Peter Hoffman is the executive assistant to legendary baker and owner of the famed Sullivan Street Bakery, Jim Lahey. An industry benchmark since its inception in 1994, Sullivan Street Bakery provides bread to over 300 restaurants in New York City every day.
TA: How did you end up in this role working for Jim?
PH: I was living in Chicago when I heard about the position. I got my arts management degree out there. Initially, I thought I wanted to go into film, but that can be very limiting. A degree in arts management seemed much more promising—it included finance classes and HR classes, but it was all focused on managing the business of art.
TA: Management is management.
PH: True—so much of what I learned in school is put into practice here for Jim. By the time I graduated, I knew I wanted to explore working in food; I just didn’t know in what capacity. So right after school, I worked at a few restaurants in Chicago doing things like running the door, etc. But I learned pretty quickly that that aspect of food was not for me. I don’t respond well to someone telling me I have to use the word soigné. I understood what they were trying to accomplish, but I just can’t.
I also had wanted live in New York, so I started looking at everything food-related in NYC that might be applicable. Every night I would casually peruse craigslist. Out-of-the-blue, a friend said to me “have you ever thought about being someone’s assistant?” It seems so obvious now, to look for this type of role in my desired field, but it had never crossed my mind before.
TA: Most of the assistants I know didn’t specifically seek out their role. They just fell into it.
PH: That night I went on craigslist, just like I had been doing for a while. But this time I typed in the word assistant. This was the first job that came up. They had just posted it the day before. I applied immediately, and they called me the next day. I flew out the following week for the interview, and the rest is history.
TA: You’re lucky that your friend made that comment to you.
PH: I know. I still thank her all the time for doing so.
TA: How long ago was this?
PH: That was in October of 2013, three-and-a-half years ago.
TA: That is a good amount of time in a role like this. You know what you are doing at this point. But you’re not burnt out. How many hours do you put in?
PH: A lot.
TA: Are you 24/7?
PH: No, but during “off” hours when I’m not necessarily here in the office, I’m still always “plugged in.” I’m getting my masters at Columbia right now too, so I’m juggling a lot. But even at school, I’m always working from my phone. I’ll step out into the hallway to take calls if need be. My classmates think I’m nuts.
TA: Technology can be quite the enabler. It is good to get things done on the fly, but it also makes it easy to spend five hours of your Sunday working.
PH: That is when it becomes tricky. I always like to be ahead of the work. That’s why I’m here today—on a Sunday. I was in Miami for the South Beach Food and Wine Festival for four days last week. When you are away from your desk, you never get as much work done.
Most weekdays I am here by 8 am. I’m usually the first one here besides the bakers. I know that I won’t be interrupted by Jim that early. I can get our emails up to date, so then whatever else comes in during the day, I can just take it as it comes. Some PR inquiries come in—we don’t have a PR firm, it is just me. He’s opening a bakery in Miami, so there is a lot of communication happening right now.
I am lucky that the bakery has a director of operations and a great team of wholesale staff. I have their support, for example, when we conduct things like the classes we are hosting next week. I can tell them what I need, how much, etc. Jim has a lot of ideas for projects, which I then execute. They are fun, but honestly, it is a lot. Sometimes I don’t think he realizes how much work and time is required to do them.
TA: Perhaps the mark of a good assistant is an employer who has little sense of how long it takes to carry things out because a rock-star assistant makes it appear seamless. We dig our own graves there, yes?
PH: I dug mine a long time ago.
TA: What is it like to work with him?
PH: He’s really great. We have a lot of fun.
TA: I can see that in your face as you talk.
PH: Really? Well, we do. Our relationship is pretty informal. He is my boss, but he is also my friend. I think this works in our favor. If I need to suggest that he should think about a situation differently, I feel comfortable doing that. He will listen to me, or at least consider my opinion. I like my job.
TA: What is the most valuable thing you’ve learned from working for Jim?
PH: I’ve certainly learned a lot about bread! He has also taught me so much about the industry and business in general. I think if you can operate a successful business for 23 years in New York, clearly you are doing something right.
He is very true to himself. He has no qualms about going up to someone and introducing himself. This is how I imagine he was back in 1994 when it was just him, alone, trying to sell his bread around town. It takes a certain type of person to carve a path for themselves like that.
He also gives me the opportunity to do things that my friends can’t believe, like going to Italy.
TA: Tell me about that.
PH: It was in October of 2015. We went to the world EXPO in Milan, and Jim gave a talk about bread. He speaks Italian fluently. I have traveled a lot while working here; Jim has also taken me to Germany, Seattle, and Miami. I get to meet a lot of really remarkable people from all over the world. I enjoy dealing with people who write in random questions as well. There is this 92-year-old woman, a customer, who has become my pen pal. Jim also has big fans in Brazil who love his bread, and I keep in touch with them as well.
TA: A lot of people would come across emails from random fans and customers and not bother to maintain a relationship with them. But you seem to value them.
PH: There was this one young woman from Japan, Saiko, who came to intern here after learning about Jim and his no-knead recipe. She was an artist and drew all these amazing pictures of the food and the bakery. She is a wonderfully creative person. She ended up taking his recipes and opening her own bakery in rural Japan.
TA: It is funny that the most remarkable people who you have encountered are the interns, customers, and fans.
PH: Why is that funny?
TA: I assumed you were going to say the celebrity chefs, prominent writers, etc. It says a lot about you that these people aren’t necessarily the ones who make the strongest impression on you.
PH: I think it is cool what all the celebrity chefs do. Don’t get me wrong; it is exciting. But I guess they aren’t as interesting to me.
TA: What is next for you?
PH: I’m getting my MFA in writing, creative nonfiction.
TA: What would you like to write?
PH: Well I have plenty of material! Writing about food is definitely up my alley. I would love to write for a food magazine. I wrote a piece about the day I got hired, and it was published in Kitchen Works.
But there is also a part of me who wants to pick up and move to France. I try to go there once a year.
TA: So you want to run away? I think that dream is common among those who carry a heavy load, those of us who still get emails and calls at 9 pm. And even if Jim, or whoever is calling you, doesn’t expect you to answer them right at that moment, I bet you do.
PH: I always do.