Celebrated Chef Perry Hoffman chooses family over fame as he returns to his roots at The Boonville Hotel
by Torrey Douglass
If it hadn’t been for Frank Sinatra, Jr., Perry Hoffman might have never made his way back to The Boonville Hotel. Just over a decade ago, that sleep-deprived celebrity was staying at Napa Valley’s luxury resort, Auberge de Soleil, while a staff party raged in the room below his, packed with employees wholeheartedly refusing to provide the elegantly indulgent guest experience for which the destination was known. Frank was not amused. Management was not amused. Perry, who had opted to postpone driving until the night’s imbibement had metabolized, found a senior manager between himself and the parking lot when he was finally ready to head home the following morning. Heads had to roll.
To be fair, the staff had reason enough to blow off steam. The exclusive resort is renowned for peerless valley views, a lavish spa, top tier dining, and, above all else, flawless service, attracting A-list celebs from sports and entertainment to its idyllic property above the vineyards. Maintaining that level of perfection day in and day out can build up some pressure. Throw in a wide array of beverage options and a night off, and things, of course, might get messy.
Prior to that fateful night, Perry had worked for three years as the resort’s sous chef, managing the kitchen’s 45 chefs and devoting most of his waking hours to preparing wonderful food that kept those famous guests coming back. He’d started there at the age of 20, though his passionate dedication to food began many years earlier.
Typical for a child of two working parents, Perry grew up spending his after-school hours at his mom’s workplace. His grandparents, Don and Sally Schmitt, were the original owners of The French Laundry in Yountville—at the time a wildly popular eating establishment locals were doing their best to keep to themselves. His mom waited tables there, hand-lettered menus, and beautified the space with inspired flower arrangements—a talent she later spun off into her own flower business, providing weekly deliveries to keep the area’s popular restaurants decked out in blossoms until she retired in 2016.
By the age of six, little Perry would help his grandmother Sally roast peppers in the kitchen, and at 14 he declared his intention to work in restaurants for his career. His parents discouraged the idea, knowing first-hand the hard work, long hours, and endless difficulties awaiting a professional chef, but Perry’s sights were set. Not long after, his father visited a local strip mall for a haircut and noticed a new restaurant moving into one of the spaces. He mentioned Perry’s ambition to the owner, one thing led to another, and Perry was in the kitchen the day ZinsValley opened its doors. He worked there for two years and learned a lot, in between enduring the pranks the more seasoned chefs sent his way.
Perry’s second cooking gig was at The Boonville Hotel, begun the day after his high school graduation. He spent the summer couch-surfing and working in his Uncle Johnny’s kitchen. Perry says, “It took me 10 years working in other restaurants before I realized how special the Hotel was—the garden in the back, the light from the windows, the flowers. It was so different from the ‘hospital dungeon’ feel of other commercial kitchens. I always wanted to go back.“
After his first stint at The Boonville Hotel, Perry moved on to the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn, providing high volume resort cooking for guests of the 400-room inn and spa. Next he moved to another Fairmont property, this time in Hawaii, with 1500 rooms and nine restaurants. He circulated among all the restaurants, spending each night of the week in a different kitchen, and learned not only how to tailor his cooking for each particular menu but also how to navigate among the people and processes of a large organization.
One night, the phone rang on the kitchen wall where Perry was working. It was the head chef of Auberge de Soleil, Robert Curry, a pioneer of fine dining and protégé of renowned French chef Michel Richard. Curry was looking for a sous chef. In Perry’s early days of cooking, old school chefs had advised him to always make sure his next job was not just bigger and better than his last, but scared him as well. Auberge, a member of the hospitality association Relais & Châteaux, was known as one of the first spots in Napa Valley to offer outstanding food to match the area’s bounty of world-class wines. The position was a step up, and as intimidating as anything he’d yet done. Of course he said yes.
It was an exhilarating three years in the Auberge de Soleil kitchen. Dishes left his hands to be set in front of Dana Carvey, Michael Jordan, or Oprah. After the hubbub with Frank Sinatra, Jr., blew over, Perry worked for a sister property in South Carolina, followed by stints at other Relais & Châteaux properties in Calistoga, France, and South Korea, where he earned that establishment its first Michelin star. The accomplishment was a great feeling, but the increased pressure to over-deliver every day was grueling.
In 2011, Perry said his last goodbye to the Relais & Châteaux association and moved to the restaurant at Domain Chandon. He worked his way up to Executive Chef, won and maintained a Michelin star over three years, and discovered that the business side of running a restaurant could be just as compelling as the kinetic creativity of the kitchen. He began to dream of running his own restaurant some day. When the Domain Chandon restaurant closed on New Year’s Eve 2014, Perry knew he was ready for something different—he just didn't know what that might be.
In the meantime, Perry took a few months off for his wedding and honeymoon. During the preparations, he rented a cottage behind The Shed in Healdsburg. He loved what he saw—green salads, fresh small plates, and lots of sunshine—and would bring his morning coffee and paper to one of the picnic tables out front. When he met owners Doug Lipton and Cindy Daniel one morning, he expressed his admiration for the combination café, retail shop, and community center focused on food and farming. Later, while on his honeymoon in the Virgin Islands, Perry received an email from Doug and Cindy with a job offer. As he was crafting his polite refusal, he did some rethinking, and the email changed to an acceptance.
What followed was three years of pursuing and fulfilling whatever culinary inspiration caught his creative fancy: What’s in the garden that could be integrated into today’s dishes? How can more vegan dishes —that don’t announce themselves as vegan—be added to the menu? How about a day long outing with customers to forage the meadows, forest, and creek banks outside of Healdsburg? Perry had license to run the kitchen as he wanted, and he delighted in the freedom he was allowed as well as the authentic atmosphere the owners fostered. If he ever found himself stuck for an idea, he would browse the retail shelves until an intriguing jar or package caught his eye.
Although the work was inspiring and fulfilling, Perry was running on all cylinders, a work style that is ultimately not sustainable no matter how stimulating the job. After three years, it was time for something new, and he left The Shed in September of 2018. Sadly, the business closed its brick-and-mortar doors at the end of last year. It had weathered a difficult year following the Sonoma County fires and had moved all its operations online, where you can still find their yummy selection of food, garden, and homesteading items, as well as recipes, reflections, and interviews.
For Perry, the time had come to circle back to The Boonville Hotel. Though Auberge and other Napa luminaries made advances, his experience at The Shed had shifted his taste to a less corporate work environment. On top of that, he and his wife, Kristen, had a baby girl, Charlie. With her in the picture, choosing a path that included time with family was paramount. Perry mentioned his wish to return to the Hotel to his uncle at Christmas and then again at Easter. At first Johnny didn’t take him seriously, but it was a period of transition for the Hotel as well, since long-time cook Brennan Moore was leaving. As Johnny wasn’t keen to go back to cooking himself, Perry got his wish.
While he’s currently commuting to work from Healdsburg, the trip will shorten considerably when Perry and his family move to Philo. They’ve purchased a four-acre parcel on The Apple Farm, run by aunt and uncle Karen and Tim Bates, and are building a home there. Perry's son, Teddy James, was born in April and will grow up climbing the same trees Perry did while visiting the farm for family get-togethers as a youngster. The property is thick with inspiration for his foraging explorations, and the gardens both at The Boonville Hotel and The Apple Farm provide a bounty of herbs and flowers, two favorite flavor sources. Perry advises, “Never add a flower for the sake of it. It must add to the dish, it must makes sense.“ He goes on to recommend adding borage to oysters, since borage's oceanic cucumber flavor complements the oysters' salty brine, and mentions how spicy nasturtiums nicely complement steak tartare.
When a friend asked about his plans for the restaurant at The Boonville Hotel, Perry said that he wanted to do “as much and as little as possible.“ He has great respect for what his uncle created, Johnny’s honest approach to cooking, and the Hotel’s personable atmosphere that eschews decadence for simple delight. “I want the food to feel in the moment—simple, spontaneous, creative.“ Perry will continue the prix fixe menu, looking to the garden outside the kitchen as well as the harvest from local farmers, ranchers, and fish catchers to help inspire the dishes. Small plates can be enjoyed at the bar or outside, but guests will need to buy from the prix fixe menu to get a table—and, when you do, that table is yours for the night. Like Perry, diners will get a chance to slow down, experience wonderful food, and enjoy time with the people they love.
The Boonville Hotel
14050 Highway 128, Boonville | (707) 895-2210 | BoonvilleHotel.com
Dinner Thurs–Sat, Sunday mid-day meal
Photos courtesy of The Boonville Hotel.
Torrey Douglass is a web and graphic designer living in Boonville with her husband, two children, and a constantly revolving population of pets and farm animals.