A Prodigal Son Returns — To Boonville
BOONVILLE, CA — If there ever was Wine Country royalty, Chef Perry Hoffman and his family are it.
His grandparents, Don and Sally Schmitt bought an old stone building in Yountville in 1978, and transformed it into a charming destination restaurant, before weighing several offers to sell it in 1993. They famously chose Thomas Keller, who went on to turn the French Laundry into a Michelin three-star establishment revered the world over.
Hoffman’s mother founded a Napa Valley florist company that has supplied blooms to the French Laundry for decades. His grandparents went on to restore the Philo Apple Farm that’s now run by Hoffman’s aunt, who also manages the lovely Farmhouse Mercantile store in Boonville.
Across from that store on sleepy main street, Hoffman’s Uncle Johnny has operated the Boonville Hotel for 31 years. It’s where Hoffman got one of his first jobs in the kitchen after high school. It’s where he fondly remembers tasting for the first time both Caesar salad and aioli.
So in January, when Hoffman — once the youngest chef in the country to win a Michelin star when he headed Étoile at Domain Chandon in Yountville in 2009 — returned to become chef-partner at the quaint roadhouse built in 1860, it marked more than just a new job. It poetically signified a life coming full circle.
When the previous hotel chef departed, Johnny Schmitt called his nephew. At first, Hoffman put out the word to his chef friends to try to recruit someone. When no perfect candidate materialized, the light bulb went off for Hoffman, who realized it was his destiny.
“I always knew I wanted to come back here,” Hoffman told me when I was invited as a guest of the hotel and restaurant recently. “Johnny told me that if I serious, now would be a good time. He was thinking of closing it possibly. And I couldn’t let this place go.”
Although still commuting from Healdsburg, where he was most recently the head chef of Shed to great acclaim, Hoffman bought four acres of the 40-acre Apple Farm up the road, where eventually his uncle will help him build a house for Hoffman and his young family.
“I’ll get to raise my kids on the same farm that I was raised on,” Hoffman says. “I didn’t tell anyone for weeks about my decision because it just seemed too good to be true.”
Even now, he says, he sometimes has to pinch himself as he walks around the 4-acre Boonville Hotel property, where two new rooms are being built to add to the 15 already here.
Inside the hotel, an office area was recently turned into a small shop, where guests can purchase bottles of wine and Apple Farm jams and vinegars.
All around, his uncle’s handiwork can be seen, re-purposing found pieces for clever, artsy uses, not only in the cozy sitting room, where coffee is served every morning, but in the studio guest rooms, which have their own entrances.
One of the first things Hoffman did was to plant about 50 new edibles in the garden, where all the flowers that decorate the guest rooms also grow.
There are now seven types of oregano, three types of mint, Japanese honeysuckle, hibiscus, Maldovian dragon balm, yerba mate, tomatillos, purple snap peas, quince, and a wild plum tree. There are also horseradish leaves to give an explosive bite to crudo, lilac flowers to make vinegar, fresh fenugreek for accenting curry salad, and sunflowers, whose little buds taste like artichokes when roasted.
“We encourage the guests to snack in the garden,” Hoffman says with a smile.
The lush courtyard next to the garden is where most guests like myself choose to enjoy dinner on a balmy summer evening. Monday through Thursday, a la carte dishes are $8 to $22. Friday and Saturday nights, there is a prix fixe that’s $48 to $78 per person with additional starters that can be added on for an extra cost. Sundays are all about paella cooked outside. In the future, Hoffman also hopes to add an outdoor taco stand.
The minute Hoffman stepped back inside the kitchen here, it just felt right. “The olive oil, the salt, and the vinegar were all in the same place,” he says. “It was like walking back into your old bedroom at your parents’ home.”
When you reserve a table here, you get it for the night. And when it’s a beautiful warm night like this one was, few places are as beckoning to take a load off.
The food is similar to what Hoffman did at Shed — dictated by seasonal ingredients, un-manipulated, honest, and full of vitality.
To begin, he brought out a few starters from the small plates menu: bracing oysters on the half shell (6 for $18) with a classic shallot mignonette; a refreshing shaved lemon cucumber and dragon egg cucumber salad accented with lavender and young sunflower shoots, and fresh goat cheese from nearby Pennyroyal Farm in Boonville; and hearty bread ($5) baked by Healdsburg’s Quail & Condor, formerly the bread baker for Michelin three-starred Singlethread Farm & Restaurant, which Hoffman picks up every day on his way to Boonville.
Hoffman also uses thick slices of that bread to showcase grass-fed beef tartare ($13) garnished with a profusion of sweet cherry tomatoes, woodsy thyme, and tender fiddlehead ferns. Who knew a simple tartine could look so mesmerizing?
Next it was on to the actual three-course prixe fixe ($58 per person). It began with the wonderful pairing of beets and blueberries in a vivid salad with garden basil and blue cheese.
Then, a big juicy slab of roasted pork loin served family-style with a golden rim of skin and a succulent layer of fat underneath. We divvied it up voraciously, along with the sweet-tart cherry cabbage compote, and roasted cauliflower done up with wild fennel fronds.
Lastly, a thick and rich chocolate pot de cream with a cloud of whipped cream on top, and a buttery crisp shortbread cookie alongside.
“I want to do what feels right to Johnny, my grandparents, and the people who came here 50 years ago, as well as new people visiting for the first time,” Hoffman says. “We’re just going to cook good food.”