Peter Hoffman's Back Forty West, in the former Savoy space, is now open for lunch. Dinner will start in mid-March. The grass-fed burger made famous at Back Forty's East Village location will be on hand, as well as smoked items (slow-smoked pork shoulder) and suckling pig for big parties. Hoffman has long had a reputation as an environmental crusader and took some time this morning to talk about food, fracking and the changes -- good and bad -- under Mayor Bloomberg.
You were a pioneer of the farm-to-table movement. What was the spark?
I was always interested in the natural world and curious about where things come from and how they grow. In many ways the spark was going to France and studying with a woman named Madeleine Kamman and her showing me the regional foods of France and Italy, dishes based on what was growing in the region and what was seasonal. Diving into that culture was fascinating. When I came back to New York in 1981 I wanted to see what was growing here. I realized that we didn't need to buy Dover sole from France anymore, or truffles, and that we should look at what's growing in our region. I wasn't the only one thinking that at the time. There were a tremendous number of people who were going back to the land, asking how to grow great strawberries, how to grow a great pig.
Now everyone's caught up with you, but did people think you were a little crazy at first?
Everybody likes good food. It was the beginning of New American cuisine. I take some satisfaction in knowing how many people care about it now. I didn't feel like an outcast or a pioneer. We were just doing what we were doing.
You're famous for riding your bike everywhere. Have you had any wrecks or lettuce flying out of your basket?
Not for a while. The bike lanes are great. We all have to learn how to share the space better. I used to feel bikers were the gladiators of the streets but you don't have to have that kind of mentality now. With more people riding there's more awareness. It's one of the best steps forward under the Bloomberg administration.
What do you think of the grading system he's instituted?
The grading system is a double-edged sword. There's a lot of craziness involved in it. The number of points assigned to certain violations is really high. We got points for serving pickles that were out of temperature, for using straws that weren't wrapped in paper. I can be a bartender and shake your hand, but if I put a straw in your drink or touch a lime with my hands, even if I just washed them, it's a health hazard. There's all kinds of stuff that's insane. They're dreaming up ways to be concerned about protecting us from things that are not making us sick.
A lot of it seems to be about generating revenue.
Crosby Street had commercial parking for the 20 years I've been here. You could come and do work for two hours, but now it's restricted to 30 minutes. If my refrigerator guy is parked for 35 minutes, he gets a ticket. You can't fix a refrigerator in 30 minutes. He's supposed to leave and re-park the car every 30 minutes? And the fines are large. It makes it harder to do business.
What happened with Savoy? It lasted for how long?
1990-2011. I signed a new lease in 2011 and the rent went up. That's what prompted the change. The neighborhood's different now and we had to offer a new type of dining experience. We knew that it was a great location and we still wanted to be there rather than start over somewhere else.
Is Back Forty West more green than Savoy was?
Yes, we've put in LED lights. Since we'll be doing breakfast and coffee and takeaway we had to source compostable containers and flatware.
Do you still keep bees on your rooftop? Have you seen colony collapse disorder?
The hives are on our rooftop where we live. There were several years in a row where the queen died and the bees didn't come back. I haven't seen yet if our bees made it through the winter.
Are you involved in the anti-fracking movement?
I did a fundraiser, a gumbo cook-off, last week for Chefs for the Marcellus. The organization is named for the Marcellus Shale region upstate that covers a large area of farms and a clean water supply that's endangered. Fracking is not a good thing for any of us, not just New Yorkers. We continue to not really want to pursue conservation and alternate energy sources. We're still looking for that cheap fix and now want to get at it by digging into rock. Governor Cuomo is a smart guy, but he's still on the fence about approving it, there's so much money involved. People say it's about jobs, blah, blah, blah. It's bullshit thinking that gas drilling is the answer for economic stimulus. It's ridiculous.
Back Forty West
70 Prince Street (at Crosby St.)
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Photo via Twitter.com/PeterHoffmanNYC.