Boonville Hotel's new chef shares the secret to perfect paella
It’s a warm July evening at the Boonville Hotel, and Perry Hoffman is carefully calibrating the heat in a wood fire pit as part of his weekly ritual of cooking paella for 60.
The 35-year-old Napa native, who got his start at his grandmother’s knee in the kitchen of the French Laundry and went on to become the youngest American chef to win a Michelin star while working at Domaine Chandon’s restaurant, joined the Boonville Hotel as chef/partner in January. Now that summer is in full swing, the restaurant is open for dinner Thursday through Monday, including a Sunday prix fixe meal of paella, salad and dessert through mid-October. The dinners draw locals as well as families from Sonoma County who come for a quick getaway, a delicious meal and an overnight at the hotel.
“The whole town loves it,” Hoffman said of the paella feast, “But it’s a lot of pressure. There’s no Plan B if it goes bad. It’s all about the fire, and that’s a wild card.”
Hoffman is sweating as he carefully adds and moves around the ash-covered logs to create an even, steady heat. Once he puts the paella pan on top of the fire ring, he can no longer adjust the heat, but he can tuck in small towels to keep the large paella pan level.
“A wood fire is hotter, and it tastes better,” Hoffman said of the time-tested method of cooking the ancient rice dish, which has roots in Spain, Italy and the Arab world. “If I were cooking on gas, I would be bored.”
Boredom has never been a problem for Hoffman, who has been gradually migrating westward in his 30s. He signed on as the culinary director of the award-winning Healdsburg Shed in 2015, then after searching for a more balanced family life, he landed at the storied Boonville Hotel earlier this year. He and his wife, Kristen, who live in Healdsburg, have two children younger than 2: a daughter Charlie, 1½ years; and son Teddy, just 3 months.
Hanging his chef’s apron at the Boonville Hotel not only brought him full circle - he worked in his teens as the sous chef there - but drew him closer to his family, including his uncle Johnny Schmitt, who purchased the hotel in 1987 and turned it into a destination with plans for 17 rooms (expected to be finished by the end of this summer.)
He’s also in close proximity to his grandmother, Sally Schmitt, who lives with her daughter and family at The Apple Farm just up the road in Philo, where Hoffman and his wife plan to build a home. (Hoffman currently stays one night a week in a trailer there).
Rice stars in paella
Like Milanese risotto and the Persian rice dish known as Tah Dig, paella is a rice dish first, with other ingredients playing a supporting role.
“The traditional paella is snails and rabbit,” Hoffman said. “The key is to make sure the rice is done - not underdone or overdone.”
The Boonville Hotel paella varies from week to week - this particular week it’s a verde-style paella with tomatillos and herbs rather than tomatoes, and Hoffman studs the Spanish Calasparra rice with housemade chorizo and rock cod, topped with a dollop of saffron-scented aioli.
For the verde-style paella, Hoffman lightly greases the pan and sautés chunks of loose chorizo sausage until they caramelize, then pulls them out of the pan. Then he sautés the rice, and adds the soffrito - an aromatic mixture of herbs, onions and spices - and the fish stock, letting those comingle and cook down for about 20 minutes.
While the rice simmers for an additional 30 minutes, he gently dips a wooden spatula into spots where it is bubbling up, to make sure it settles down and creates the much coveted soccaret, a dark, crunchy crust on the bottom of the thin pan.
To finish the dish, he pours the chorizo and its flavorful fat back into the pan, adds a sauce made with onions, garlic, white wine, tomatillos, basil and cilantro, and places the oven-baked rock cod on top.
Locally grown spices
Instead of using imported saffron and piment d’espelette from Europe, Hoffman sources his spices from local farmers.
Peace & Plenty Farm in Kelseyville grows and produces aromatic saffron from crocus bulbs (corms), and the Bucket Ranch in Boonville, which grows a red Basque pepper from seed, then dries and grinds them into a powder known as Piment d’Ville. (see sidebar on the two niche farms)
Inside his sunny, open kitchen, Hoffman often cooks over a small wood grill next to the commercial oven. Outside in the garden, there’s a wood-fired pizza oven for Monday’s a la carte menu, which offers casual fare like pizza, burgers and fisherman’s stew.
For home cooks in search of the perfect paella, Hoffman created a seafood version that feeds six instead of 60 and can be cooked on the stovetop in a 16-inch pan. Although the recipe is labor-intensive, he suggests prepping the stock and making the sofrito in advance to help save time during the actual cooking process.
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