an exchange program with Omen restaurant, the Japanese restaurant on Thompson street in Soho ‘cause it was across the street from where I lived. And I was so excited by that Japanese food, which was again, kind of regional food of Kyoto. Not just trying to be a sushi restaurant, but cook with all these interesting ingredients. And so, we did an exchange, and Masami taught me all kinds of things about food and technique and Japanese approach to cooking. 

And so, Len and Karen provided the environment in which all of that exploration could take place and that was supportive to so many people. It was interesting, Len kind of ran the show because he was the bulldog or more dominant person in their relationship. But she was the one with the real food sensitivity. When she tasted something, that was a more important critique than when he tasted something. 

And I'm sorry to disappoint you, at least in this moment in her evolution or her involvement in the restaurant, she wasn't a very important culinary force. She had a vision, but she was letting him run the show in many ways. And then, of course, we were this force of all these food artists doing our thing. So I wouldn't say that I really learned much from her in terms of being vegetable focused. 

I think it's there in certain respects, some—I've always known that what was most exciting about flavor on the plate was not the protein, as in the animal protein, but rather the vegetables, what the garnishes were and what that—what those flavor combinations were. Len and Karen were very close with Evan and Judith Jones. They ate at the restaurant regularly, and they socialized with them. And I think that as they moved into the world, the professional food world, that they looked to Evan and Judith as mentors to them. I don't think that they always had their own voice yet. Again, that was to our advantage as a group of cooks who were looking to find their own voice. There was a structure, but not necessarily a dominant culinary voice there. 

I don't know. It's interesting. So she wrote a book. It's funny, Alicia, because I don't—I didn't even remember that she had, that this book came out. First of all, it came out after she died. It was sad for us that she passed away. Len and Karen had moved to Hawaii, had left New York, partly to be in an environment where they could deal with her illness better and try and treat her in some more holistic ways. We didn't end well. Mostly, again, my relationship with Len more than my relationship with Karen, but that was sort of—she came along for the ride. 

She wrote a book that was a thinly veiled, fictional version of life at Hubert’s. And she was completely ungenerous in depiction of me, and I was very angry about that. And I felt that I had given everything to them. It was the most important thing in my life at that point, and it was so ungenerous. Not to say that I didn't have faults and things to learn and ways to grow, but I—they depended on me. And I gave them everything I had, and all my good spirit. Not just hard work, but I gave them my spirit. 

And none of that, other than that—she called me a workhorse. It was in this way that she was just like, ‘We're going to exploit this workhorse, because that's what he's good for.’ And it felt so debased. And I remember telling Len after she died, that that hurt me. And he said, ‘Well, that was fiction.’ He was deflecting, because it was barely fiction. 

So, I didn't realize that she put out a cookbook. But when you sent me that on Friday or Saturday, I went online and bought a copy to have a look at it and read his foreword. And so, I'll see what it is he was thinking about.

One of the things I just thought of, ‘cause of your interest, they were also very good friends with Anna Thomas.

Alicia: Oh, right. From the Vegetarian Epicure.

Peter: The Vegetarian Epicure

And they were filmmakers as well. And so, I don't know what's in Karen's book in terms of recipes or whatever, but she would bring dishes to us that came out of there or the things that she was eating. 

And I want to tip my hat to Len and Karen was that they had—they, in realizing that they didn't really know anything about food, they brought in guest chefs. This is before my time, when they were in Brooklyn. And so they had developed relationships with, among other people, Madhur Jaffrey and Edna Lewis. And so I got to know those women, because they came around to the restaurant. Again, I don't know what's in the book. But Madhur was an important influence for them, as well as a respected cook. 

And Edna as well, who we—those of us who were in the restaurant on the times that she came to eat and came into the kitchen and discovering her book, which is about—and Judith Jones was her editor. And that book was about seasonal cooking, right? I mean, sort of, she's telling you, from the community, the free Black community that she was raised in about pig killing in November. All of that was a revelation to me, in terms of that the industrialized food supply has evolved to try to be ubiquitous, to be manufactured, that you can have this item any time of the year anywhere that you are. And that that's not what food has been traditionally, and rather to explore a way of living in the moment and responding to what's in season. 

And so, that isn't just a fancy, elitist project that I can do because I drift in and out of Union Square Farmers Market. But it's really the way people have lived, and is economical because we're not shipping things all over the planet so that we can have them all the time and burning fossil fuels in order to do that, causing climate change. What does it mean to try to have animal protein, or even perishable vegetables on a year-round basis? And what does that do to the flavor? What does that do to the people who are producing that food, and to be much more—that local is political in that way? 

It's not to say that local doesn't have issues of labor exploitation involved in it as well, because it does. But when we eat locally, there are fundamental societal changes that can come with that. And they have implications that are, as I said, about climate change, as well as just what's—enjoying what's here. And realizing that life is transient, and we can't have it just because we want it or because we have money all the time.

Alicia: Right, right. 

Well, related to that, there have been so many stories lately about fake claims of local seasonal food, on restaurant menus. There’s the Willows Inn thing where they were serving people Costco chicken and stuff. And in the book, you write about hiring a chef who wanted to put spring peas on a menu before they would have been available, and how that's a—that was a constant struggle to maintain integrity in that way. 

Why do you think that this has become kind of a thing? There was the big exposé in Florida also a few years ago about farm-to-table restaurants lying about being farm-to-table. Why is this something that people have, don't allow themselves to be honest about or to pursue nuance with or maybe explain why something couldn't be local or available, or that sort of thing? What is your take on that?

Peter: Yeah.

Well, it's complicated. Alicia, I'm not going to excuse any of it, right? Economics drives people at times to make decisions where you cheat or you fudge it. But the idea that this guy was buying Costco organic chickens when he was saying that he was sourcing food completely from the island, obviously is filled with deceit. 

I never maintained that everything that we cooked with and sourced was local, but some people thought that that's what I was doing and went after me for having a lemon tart on the menu or something. The extent to which people are interested in having the conversation about where our food comes from and how we source it is over dinner, or on the menu, is limited. People, on a certain level, lots of people just want dinner. And they don't really want to know the backstory.

But plenty of our customers were interested in the backstory. And that's why they came to us, but there's still plenty of people who aren't interested in it and have yet to embrace that or change with that. 

So farm-to-table was both political, but it was also the fashion, the food fashion of the moment. And in many ways, the food fashion has shifted away from that. And the political struggle, or the food awareness, has shifted away from farm-to-table in many ways. We're talking about labor a lot more than we are about how the food was produced or where it comes from. And we're talking about what are the conditions in the restaurant itself, whereas that wasn't something that we had a whole lot of awareness around when we were writing on our menu that the carrots came from Guy Jones's farm, or that it was Maytag blue cheese or whatever. 

I don't know whether that's the pendulum swinging in another, in the other direction. But it certainly is a shift of focus. It's a good shift to focus. I worry sometimes that some of the restaurants that are now all about identity have stopped sourcing in the way that is still thinking about the sustainability issues. Because, again, the financial pressures to run a financially viable restaurant remain. It's really, really hard. And to do both, that is to buy sustainably sourced ingredients good for the environment and good for people and run a restaurant that's good for the people that are there, it is a huge challenge. 

But it's where we're at, right? It's sort of what we face here and now today. And so, I think it's a great moment, an important moment to try and say, ‘We can do both. We must do both. And what does that look like?’ 

And most importantly, is in that part of the whole equation is, what is the—what then is the cost of going out for dinner? And are we really prepared to pay the full cost of food, of dining out? And I think people still want to buy their fancy cars and their fancy watches and restore certain ways of travel post-pandemic and aren't necessarily ready to say, ‘Well, yeah, I'm good with a 30 percent increase in the cost of dining out. And what that will mean for me, which might mean I eat out 30 percent less but I'm doing it in ways and in support of companies that are doing it in ways that reflect my values.’

Alicia: Awesome. 

Well, thank you so much for the time today.

Peter: Yeah!

It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to talk with you in this way, Alicia, and the fact that you read into those parts of the book is exciting to me. In that same way, that our food is a self-portrait, I mean people find things in the book that resonate for them. And there's lots there. There's lots of nuggets to be had in What's Good?And I'm so glad that you found nuggets that are really important to me and are there for people to think about. So, I'm glad you thought about them.

Alicia: [Laughs.] Well, I'm glad to have read the book and to have had this chat with you. So, thank you so much.