Chef Perry Hoffman can’t believe his luck.
On a chilly November evening, standing in Shed Cafe’s small open kitchen, he places microgreens and perfectly-arranged bits of smoked trout in a dish while musing about persimmons and cucumbers. As a culinary triple-threat of gardener, farmer and Michelin-starred chef, he’s keenly aware of this seasonal anomaly — finding a winter fruit like persimmon in his kitchen alongside a bunch of late-summer cucumbers — and it’s kind of blowing his mind. With breathless enthusiasm, he talks about a salad he has made with ripe, sweet persimmons and crisp, cool cucumbers, something possible only at this fleeting in-between season of warm days and cold nights. Persimmons. With cucumbers. Imagine.
“It’s so perfectly of this moment,” says the 32-year-old chef without a hint of affectation. For him, the brief window of bounty brought by changing seasons really is cause for excitement.
Though most of us might roll our eyes at this culinary geekitude, it’s exactly the kind of unbridled passion that the owners of Shed (which includes Shed Cafe), Cindy Daniel and Doug Lipton have dreamed of for the “Modern Grange” they built in Healdsburg. If you haven’t been there, it’s best described as an interactive seed-to-table experience where you can meet a forager, learn beekeeping, drink fermented shrubs, buy Japanese garden sheers and locally-milled grains, and then sit down for dinner amid it all.
Daniel and Lipton, who also own the 15-acre Home Farm, tapped Hoffman as Shed’s new culinary director in October. Hoffman launched dinner service this month, along with new breakfast, lunch and brunch menus. He’ll also host a series of culinary adventures in 2016, including one that targets local foraging. Suffice it to say that Hoffman is pretty jazzed about being at the center of this luxe food playground.
“I’ve been working on these farm-driven menus since before I even got here,” he said. “It’s all the things I’ve been thinking of for a while.”
Unlike so many chefs who give lip service to seasonality and have turned the term “farm-to-table” into a cliché, Hoffman spends his time immersed in ideas like mixing persimmons and cucumbers at this one special moment in time. With an endless bounty from Home Farm and elsewhere, even in the winter months, it’s not the labels that matter to him but the food.
When asked how he describes his new menu, Perry kind of hesitates, wary of too many over-used terms. “Farm-driven,” he says, “seasonally-driven.”
Destined for a life in food
Napa native Hoffman grew up cooking with his grandparents in the kitchen of Yountville’s French Laundry. Local food pioneers Don and Sally Schmitt founded the iconic restaurant and are credited with putting the small Napa town on the dining map long before selling it to Chef Thomas Keller. Their tables were booked months in advance by Julia Child, Charles Krug, the Mondavis and other culinary luminaries of the time.
In 1995, the Schmitts sold the French Laundry to Keller and bought The Apple Farm in Philo, where they raise nearly 80 breeds of apples. Search for Hoffman online, and you’ll find childhood pictures of him working the apple farm, noshing a baguette at The French Laundry as an infant and kneading dough at 4.
After several years of cooking at some of the Valley’s toniest restaurants, Hoffman won a Michelin star at Domaine Chandon’s Étoile restaurant (since closed). At just 25, he was the youngest American chef ever to receive the award, holding it for three years.
Before you even see Shed Cafe’s menu, a canvas of greens, flowers and herbs draws the eye to the small open kitchen of Hoffman’s cafe. Before any dish goes out, a snip of thyme or a piece of tatsoi is added to the plate . Hoffman co-owns Carneros Microgreens, providing his own kitchens and other local chefs with everything from bee balm and edible marigolds to Persian mint and sea beans. These little flourishes of color and flavor add texture to Hoffman’s dishes, which at their heart are relatively straightforward.
Roasted Little Farm Potatoes, $10: Tiny dry-farmed potatoes are packed with flavor. Roasted in the cafe’s wood-fired oven (as are most dishes), they’re presented atop a layer of tomato sauce, topped with a dot of garlic aioli and sprinkled with herbs. They’re ridiculously simple, but made luxurious in both presentation and layer upon layer of flavor.
Preston Farm Carrot Salad, $14: Multi-colored baby carrots, both roasted and raw, are the stars of this dish. They are accented with olive-oil infused yogurt, soft dates, baby lettuce bee balm and a peppery Middle Eastern spice called Nigella seed.
Farro Verde $14: This is fall on a plate, with earthy, roasted beets and pig fat (lardo) infused with black truffle. Add the sharpness of red mustard and vinegar with the chew of farro, and, well, it doesn’t get much more foresty than this.
Pacific Yellowtail $18: Small slices of tuna mixed with tatsoi greens, thin slices of tart clementines, ginger and togarishi (a Chinese 7-spice blend) is a clean, uncomplicated dish.
Liberty Farm Duck Leg, $22: One of the most beautiful dishes on the menu is a Mediterranean still life of roasted duck leg, ruby pomegranate seeds, creamy baba ganoush (a smoky eggplant hummus) and pistachio dukkah (a pungent Egyptian mix of herbs, nuts and spices).
Braised Beef Cheek, $22: A tasty cut, braised and fork-tender, is laced with Fuyu persimmons, savoy cabbage, garnet yams and pink whole peppercorns with a sweet, savory broth. It is a soul warmer (and heats up beautifully as luxe leftovers the next day).
The lunch menu has many of the same items, and you can easily fill up on a handful of small plates, where Hoffman really seems to shine brightest.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the new wine list and new beverage director, Brandon Gonsalves, who has put together a small but impressive collection of offbeat wines, ciders, sparklers, beers and shims — low alcohol cocktails made with prosecco, bitters or vermouth. Don’t miss the D’anjou Pear with vermouth and cardamom, $12, another seasonal standout.
After tasting through the menu, we came away thinking how exciting it will be to see what Hoffman comes up with next, as the seasons shift from fall to winter, and winter to spring, and he becomes more familiar with the offerings of Home Farm and other Sonoma County producers.
Using local, of the moment ingredients, he already makes familiar, comforting dishes seem entirely unexpected.
SHED Cafe: 25 North St, Healdsburg, healdsburgshed.com. Hours: 8a.m. to 9p.m. Wednesday through Monday. Closed Tuesday. Reservations highly recommended.