What’s Good? This maple-whiskey cocktail and Peter Hoffman’s Book #LitHappens

What’s Good by Peter Hoffman recently showed up in my mailbox thanks to Culinary Adventures with Camilla.   I jumped at the opportunity to read this latest chef memoir.



About the book:

A culinary pioneer blends memoir with a joyful inquiry into the ingredients he uses and their origins

What goes into the making of a chef, a restau­rant, a dish? And if good ingredients make a differ­ence on the plate, what makes them good in the first place? In his highly anticipated first book, influential chef Peter Hoffman offers thoughtful and delectable answers to these questions. “A locavore before the word existed” (New York Times), Hoffman tells the story of his upbringing, professional education, and evolution as a chef and restaurant owner through its components—everything from the importance of your relationship with your refrigerator repairman and an account of how a burger killed his restaurant, to his belief in peppers as a perfect food, one that is adaptable to a wide range of cultural tastes and geographic conditions and reminds us to be glad we are alive.

Along with these personal stories from a life in restaurants, Hoffman braids in passionately curious explorations into the cultural, historical, and botani­cal backstories of the foods we eat. Beginning with a spring maple sap run and ending with the late-season, frost-defying vegetables, he follows the progress of the seasons and their reflections in his greenmarket favorites, moving ingredient to ingredient through the bounty of the natural world. Hoffman meets with farmers and vendors and unravels the magic of what we eat, deepening every cook’s appreciation for what’s on their kitchen counter. What’s Good a layered, insightful, and utterly enjoyable meal.

About the author:

Chef Peter Hoffman is the curious cook’s cook. As the former chef/owner of Savoy and Back Forty restaurants, he trailblazed farm-to-table cooking in New York City. His opinion pieces have been published in the New York TimesEdible Manhattan, and Food & Wine. Hoffman served on the boards of the Greenmar­ket and Chefs Collaborative and is a Slow Food NYC Snailblazer award recipient. On most market days he can be found on his bicycle, foraging Union Square Greenmarket for the best in seasonal ingredients and partaking in its “village green” community life.

What I thought…

As stated above I was eager to read this latest edition in the chef-memoir genre.

Throughout the book, Hoffman keeps coming back to “the why.”  Why do we dine out?  Do we like predictability or do we crave variety?  Do we want exoticism or comfort?  Dependability, is this what diners crave?  Are we seeking high-end snob food or locally sourced food made with a reverence to the ingredients?

These questions struck me and I do say that I found myself examining my own food and restaurant experiences.   By asking these questions along the way, What’s Good? is more Hoffman’s life-in-food philosophy than a memoir in fourteen ingredients.  (See “The Food…” section below.)

The first chapter on leeks presents the premise of the book, eating and cooking driven by the seasons.   Hoffman finds himself buying up and storing leeks, his go-to winter vegetable.  “Rather than viewing my hoarding as aberrant behavior, I channel being a biennial” (7).  He had me craving leeks by the end of the chapter.

As Hoffman reflects on his childhood (it is a memoir, of course), he describes his early restaurant experiences when dining out with his family.   His obsession with shrimp cocktail as a boy  shows that he always wanted to seek out the finer things (76).  Unfortunately, this generic appetizer of a previous era was “off the list” because of the price.  He discusses how farm-raised shrimp has made this seafood “ubiquitous and cheap” and another agricultural factory enterprise producing tasteless and low quality cuisine.  (I had to reflect on some of my older family members who order shrimp “anything” whenever it is on the menu.  I wonder if they had the same experiences when they were children, now seeing a shrimp on a menu as elaborate and a sign of “making it.”)

Hoffman’s view on his restaurants was refreshing.  He never set out to be a rock star chef with numerous restaurants around the world.   On building his restaurants, he realizes that “small could be uplifting, even enthralling” (90).

Food with guts and beauty; that was our food.  (96)

I loved the literary-themed dinners that he created and developed with local poets and authors (180).  How I would have loved to experienced these.

His employment of the “garlic bunker” and doling out only two bulbs at a time throughout the winter was a survival tactic to make it to the next garlic harvest.  He had to ration these cloves out to his wife, Sue, who views garlic not as a seasoning but a vegetable (135).   I think I am in that camp as well.

I’m an old farm girl at heart and I appreciated his discussions about properly raised pork and beef and the dramatic taste and texture between farm-raised/grass-fed and feedlot raised animals.

I was surprised when Hoffman’s teenage friend Tony, whom he had met in a creative writing summer school program, turned out to be Anthony Bourdain (206-207).  As much as I love Anthony Bourdain,  I could totally envision Hoffman’s portrayal of him as a young chef in the mid-90s—that of a brash, uncaring cook.  “Baste it with a lot of butter, and then serve it up”(207) ….who cares about the diners.  “He was smugly dismissive:  everything and everybody was expendable” (207).    I hope at the end of his life, his outlook had changed and that this view did not lead to his death.  RIP.

Hoffman moves from the refined (if unpretentious) Savoy experience to his Back Forty restaurant(s).   “If the staff were less knowledgeable about wines and food, they had spunk to make up for it” (275).  It was at this point that Hoffman let go of some of the micro-managing that comes with being a chef-owner.

“The Burger that Killed My Restaurant,” one of the final chapters (299-304) was ironic, a bit humorous and poignant.

From those opening questions in this review as to why we dine out, I found this line to be the most true.

We go to some restaurants because the menu never changes, to others because the menu always changes, and then there are the restaurants we go to because we are changed by the menu. (187)

The food:

So, what are the fourteen ingredients of this memoir?

  1. Leeks
  2. Potatoes
  3. Butter
  4. Maple syrup
  5. Shrimp
  6. Skate
  7. Strawberries
  8. Garlic
  9. Calçots
  10. Rosemary
  11. Stone Fruit
  12. Grenada Peppers
  13. Apples and Pears
  14. Kale and Radicchio

I’m not sure that I followed the “fourteen ingredient” structure.   (And, as you can see here, there’s more than fourteen ingredients.)   Instead, I found Hoffman’s journey more evident in his greenmarket foraging and his restauranteur evolution.

There was a lot to be inspired from and I was tempted to visit my local Farmer’s Market and make a meal inspired by what was able to be found.   Instead, I focused on these recipes.

  • Jansson’s Temptation (12), a potato, anchovies and leek gratin
  • The Back Forty (48), a warming whiskey cocktail with maple syrup
  • The Red and Black (122), a tequila-strawberry cocktail.  (I will have to wait until the spring to make this.)
  • Ophioskordalia (145), a traditional Greek hors d’oeuvre with potatoes, almonds, and garlic scapes.
  • Pork Shoulder with Pimenton Rub (166), the secret is “properly raised pork” along with fennel, rosemary, chiles, pimenton, and garlic.
  • Susan’s Pastry Crust (232-235), a very involved process that I doubt I really ever try to master, but the instructions are detailed and honest.

I decided that for a lazy fall weekend afternoon, that a warming autumnal cocktail would be the best.  (Rest assured, however, that I’m keeping these other recipes dog-eared.)

Hoffman should have done a Frida inspired dinner!

The Back Forty

Peter Hoffman (from What’s Good?)

Maple syrup is used as a sweetener. Hoffman says this cocktail is always in season.


  • 2 oz. whiskey (We used Buffalo Trace.)
  • 3/4 oz. lemon juice
  • 3/4 oz. Maple Simple Syrup (See recipe in step one.)
  • 2 dashes orange bitters
  • sprig of rosemary


  1. Make the maple simple syrup: Combine 1/2 c. maple syrup with 1/4 c. hot water. Stir to incorporate then allow to cool. Store leftovers in the refrigerator. Hoffman says this “keeps indefinitely.”
  2. Pour the whiskey, lemon juice, maple simple syrup and bitters into a shaker. Add ice, shake and strain into a rocks glass. Add fresh ice and serve.
  3. I added a sprig of rosemary, just for aromatic appeal and it was a seasonal offering from my garden.

Yield: 1

The Back Forty is good and sippable.  It was a little sweet for my taste so I will dial down the syrup a bit.

I did enjoy this memoir and thanks again to Cam for the opportunity to review Hoffman’s book.  There were some chapters that I enjoyed more than others and I do have to confess that I skimmed a few.   I would recommend this book to those that are interested in the origins of local eating or who enjoy a good chef coming of age story.   I do wish there had been an index of recipes.

I’m posting this in Lit Happens Book Club as well as linking up with Foodies Read for October.







6 comments to What’s Good? This maple-whiskey cocktail and Peter Hoffman’s Book #LitHappens

  • Great review Debra. I too, sat and contemplated dining out. For me, it is the service that is most important. Of course, I want good food but I can make good food at home. What I enjoy about eating out is the ambience and the care I’m given. I want my water glass to always be full. I want to be acknowledged and welcomed as I walk in. I want a smile and a couple of minutes given to answer my questions about the specials of the day and the wines that are recommended to accompany it. I want that server to anticipate my needs without hovering and making me feel as if my conversation is being overheard. Is that asking a lot? Perhaps, but I have my favorite restaurants with my favorite waitstaff and I try to show them my appreciation in my conversation and my compensation.

    • Totally agree. One of the best servers we ever experienced was at Tusk and Trotter in Bentonville, Arkansas. He was friendly but stealth-like. 🙂 Thanks for the kind words, Wendy.

  • This sounds like a fun and delicious read. Since I don’t drink, I will pass this cocktail. But I would love to try that pork shoulder!

  • I think the maple simple syrup would be interesting in tea and lemonade.

  • Sounds like an interesting book. That’s certainly a nice cocktail! I think I’d use maybe a teaspoon of the simple syrup.

  • such a shame about anthony bourdain. poor miserable sod! he did look pretty bleak in his last few tv shows. i don’t know this chef/writer you mention here – Hoffman. i do find cheffy memoirs a bit hit and miss. that one by gabrielle hamilton was not a winner for me:)