When we chat with Chef Robert Hoffman, he’s still sore from a hike the previous day, completed under the blazing desert sun—certainly not a problem he’d encounter in his hometown of Chicago. While he’s still adjusting to this new cactus-dotted landscape and Southwest tempo, Hoffman sounds excited about the transition. He predicts easily adapting to a lifestyle where an evening can consist of enjoying dinner, savoring a brilliant sunset and then watching twinkling stars emerge—all before falling into bed at 10 p.m.
Staying properly fueled in such an outdoorsy destination proves a serious matter and a challenge that Hoffman happily tackles. Based on his latest experience, he warns that people may underestimate the intensity of Sedona-area treks. (His recent “moderate-level” hike took on new meaning when he gained 1,900 feet of elevation in 2.4 miles.)
Before heading outside, Hoffman encourages guests to nourish themselves with goodies from SaltRock’s “grab and go” section—trail mix, fruit parfait, turkey wraps. “On the back side,” he says, “folks need lean proteins, salmon, anti-inflammatory foods like pineapple and sweet potatoes.” He’s excited to educate guests and to design revitalizing dishes that might surprise. One candidate: a creation that pairs grilled baby octopus with a fried egg and julienned potatoes.
Over the years, Hoffman has mastered his craft in some of Chicago’s top, award-winning kitchens (Moto, Otom, BOKA). Out of college, he worked at Moto, a high-end establishment where he learned from the renowned Homaru Cantu, a recognized leader in molecular gastronomy. Hoffman credits this master for having forever changed the way he looks at food, “understanding the how and why and science behind it…He treated dining like an opera; you never know what you’ll get, but you know it’ll be an experience.” Hoffman continues to strive for that effect—to levitate the food and elevate the diner’s entire experience.
Hoffman likens cooking to any subjective art form. He comments, “I think it’s cool when you can understand the history behind something; the best dishes come with a story behind them.” He believes it’s not enough for a diner to simply “have a meal and walk away.”
That said, at SaltRock, he plans to incorporate only one unfamiliar flavor combo or technique per plate, so as to not overwhelm. His dishes must appeal to diners ranging from locals to New York foodies, and he wants everyone to leave intrigued. One recent dish combined duck rillette with strawberry shallot puree and compressed strawberry. Though his staff initially looked at him like he had “lost his mind,” Hoffman knew that they “got it” after trying a taste, their eyes widening in delight.
At his last 350-seat restaurant, Labriola Ristorante & Café, there were 70 back-of-house-staff members. Hoffman finds the SaltRock’s more intimate scene exhilarating. “I wanted a smaller kitchen, more one-one-one time with cooks, time to teach and train,” he says. “In some ways it’s harder and more work, but it’s so cool—at the end of an evening—to know that you got to talk to every guest in the dining room.” And the sensational red rock panorama out the windows doesn’t hurt either.
Aerated Beer Cheese – Serves 4
SaltRock Southwest Kitchen (Sedona, AZ)
Chef Robert Hoffman
- 2 Leeks, chopped
- 2 Shallots, chopped
- 1 Spanish Onion, chopped
- 1 Bunch Scallion, chopped
- 10 Cloves Garlic
- 1 Pint Amber Ale
- 1 Quart Heavy Cream
- 1/4# Butter
- 2 Cups Pepper Jack Cheese
- Whip cream dispenser with 2 charges
- Sweat all veg in butter, deglaze with beer and steep in cream for 1 hour
- Emulsify in cheese and pour hot into the dispenser.
- Charge twice, and you have fancy Cheese Whiz!