Napa-born chef Perry Hoffman fits right in with all of the cliches about destiny: he was born to be a chef; it was in his blood; it was meant to be. By the age of 4, he was hanging around his first kitchen, which happened to be The French Laundry, owned and run by his grandparents Don and Sally Schmitt until Thomas Keller purchased it in 1994.
He had no formal culinary training and at the age of 20, was the sous chef at Auberge du Soleil. By 22, he had landed the executive chef gig at étoile, Domaine Chandon’s now-defunct restaurant, where he earned his first Michelin Star at 25 and became the youngest American chef to do so. More recently, he jumped over to Sonoma County to be the culinary director at Healdsburg’s innovative farm-to-table marketplace, Shed.
But despite his success at high-profile establishments in both Napa and then Sonoma, Hoffman said he always knew that one day — probably in another decade or so — he wanted to return to the remote and unassuming town of Boonville where he first cut his teeth under his uncle Johhny Schmitt at The Restaurant at the Boonville Hotel (formerly Table 128), moving there just two days after he graduated from Napa High School.
Then last summer, the restaurant’s chef, Brennon Moore, left after 10 years.
“[My uncle] said, ‘We’re thinking of selling this thing. I can’t go back in the kitchen. I’m 60,’” said Hoffman. “For the first 20 years, Johnny was the chef and proprietor of the whole property. He was doing everything from cooking to checking you in to being your bartender and your server.”
Finding a replacement chef was proving difficult, so with a young daughter and a son on the way, Hoffman realized his dream had arrived, albeit earlier than he had planned.
“I needed to come back to my roots. It felt so authentic and I came back knowing I needed to slow my life down a little bit,” he said. “I knew it would be a lie to my family if I told them I would be home and I went off and did something crazy. I’m always attracted to big, huge, crazy projects and I know myself. I’ll work myself to death and never be home, and what I’ve always been so scared of in this field is being an absentee family member.”
So in September, Hoffman gave his notice to Shed, and he and his wife took some time off to travel with their daughter (he said it was the first time in 20 years that he wasn’t working 80 hours a week). Then last Jan, 2, he had his first official day back at the Boonville Hotel as chef/partner and this time, he has no plans of leaving the nest.
The never-ending project
After years spent working with his parents at The French Laundry and traveling, Johnny Schmitt followed his family to Anderson Valley and re-opened the Boonville Hotel when he was just 29 years old.
Dating to 1860 when the town was called The Corners, the hotel was originally a mile down the road but was picked up and moved to its current location around 1900.
It has a long history as a pioneering farm-to-table restaurant, but the previous owners took off in the middle of the night in 1986, leaving a mess and creditors in their wake. Two years later, Schmitt began to pick up the pieces, starting with the restaurant.
“By the time Johnny found it, it was so rundown and it was a project,” said Hoffman, but that wasn’t exactly a deterrent. “My whole family like projects and it still is a project. It will never be done and never be perfect.”
To name a few of the family’s other endeavors, there’s The Apple Farm in Philo (on which Hoffman is currently building a home) and several businesses across the street from the hotel in the Farrer building: Paysanne, an ice cream and coffee shop, Farmhouse Mercantile, and a new concept in the works based around a pair of wood-burning ovens. The hotel is adding a tower with two additional guest quarters.
In some ways, Boonville has remained frozen in time since Schmitt purchased the hotel and opened his roadhouse in 1988. A lot of the original buildings remain but they now house mom-and-pop restaurants and wine tasting rooms, instead of biker bars and saloons.
The emergence of the Anderson Valley wine industry has played a critical role in the revitalization and transformation of the area into not only a nice place to live but also a tourist destination. And yet, it’s still this tiny, sleepy, down-home town—population just over 1,000 — that many simply pass through on their way to the coast.
“A lot of people that were born and raised here left and are now coming back to raise kids here—and I’m one of them,” said Hoffman.
The Next Chapter
“People have asked me, ‘What are you going to do?’ and I say, ‘As much and as little as possible,’” said Hoffman of any big changes that will happen at the restaurant, citing only a new smokehouse so he can smoke salmon and meats.
Hoffman may have Michelin Star prowess, but that doesn’t mean he wants this restaurant to have what he refers to as the “smoke and mirrors” that often come with establishments on that list.
The restaurant is dedicated to providing a memorable dining experience with freshfood, but it also strives to maintain the simple, laid-back and carefree vibe that Boonville embodies.
“We’re not trying to be this high turn and burn restaurant. We don’t turn your table,” said Hoffman. “It doesn’t matter if you sit at six o’clock or eight-thirty. That table is yours all night long.”
Thursday through Saturday, the restaurant offers a three-course, pre-fixe dinner menu for $48 that changes daily. Some locals dine there multiple times a week, and Hoffman wants them to have a unique experience each time.
There’s also a selection of small plates, like oysters on the half-shell and a Wild King salmon sashimi. On Sunday’s in the summer, they cook paella, and on Mondays, a simple a la carte menu is available.
You have free articles remaining.
The kitchen at the Boonville Hotel revolves around the two acres of edible landscape, which have been a staple of the property throughout its history.
“Having your own garden is everything and having the right size of one too, something you can manage and plant and harvest. This is just perfect,” he said.
Hoffman grew up around gardens. His father was a gardener, his mother a florist for The French Laundry until she recently retired, so it’s not too surprising that he has a map of the gardens at the Boonville Hotel glued to his memory.
Bed by bed, he can rattle off the produce and herbs with his eyes closed. Pointing at one bed and in one breath, he cataloged, “sorrels, oregano, yerba mate, nigella, sunflower seeds, lemon basil, lemon balm, radishes...” Some herbs, like Moldavian dragon balm (which smells like a lemon head candy), are obscure, and yet there are also a few standards that seem to be missing.
“We have an amazing farming community here in Boonville, so what we try to grow here are things that are not cash crops,” said Hoffman. “There are a few tomatoes, but never enough to satisfy us. The local farmers here, that’s their big pay day — tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and eggplants during the summer — so we try to make sure we don’t really grow any of those and we grow everything in between.”
The four-person kitchen is constantly in harvest mode, Hoffman said, “The entire menu is designed from the chefs being in tune with it. The protein is the afterthought. It starts with veggie, and then we tie protein into it afterward.”
One recent menu kicked off with a nectarine and spring legume salad, featured wood oven-roasted halibut (with colorful garden accompaniments) for the main, and finished with a strawberry rhubarb shortcake.
“I always knew I wanted to come back and cook here,” said Hoffman. “This place is so cool, and the relationship of a gorgeous kitchen to the restaurant to the gardens, it just doesn’t happen. It happens for a few select restaurants, but they’re usually three-Michelin Star places with massive properties, and you still don’t have the hotel or inn that’s attached to it.”
Booneville Hotel is at 14050 route 128. Call 707-895-2210 or visit boonvillehotel.com/eat/
Chef Hoffman has shared a favorite family recipe for summer.
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup flour
2 tsp. baking powder
A pinch of salt
1/2 cup milk
1 1/2 quarts stewed berries
1/2 cup sugar
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Butter a 2-quart casserole.
Cream butter and sugar well. Add sugar, flour and salt, alternating with milk.
Drop batter by spoonfuls on to the bottom of the casserole. Pour over berries. Sprinkle with sugar.
Bake until the batter has risen to the top, is lightly browned and tests done.
Serve warm if possible with either ice cream or heavy cream.